Suns’ decision on Chris Paul could have major impact on free-agent market

The point guard market will feature the most consequential dominoes of this NBA offseason, and that was before Chris Paul’s future in Phoenix took center stage this week, adding another marquee name to the board. The Suns met with Paul and his representation Wednesday, according to multiple reports, and addressed the likelihood that Phoenix could waive the future Hall of Fame point guard before his $30.8 million salary becomes guaranteed June 28 — leaving the franchise on the hook for just $15.8 million of Paul’s 2023-24 earnings.

In that scenario, an ideal Suns outcome would be to retain Paul on a new contract at the veteran’s minimum, with the ability to add another rotation piece through the $5 million taxpayer mid-level exception. If Phoenix were to waive and stretch Paul’s remaining salary, it would significantly reduce the Suns’ year-to-year operating costs and allow Phoenix access to the full mid-level exception — but also disqualify the team from re-signing Paul to a new contract.

A formal communication of these scenarios is certainly a new development, yet this predicament for Phoenix and its floor general has been looming ever since Paul signed his four-year, $120 million deal in 2021. Beyond this upcoming guarantee date, Paul’s entire $30 million salary for the 2024-25 season is non-guaranteed — which always positioned the Suns to save $45 million on that four-year total should Paul, now 38, decline in production or show continued difficulty with injury. And with this year’s guarantee date fast approaching, Phoenix’s front office was already exploring backcourt additions before the trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports, with a particular eye on point guards who could have relieved Paul during this postseason or perhaps replace him in the future.

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul watches from the bench during the second half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball Western Conference semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Phoenix. The Nuggets eliminated the Sun in their 125-100 win. (AP Photo/Matt York)
The Suns have much to figure out when it comes to Chris Paul's future. (AP Photo/Matt York)

While Terry Rozier has been often rumored as a Suns target, seemingly since Phoenix registered interest in the combo guard when he reached 2019 free agency, the Suns’ front office led by president and general manager James Jones has not recently pursued Rozier from Charlotte, sources said. Phoenix does hold Knicks Sixth Man of the Year finalist Immanuel Quickley in high regard, sources told Yahoo Sports, dating back to Quickley’s entry in the 2020 NBA Draft. Payton Pritchard, the former first-round pick who fell out of Boston’s rotation, has several supporters in Phoenix’s front office, sources said, and is expected to feature prominently in the NBA’s general trade landscape this summer, when Pritchard becomes extension eligible. Kings guard Davion Mitchell is another rookie-scale player who’s been on the Suns’ radar. Phoenix also monitored Washington table-setter Monte Morris and Miami guard Gabe Vincent, according to league sources.

Most of those names, though, made greater sense as in-season upgrades over reserve guard Cam Payne. Still, the Suns won’t have a long list of premium options to replace Paul. Vincent’s strong postseason performance for Miami, averaging 13.6 points on 40.2% shooting from distance these playoffs and into the NBA Finals, has many league personnel projecting Vincent could command well above the full mid-level. At that salary figure, the Lakers would easily match a Suns offer sheet for Austin Reaves. Fred VanVleet, who can reach unrestricted free agency by declining a 2023-24 player option, seems unattainable for Phoenix outside of a sign-and-trade scenario that couldn’t come until after Paul’s guarantee date. But the Suns are only left with tradable pick swaps following February’s mega-deal to land Kevin Durant, and most teams would expect some form of compensation for taking back Paul’s $30.8 million cap figure. Rival executives are also preparing for VanVleet to draw several offers from possible suitors with cap room such as Orlando and Houston, which could price Phoenix out altogether. Ditto for the numbers on any extension with Toronto.

Chris Paul headshot
Chris Paul
PG - GS - #3
2022 - 2023 season

We will hear about more glamorous sign-and-trade possibilities for Phoenix. Any team with championship aspirations and All-NBA talents like Durant and Devin Booker will start shopping at the glitzier edge of the market and then work downward. Portland has valued Suns center Deandre Ayton in the past, sources told Yahoo Sports, but Phoenix is too asset-strapped for any realistic chance of prying Damian Lillard from Portland should the Blazers’ franchise player ultimately seek to play elsewhere this summer. Lillard made notable waves this week when he told Showtime he views Brooklyn and Miami as viable destinations in the event he ever did request a trade. Rival front offices are certainly hoping Lillard plays the card he never has if Portland can’t find suitable upgrades to the Blazers’ roster by dangling the No. 3 pick in this month’s draft. Although both franchise and superstar appear to be prioritizing building a true playoff contender around Lillard, with ongoing plans to re-sign forward Jerami Grant as well, sources said.

And then there’s the idea of Phoenix exchanging Paul for James Harden, which has quietly circulated around some league personnel since the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. A reunion between Harden and Durant makes for great fodder, and the bearded point guard could feasibly pick up his 2023-24 player option on the condition Philadelphia trades him to the Suns. You may remember Paul pulled that exact maneuver to join Harden in Houston in 2017. Harden, though, stands to gain quite a bit more financially from either staying pat with the 76ers or returning to the Rockets and their $60-plus million in waiting cap space.

If there’s one dreamy framework that could become a reality, let’s not forget Phoenix’s strong overtures to acquire Kyrie Irving — another key point guard of this offseason — before Brooklyn dealt the dazzling ball-handler to Dallas. The Suns backed off their pursuit of Irving and refocused on landing a bigger prize in Durant, but Phoenix officials haven’t just abandoned the interest they held in Irving four months ago. That would require some cooperation from the Mavericks, who have so far signaled little willingness to entertain a possible sign-and-trade for Irving with the Lakers, sources said. Dallas, of course, hopes to retain Irving after mortgaging two key rotation pieces plus a 2029 first-round pick to acquire him. But if Irving were to call his shot out of town, perhaps the Mavericks would be more willing to work with a return that netted Paul as opposed to Los Angeles point guard D’Angelo Russell.

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.

Paul has plenty of power in this, too. If no trade materializes, and Phoenix will not boast a ton of initial leverage on the phone with another front office, then waiving Paul could be as good as waving Paul goodbye. Several player agents contacted by Yahoo Sports indicated Paul could still fetch parts of, if not the full mid-level from various teams on the open market. And if Paul’s only option to return to Phoenix is on the veteran’s minimum, what’s to stop the savviest veteran of them all from taking that identical salary from a team like the Lakers? He has family ties in Los Angeles, not to mention a long-standing friendship with LeBron James. Any reunion for Paul with the Clippers would seem to have at least one roadblock. There’s been no indication of anything other than mutual interest between Russell Westbrook and Steve Ballmer’s franchise to bring back the team’s key buyout addition from this spring. Los Angeles already faces its own tricky cap gymnastics if they wish to find Westbrook more than his full non-Bird salary of roughly $3.8 million.

There will be changes in Phoenix, whether Paul stays or goes. Several assistant coaches, such as Mark Bryant, are expected to follow Monty Williams to Detroit, where former Houston head coach Stephen Silas will serve as the Pistons’ associate head coach, and former 76ers assistant Dan Burke, sources said, is also expected to join the front of Williams’ bench. It remains to be seen if Williams will be successful in pulling Jarrett Jack from the Suns. Jack, another close friend of Paul’s, sat behind the bench in Phoenix for the ’22-23 season and was known to be an integral coaching figure among Suns players.