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It was always unlikely the Phoenix Suns would enter the 2023-24 season with Chris Paul on his $30.8 million salary as their starting point guard. Wednesday’s barrage of reports provided ample confusion, but that general point remains true.
Initially, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported the Suns had notified Paul that he would be waived. That turned out to be false, as The Athletic’s Shams Charania noted the two sides were working to find a resolution that made sense for CP3 and the Suns organization, whether that be waiving him, stretching and waiving him, or trading him outright.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed Charania’s report, adding that Paul’s preference is to remain in Phoenix alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, but that his representatives want an answer well ahead of the June 28 deadline for guaranteeing his contract.
None of this should be surprising. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro have been hinting at these possibilities all week, and The Four-Point Play’s David Nash wrote about these scenarios two years ago when Paul first re-signed with the team. At age 38, Paul is simultaneously waging battles with Father Time and his injury woes.
However, because misinformation can run rampant during times like these, here’s what you need to know about each of the Suns’ three options with Paul.
Waiving Chris Paul
The first option is waiving Chris Paul outright. Only $15.8 million of his $30.8 million salary is guaranteed for next season, which means if Paul were to be waived, he would only make $15.8 million. That amount would also count toward the Suns’ salary cap sheet.
Paul would be put on waivers, at which point any other team in the league could pick him up for his full contract amount. In other words, if a team like the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets or Detroit Pistons wanted to claim him off waivers, they would need to be far enough under the cap to commit to his full $30.8 million salary.
If the 38-year-old point guard cleared waivers with no one claiming him, he’d become an unrestricted free agent, at which point he could sign with any team of his choosing — including the Suns.
Waiving him outright opens the door for the Suns to re-sign Chris Paul for a lesser amount. He’d still earn his guaranteed $15.8 million, plus another $3 million (approximately) if they re-signed him to a veteran minimum deal, which doesn’t count against the cap. Phoenix would essentially go from paying him $31 million next season to around $19 million.
That wouldn’t save them salary cap room, since the Suns are already projected to be over the cap regardless. It would, however, keep them further away from the NBA’s new second luxury tax apron. Teams that cross that second tax apron will lose access to their mid-level exception — a valuable tool for roster-building, especially as a luxury tax team, since tax-paying teams can offer $5 million annually with the MLE.
In this scenario, there’s a chance the Suns could waive Paul and re-sign him once he clears waivers, which would allow them to keep an intrinsic part of their success from the last three years while still ducking the second tax apron to preserve their MLE.
As we already mentioned, waiving Paul does not free up salary cap space. The Suns are already over the cap with the money owed to Booker, Durant and Deandre Ayton, plus the $15.8 million in guaranteed money they owe CP3. As such, waiving Paul wouldn’t suddenly open up $31 million in cap space to go sign a max-level free agent, nor would it even open up $15 million to spend elsewhere.
Furthermore, there’s a chance Phoenix winds up losing Paul for nothing if they go down this avenue, since a young team with cap space could pick him up off waivers. To be fair, those odds feel slim, and Paul’s representatives could float to rival teams that he won’t want to play for any non-contenders, thus ruling out most teams with the cap space to absorb his $30.8 million salary.
But nothing is guaranteed in that scenario, and even if Paul cleared waivers, he’d still have his pick to sign with any team as a free agent. Wojnarowski mentioned he wants to continue playing for the Suns, but for an understandably proud player like Paul, would there be hard feelings about the way it all went down?
At exit interviews, Paul bristled at the notion he was still in the league because of reputation or past accomplishments.
“I come in, I work hard every single day, and I’m not gonna act like I’m here by luck or something like that, right?” he said. “Like, I’ve put the work in and put the work in for a long time. And so you can analyze, say, whatever you want to about it, but for me, it’s not hard, ’cause it’s the work. And not everybody wanna do the work. A lot of people want to talk about it and analyze it and do this and do that about it, but all I do is put my head down and do the work. And when you do that, I can live with the results.”
However, if the result is being waived by the team he helped get to the Finals, would the allure of signing for one of the Los Angeles teams (where home is) or a contender like Boston suddenly feel more appealing?
Waiving and stretching Chris Paul
The second option is waiving and stretching Paul’s contract. The Suns could take the $15.8 million he’s owed in guaranteed salary and stretch it over the next five seasons at about $3.2 million per season. That would open up an additional $12 million or so on the books:
They’d still be above the cap in this scenario, but it would get them far enough below the luxury tax line to use their full mid-level exception — rather than the taxpayer MLE — as well as the biannual exception.
Going from being able to offer $5 million annually with the taxpayer MLE to approximately $12.2 million with the non-taxpayer MLE doesn’t sound like much, but it can make a huge difference in luring key role players to join Book and KD in Phoenix. After all, guys like Caleb Martin and Bruce Brown Jr. — current contributors in the Finals — were signed using the MLE.
Waiving-and-stretching Paul’s contract frees up the non-taxpayer MLE, as well as the BAE (approximately $4.5 million).
The downside to this avenue is the Suns would officially be closing the door on Chris Paul’s time in the Valley, since waiving and stretching his contract would prevent Phoenix from re-signing him after he clears waivers.
Furthermore, as much as this option takes an additional $12 million off the books, there’d automatically be another $3.2 million on the cap sheets for the foreseeable future. That’s not a huge figure, but it’s enough to be an irritant moving forward, especially as the league cracks down on high-spending teams.
That, of course, says nothing of the struggles this over-the-cap team would face in rounding out the roster with only five players under contract heading into next season.
Furthermore, could the Suns actually put their full MLE to good use in finding a quality replacement for Paul at point guard? He’s been unreliable come playoff time, and he’s clearly not the same All-NBA player he was during his first two years in Phoenix, but he’s not “washed” either. The guy just finished in the top-five for assists per game, shot nearly 38 percent from 3 and grew into a reliable catch-and-shoot threat as the year went on.
“You don’t play 18 years in this league at a high level and not understand how to adjust and adapt with the game,” Paul said. “I don’t talk about it too much, but I know this game just about better than anybody. I put that up against anybody. So that’s what’s not gonna change, right, is my knowledge of the game. And I’m gonna keep putting in the work. So if you mad at it, if you hate it, that’s on you. Fuck it.”
The odds of Phoenix waiving Paul, signing a good enough replacement to start at point guard on a title contender and rounding out the rest of their roster seem pretty slim.
Trading Chris Paul
As mentioned in Wojnarowski’s article, the Suns are exploring trade options for both Paul and Deandre Ayton. It’s the logical thing to do, since both players are on inflated salaries that may not be worth their production at this point.
We’ll get into specific trade scenarios next week, but if Paul turns his nose up at the idea of being waived and re-signing for a lesser amount; if the Suns want to avoid paying him $5 million a year over the next three seasons to not be on the roster; or if they simply want to make a change at the 1-spot, a trade becomes the most sensible option.
In truth, the Suns should be exploring all trade possibilities for Paul. It wasn’t surprising ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported weeks ago that was the case. Paul is still a cerebral floor general in this league who can shoot and playmake with the best of them, but he might not be reliable enough come playoff time due to his diminishing burst and unfortunate injury woes.
Despite that $30.8 million price tag, Paul also still has value around the league. And because his $30 million salary for 2024-25 is fully non-guaranteed, contenders like the Celtics, Lakers, Clippers or Philadelphia 76ers might be interested in a one-year flier on the Point God.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne certainly isn’t the first to float the idea of a James Harden sign-and-trade, and she won’t be the last.
If the Suns can sniff out a trade that nets them a starting-caliber point guard or multiple depth pieces, they shouldn’t hesitate to make a forward-thinking move. Phoenix needs to play at a faster pace under new coach Frank Vogel, and while Paul has been instrumental in this organization’s rise to prominence, nobody outside of Booker and Durant is untouchable at this point.
Locating the right trade is not impossible, but it’s not a layup either. Paul will be 39 years old by the time next year’s playoffs roll around. Teams will surely want him, but will they be able to find the right mix of players whose contracts align with his $30.8 million figure? And if they do, will the Suns actually want those players?
Threading the needle on both could be tricky.
This avenue also eliminates the possibility of waiving and re-signing him for a lower figure. Paul’s presence on the roster has been critical for a number of players, and his basketball I.Q. is second to none. Losing a leader like that has consequences, as the Suns learned firsthand in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets once CP3 went down.
The issue is not necessarily needing to get rid of Paul, but rather, avoiding keeping him on his current contract. The right trade could obviously pay dividends, but forcing one simply to get his contract off the books would be a shortsighted move, as well as a heartless, ignominious end to his memorable Suns tenure.