With the NBA’s draft Thursday, and free agency officially starting at month’s end, another offseason has arrived. And though questions like what Charlotte will do with the second overall pick, and what Portland will do with the third pick, and All-Star guard Damian Lillard’s future, have dominated much of the discussion, as usual it’s the Lakers and Clippers that figure prominently into speculation.
The Times’ NBA beat writers Dan Woike, Broderick Turner and Andrew Greif discuss how point guard Chris Paul might figure into both teams’ plans.
AG: Well, about 11 1/2 years after Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, the same conversation is back again: Paul could be available, so will the Lakers or Clippers get him? As soon as the news hit earlier this month that the Suns might waive Paul, league insiders have looked at a return to Los Angeles as arguably the most likely trajectory for his final seasons in the NBA. At the same time, the timing of any move has been questioned by league sources who don’t believe Washington is looking to imminently make a decision.
This is not the same version of Paul who was coveted in 2011 for being a budding All-Star and franchise cornerstone. He’s 38 now and his postseason impact in Phoenix was often marred by injuries. But he’s still one of the best offense-starters to ever play. The Clippers are interested in a reunion, sources within the team not authorized to speak publicly on the matter have said. He has pre-existing and strong trust with Clippers coach Tyronn Lue from their overlapping seasons with the Clippers when Lue was Doc Rivers’ assistant. He is famously close with LeBron James. Dan and BT, is Paul at this stage of his career someone the Lakers are interested in?
BT: The Lakers for sure would have interest in acquiring Chris Paul, but only for the veteran minimum. If he were to take that from the Lakers, it would be a good deal for the Lakers and allow them to retain Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura possibly without hurting their salary cap too much. At 38, the question becomes how much does CP have left in his body? And would he be willing to be a backup if the Lakers re-signed D’Angelo Russell? CP has dealt with injury issues also in the past few years, and the Lakers have enough of that to deal with involving Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
DW: I think BT hits on an interesting point — who would back up whom between Russell and Paul. From what I’ve been told, the idea would be for Chris Paul to be a point guard on the team and not THE point guard due to age and injury concerns. Ideally, you’d find a player who can take the load off in the regular season to keep Paul fresh for the playoffs. But could that even work? I’ve got my doubts. While Paul has done a wonderful job transitioning to an off-ball player later in his career, I’d have questions about his ability to stay in rhythm if he was pushed even further from the core fabric of a team. He’s a demanding leader and it’s hard to do that when you’re on the fringes.
Like BT said, I think the Lakers’ interest is almost exclusively as a free agent, ideally for the minimum. Maybe they’d creep into the mini mid-level exception if necessary. All of this being said, Paul should still have real value to a contender. He’s a brilliant player who can orchestrate an offense to perfection. He’s a hell of a competitor. You should ask questions before you blindly sign up, about fit, about relationships, about health, but those questions get less and less serious at the minimum.
AG: Given what you pointed out, Dan, I tend to think Paul would have a larger responsibility with the Clippers. To be clear, my understanding is that a pursuit of Paul would not preclude re-signing Russell Westbrook. Yet the Clippers’ interest in Paul goes back to their now years-long search for the right point guard to pair with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Lue and George last season made little secret of their desires to add a “pure” point guard, a skill type of which Paul is still the embodiment. Lue has had to be demanding of his stars at times the last three seasons, and Paul’s similarly demanding style could add another layer of accountability within the locker room.
DW: The Lakers have sent very strong signals that their preference is to return the team they put together last season. led by re-signing Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura. I think Thursday at the draft, though, will provide a first look into whether or not that’s true. I wouldn’t read too much into who they pick. I’m more curious if they use the pick, perhaps with Malik Beasley and/or Mo Bamba’s contracts, to add players to the roster. They could still, of course, use whoever they took on draft night later this summer, but Thursday ahead of free agency will be the first signal.
AG: It would be fascinating which team Paul would choose if the situation were to arrive where he would be bought out in Washington and, as a free agent, be able to pick his next team. Both teams can boast being a contender immediately. If Paul were to become a free agent, the choice is his. As a member of the Washington Wizards, the choice is also that of Michael Winger, who left his job as the Clippers’ general manager only last month to lead Washington’s basketball operations. And what Winger knows as well as anyone is every available asset the Clippers could offer, and that owner Steve Ballmer’s willingness to go well into the luxury tax, has given the team’s front office many sizable salaries to use to match salaries.
Paul was initially guaranteed about $15 million next season but that’s believed to have been increased to $25 million to facilitate the trade with Washington. The Clippers could make a trade work at that number through many ways. To bring in Paul would add yet another guard to a roster already with plenty, which makes the $20.9-million salary for guard Eric Gordon likely one target; that salary becomes guaranteed June 28. To me, something to watch is how a transaction to fill the area of point-guard need could also help with another priority, which is upgrading the team’s current power forward rotation of Marcus Morris, Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum. All are on contracts that expire after next season. During recent weeks Morris (who will earn $17.1 million next season) has made known within league circles his displeasure about his abrupt role change late last season and the team’s sparse communication with him around it. What’s the appetite for keeping Robert Covington, due $11.6 million next season, around for another season? After all, he was used so infrequently that one teammate told me his lack of playing time was “the biggest mystery of the season.” I think the team would like to keep Batum around.