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LOS ANGELES — For roughly an hour in 2011, the world believed that the Los Angeles Lakers had a trade to acquire Chris Paul from the then-New Orleans Hornets. Instead, then-Commissioner David Stern scuttled the deal, and the notion of a Kobe Bryant/Paul All-Star backcourt died a quick death.
Could a long-ago wrong be righted this summer?
“In calls to front offices, Houston GM Daryl Morey is showing an aggressive desire to improve roster with all players and picks available in talks,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted Wednesday. “Hard to imagine James Harden scenario, but the rest under contract—perhaps even Chris Paul—could be moved in right deal.”
The Lakers have superstar dreams, from Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Anthony Davis. If they get enough “yes” answers, the team has the means to build a superteam with three stars including LeBron James. The challenge, however, is actually landing those players in free agency and/or convincing the New Orleans Pelicans to deal Davis to Los Angeles.
Paul, who turned 34 years old earlier this month, may not be the ideal choice for the Lakers given the $124.1 million left on his contract due over the next three seasons. If L.A. can’t convince players like Leonard and Irving to come, Paul could be the alternative.
Other options might be second-tier stars like Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker, but again, the Lakers may strike out. If so, the team could chase Mike Conley or Bradley Beal in a trade, but the Rockets may be willing to part with Paul’s contract at a more reasonable price.
With Paul, the Lakers could still have enough salary to trade for Davis—but at a significant cost. At best, Los Angeles could field a team with just Kyle Kuzma remaining alongside James, Paul and Davis, giving up everyone else, including the pick, Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart. The team would still have the $4.8 million room exception to add another player, but after it would be limited to minimum contracts.
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The Lakers could follow a similar path if they’re able to secure someone like Leonard or Irving along with Davis, but stripping down the roster to the nub might make more sense to pair James and Davis with a player in his prime at 27 years old. Paul is not that.
Paul is close friends with James, and while his contract is significant, it expires the same year as James’, following the 2021-22 season (both can opt out one year earlier). His durability has been an issue the last few years, playing 58 apiece in two seasons with the Rockets. Paul’s field-goal percentage dipped quite a bit this past year from 46.0 percent in 2017-18 to 41.9 percent.
Still, Paul is a very capable point guard and a veteran who would pair well with James, even if he’s not the top choice. Any realistic trade would need to be executed in July when the Lakers have enough cap room to absorb Paul’s $38.5 million salary.
Even though Brandon Ingram earns just $7.3 million and Lonzo Ball $8.7 million, the Lakers would be able to trade one of the two straight up for Paul, at least mathematically. Given Ingram’s strength is scoring in the mid-range, he might not be an ideal target for the Rockets, who prefer players who can shoot the three or score at the basket. Ball, in theory, could be their preference, but the Lakers also value him highly. Houston could also rope in another team to take Ingram, returning a more suitable fit to the Rockets.
Technically, the Lakers can sign the No. 4 pick in June’s NBA draft on July 1, wait 30 days and then deal him for Paul, but that seems like an awfully steep price for Paul at his age with his contract. But to make a deal, it’s essentially one of the three: Ingram, Ball or the No. 4 pick—and maybe that’s a non-starter for Los Angeles.
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It’s worth noting that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has a strong relationship with his Rockets counterpart Daryl Morey, based on years working together when Pelinka served as James Harden’s agent. That could prove to be a significant factor if the Lakers’ top options fall through.
The question really comes down to whether the Lakers front office wants to go all-in with James and star power, or whether it believe that its youthful core can develop around its All-Star forward. And will James go patiently into his second Lakers season without a proven co-star?
The Paul question may never come up. The Lakers may land their top choices, but the veteran point guard could be a fallback option. If the cost is only one piece of the team’s young core, that might be a suitable compromise for the Lakers as they aspire to compete in the Western Conference.