The Chris Paul effect: NBA teams spend money on aging stars for chance at title run

Father Time may be undefeated, but in the meantime, cold, hard guaranteed cash seems to soothe the aging process.

Whether it’s Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry or the once-removed champion Lakers, age has not been a deterrent in the opening days of free agency.

There was money to go around, and spending it was a must. Not even a pandemic that took away 40 percent of league revenue or injuries that robbed so many players of valuable time were enough to keep teams from committing well over $30 million annually to players closer to 40 than 35.

Call it the Chris Paul effect, if you will.

Paul showing up in Phoenix and turning the Suns into NBA finalists turned heads around the league — in more ways than one. With the exception of the Golden State Warriors, any team that feels close enough to contention threw caution to the wind and money at players’ doorsteps.

Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry each cashed in during free agency as teams threw caution to the wind and money at old guards. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry each cashed in during free agency as teams threw caution to the wind and money at old guards. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) (Mike Ehrmann via Getty Images)

Paul’s existing contract was once called the “worst in the NBA” when Tilman Fertitta was signing his checks in Houston, but he’s now garnered a four-year pact worth $120 million to keep the Suns in the penthouse of the West.

His penchant for being a one-man stimulus package on the floor helped him off it, as there were whispers of plenty of suitors readying themselves if Phoenix dropped the ball — like the New Orleans Pelicans, according to multiple sources.

While they didn’t want to pay young guard Lonzo Ball the freight the Chicago Bulls easily handed to him or wouldn’t, they seemed ready to give Paul the keys in hopes he would have the same effect with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram that he’s had in Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

It’s a straight line from Paul to Lowry getting that guaranteed third year in Miami — a sticking point for the 35-year-old, barely 6-foot lead guard. He and the Heat had been making eyes across the bar for a while now, hence the Toronto Raptors and Heat being engaged in talks at the trade deadline buzzer this past season before the Heat bowed out at the too-high price tag.

Whether Tyler Herro was a sticking point back then or not is immaterial; Miami was not about to let something as measly as $90 million keep it from seeing the Brooklyn Nets or champion Milwaukee Bucks within striking distance.

As strong as Miami’s roster is, it doesn’t guarantee even a trip to the conference finals in the suddenly stacked East — which is a testament to how things can change quickly more than an indictment on the franchise’s personnel moves.

To get in the game, you gotta pay the toll.

That sound you heard was from the NBA’s league office, cheering at watchable teams in the Eastern time zone in some good markets — we see you too, Chicago.

It’s no longer a question about a player’s perceived value. Hopefully the talk of someone being “overpaid” falls to the wayside as transactions over the last few years have proven no contract is untradeable, and the tone has shifted to teams having to make defined decisions about the direction of its franchise.

Yes, the Warriors are doing their best and most delicate two-step — saying they want to compete to maximize the remainder of Stephen Curry’s prime while also hoarding young players who won’t be able to help the old guys in the quest for title number four in this run, but Curry just agreed to another $200 million extension to keep him away from free agency.

A deal, mind you, that will have him earning $59.6 million in 2025-26 — when he’ll turn 38 before the end of that season. It’s hard to say he’s not worth it on the back end when there’s a new building off the water in San Francisco to house those three championship banners from recent time.

Players are stretching their careers out, and it isn’t just LeBron James discovering the fountain of youth. It’s created a league where the lack of talent can rarely be used as an argument for franchises refusing to go all-in, and even though the play-in tournament will add some spice and a couple extra teams for a few days, the excuses for refusing to try are nil.

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are just two of the Lakers' elder statesmen for the 2021-22 season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are just two of the Lakers' elder statesmen for the 2021-22 season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images)

The Lakers compiled a roster full of players who can go back to being on NBA Live rather than 2K, graybeards of sorts. It’s the other part of the Chris Paul effect.

The Suns are certainly respected and still have room to grow, but there doesn’t seem to be an awe-inspiring fear factor. Their run to the Finals shouldn’t be written off as lucky, but compared to recent seasons when Curry’s Warriors ran things, other teams sense opportunity or even desperation.

The last time such a seismic shift occurred after a surprising Finals run was the Boston Celtics trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 — weeks after watching a 22-year-old LeBron James carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.

There’s no way these two events are unrelated, similar to a soon-to-be 37-year-old grumpy Grandpa LeBron having the Lakers rescue Russell Westbrook from the District and get 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony for what one would assume will be spot minutes in a Western Conference playoff series.

Also expected for cameos in next season’s version of Creaky Lakers: 36-year-olds Trevor Ariza and Marc Gasol, 35-year-old Dwight Howard on his third tour of duty, and 28-year-old Anthony Davis — who always seems to appear in more cameo fashion than in a leading role.

The moves are ever-evolving and luckily, you don’t hear the subtle cries of poverty from NBA team owners.

Not everything will work, some investments will backfire or disappoint, but it’s good to see at least the appearance of effort — starting with the old guys sticking around long enough for another trip around the sun. Or Suns.

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