The basketball gods have never wanted Chris Paul to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. When the then-New Orleans Hornets traded a 26-year-old Paul to the Lakers, former commissioner David Stern, acting as governor of the league-owned Hornets, axed the trade for "basketball reasons." The stars never aligned for Paul and the Lakers again.
They didn't have cap space when he became a free agent in 2013. They did four years later, but with Kobe Bryant retired and no co-stars in place, Paul instead forced his way to Houston. He became a free agent again only a year later, and as tempting as the opportunity to join with newly-signed Laker and close friend LeBron James must have been tempting, Paul chose to remain with the Rockets after they came one game short of the NBA Finals. He was traded to Oklahoma City a year later and Phoenix thereafter with the Lakers focused on building around the James-Anthony Davis duo.
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But every time Paul becomes available, Lakers fans beg for the team to pursue him. The 2021 offseason will be no different as Paul has a player option in his contract with the Suns. Laker legend and former team president Magic Johnson started the campaign on Twitter after Game 5 of the Finals.
"If Chris Paul opts out of his contract with the Suns, his first call should be from his best friend LeBron James and the Lakers," Johnson tweeted. "A big three with LeBron, Chris, and AD will equal a NBA championship!"
Sadly, Johnson's time running the Lakers doesn't seem to have given him a realistic understanding of how the salary cap works. Yes, Paul technically has the capacity to become a free agent, and yes, the idea of finally uniting with James and pushing for his first championship in the city where his family still resides no doubt holds some appeal. But Paul is the president of the National Basketball Players Association, and as such, he has always prioritized earning power in order to set the precedent that players shouldn't leave money on the table. He has been making max money for, literally, the past 12 seasons, and while those days might be behind him, he isn't suddenly going to dip down to a salary low enough for the Lakers to be able to afford him. The difference between what the Lakers and Suns can offer Paul this offseason is absolutely enormous.
The salary cap for next season is projected to come in at around $112.4 million. Right now the Lakers have roughly $112.2 million in salaries committed for next season. That does not include Montrezl Harrell's player option, the No. 22 overall pick, or any of their own free agents. Barring several surprise trades, the Lakers are not going to have cap space this offseason. In fact, even if they wanted to create space, they couldn't legally generate enough of it to outbid Phoenix.
LeBron James is owed roughly $41.2 million for next season. Anthony Davis is owed roughly $35.4 million. The Lakers used the stretch provision to waive Luol Deng in 2018 and still have $5 million in dead money on their books owed to him. When a team has below 12 players on its cap sheet through either active contracts or free agent cap holds, a phantom cap hold called an incomplete roster charge worth the rookie minimum is added to their books in place of players that will eventually sign. The rookie minimum this season will be $925,258. So let's say the Lakers traded every single player on their roster except James and Davis in order to clear cap space. We start at the cap of $112,414,200. Subtract $41,180,544 for James, $35,361,360 for Davis, $5,000,000 for Deng and $925,258 10 times for 10 incomplete roster charges and you get … $21,619,716.
That isn't even half of what Phoenix can pay Paul next season. He has a $44.2 million player option for next season that he can pick up any time he wants. The Suns don't have to make a single cap-clearing move to pay him that much. In fact, there's a good chance he willingly takes slightly less than that by either opting out and re-signing at a lower annual salary for more years or signing an extension that builds a declining salary into future years. Yes, Paul will always have high salary demands, but players often leave short-term money on the table in exchange for longer-term security. Paul, who is 36, specifically planned for this exact situation as president of the union. The CBA used to include a clause that functionally prevented teams from signing players who were over 36 to long-term contracts, but in the most recent version, that age was pushed up to 38. Now Paul can re-sign for up to three years before the Over-38 rule kicks in. Technically speaking, if Paul were to opt into the final year of his deal and then get a two-year extension with the maximum eight percent annual raises on top of it, he would be eligible to earn as much as $143.2 million through the 2023-24 campaign with the Suns. He'll likely end up taking less than that, but the point is that Phoenix can make him an offer that the Lakers cannot compete with financially.
And remember, that number we threw out for the Lakers was what they could have offered Paul if they traded their entire roster aside from James and Davis. That, realistically, is not how they would approach such an addition. The slightly more feasible but ultimately still unrealistic path would be a sign-and-trade. To make one work, the Lakers would have to send out at least 80 percent of whatever Paul's new salary would be in the trade. They could likely get there with Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who will combine to make around $26 million next season, but there's a catch. Teams that acquire players through a sign-and-trade are hard-capped at the apron. The apron is projected to come in at around $143 million next season, and teams that are hard-capped cannot exceed it for any reason. The Lakers went through this last season as the hard cap triggered when they used the non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Harrell.
So let's say Paul was willing to leave a bit of money on the table to join the Lakers, and let's pretend the Suns are completely willing to cooperate on sending to the Lakers (which they absolutely are not). If we start Paul off at $30 million next season, the Lakers would have around $111.5 million in salaries committed only to him, James and Davis with Deng's dead money still on the books. That would leave them only a bit more than $31 million to fill out the entire rest of the roster. That's two extra starters and an entire bench for nearly the same amount they'd be paying Paul. Forget about whether or not that's feasible. Is it even worth it?
There are two other paths that almost certainly would be, but that Paul would not accept. The Lakers could offer Paul the non-taxpayer mid-level exception as they did Harrell last season. Last season, such a deal could start at roughly $9.3 million. It will be slightly higher this season, probably clocking in at around $10 million. With roughly $10 million in space beneath the hard cap rather than $31 million in the last scenario, the Lakers could probably build a competitive supporting cast around their star trio. They just wouldn't get the chance because Paul just isn't going to take that kind of a pay cut. If they could convince him to take the taxpayer mid-level exception instead, which started at around $5.9 million last season, they wouldn't even be bound by the hard cap. But again, Paul isn't making that kind of financial sacrifice.
Look, it's the NBA. Weird stuff happens all of the time. Never say never. But the sort of financial sacrifice it would take to make Paul a Laker this offseason wouldn't just be uncharacteristic of him, specifically. It would be among the biggest sacrifices in the history of professional basketball. Maybe Paul, who is in the twilight of his career and just came closer to the title than he ever had, wants a championship badly enough to do it anyway. Maybe his friendship with James would make such a sacrifice worthwhile. But no matter how badly Lakers fans want it, players rarely pass up the amount of money Paul would need to pass up to wear the purple and gold.