Whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers will keep D’Angelo Russell in free agency after his disappointing finish to the NBA playoffs in the Western Conference Finals is one of the biggest questions facing the team this offseason.
There have been plenty of signs that the team might not be all-in on running it back, from rumors that they had tabled extension talks with Russell until after the season, to (admittedly obvious) confirmation they would not max him, to whispers that the front office might just prefer to use him in a sign-and-trade rather than keep him.
However, there have also been reports that the Lakers still viewed Russell as a positive presence overall as part of their run, and Russell himself has said he wants to be back. The Lakers also could more easily keep Russell than they could replace him by virtue of having his Bird Rights, allowing them to exceed the cap to re-sign him.
Still, if the Lakers wanted to use Russell’s salary slot to acquire an upgrade, they could theoretically still sign-and-trade him to his next destination in exchange for either another free agent in a double sign-and-trade, or swap him for a player under contract. The Dallas Mavericks have already leaked they have “no interest” in acquiring Russell in a deal for Kyrie Irving, but could the team use him in a trade for another point guard we know LeBron James has a fondness for in Chris Paul?
It’s unclear, but while writing about the situation Paul and the Phoenix Suns are facing ahead of his June 28 guarantee date, Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports connected some dots between the two sides, as well as reporting that the Lakers are already looking at sign-and-trade scenarios for Russell (emphasis mine):
Would Phoenix take Russell for Paul? The Suns held discussions with the Timberwolves regarding Russell prior to the trade deadline, sources told Yahoo Sports, before Minnesota found a new home for him with the Lakers. Phoenix also coveted Wolves center Naz Reid in trade talks, sources said.
Russell is known to be close friends with Booker. Plus, the Lakers are said to be exploring similar sign-and-trade possibilities with Russell. For Los Angeles and Phoenix, losing Russell by free agency or waiving Paul would sacrifice a $30 million salary slot that feels all the more precious while staring down a daunting new second tax apron in the league’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement. These decisions are not ones to make on a whim, and that’s why Phoenix and Paul have begun discussing different alternatives roughly three weeks before free agency begins.
From the moment it was reported Chris Paul would be waived (but also maybe not?) by the Suns, it’s been obvious to link him to the Lakers for yet another time in his career since The Veto. As Fischer noted, Paul’s family is still based in Los Angeles, and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on television this week that Paul would be “coveted” by both teams in the city.
Reporting for NBA Countdown on the Suns beginning conversations with Chris Paul on his future with franchise pic.twitter.com/2DoOaRX3fV— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 8, 2023
Using Russell in a sign-and-trade for Paul, however, would be complicated. For one thing, the Lakers couldn’t do so until after Paul’s contract guarantees, which would require a massive level of trust on the Suns’ part that this deal was going to come together, a level of trust that might also actually violate the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, considering that Russell is a free agent and cannot legally agree to a contract with the Suns until June 30 when free agency begins at the earliest (two days after Paul’s contract is set to guarantee).
Any reports of the Lakers and Suns agreeing to such a deal involving Russell before that could result in tampering penalties similar to the one the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat faced based on how quickly their sign-and-trade agreements with Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry, respectively, leaked in 2021, which could cost the Suns a whole second round pick *gasp*. The Bucks faced similar consequences (and the inability to sign the player they wanted) when their own sign-and-trade with Bogdan Bogdanovic leaked early the year prior.
Long story short, if the Suns, Lakers and Russell and his camp did actually want to do this, they’d better use burner phones and lie their asses off to NBA insiders. Even then, the league may sniff around considering how widely it's expected that the Suns will just waive Paul.
But while maybe that specific scenario is unlikely for such logistical reasons, this is now yet another rumbling indicating that the Lakers appear to be pretty unenthused about the idea of a Russell reunion. So while Paul and Irving may be off the table to replace his cap slot, it still wouldn’t be surprising at this point to see the Lakers try and help Russell get to a destination of his choosing in exchange for some different players or a trade exception.
However, given the lack of teams who are desperate for a point guard who could outbid the Lakers, it still feels like Russell will probably be back at a discount and then immediately be dangled as salary ballast at the next trade deadline. But all these whispers do indicate that the team may prefer to replace him sooner rather than later. That makes them just like many of their fans who also watched the conference finals, but is notable nonetheless.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.