Chris Paul situation spotlights Suns’ level of difficulty this offseason

Jun 7, 2023, 7:54 PM | Updated: 8:48 pm

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in action during the second half of a game against the Utah Jazz ...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in action during the second half of a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena on March 27, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Turn the sliders up. Beat the game first to unlock the impossible difficulty level for the second go. That’s the offseason the Phoenix Suns are working through right now, a plan they began formulating many months ago that was years in the making.

Once Deandre Ayton was retained on a long-term deal last summer, this reality was almost certainly coming. The Kevin Durant trade dried the cement.

A mind-numbing sequence of reporting on Chris Paul’s current situation and the possibilities attached to it on Wednesday brought that to the surface if you weren’t aware of what was lurking in the spooky deep end.

Here are the basics, some of which we already outlined together in this space two weeks ago.

Paul’s partially guaranteed contract of $30.8 million becomes locked in on June 28. If the Suns waive him before then, then only $15 million hits the books.

That matters significantly because, thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement that threw a wrench in Phoenix’s aforementioned plan, a second tax apron debuts this summer that would prevent the super-spenders from using a tax-payer midlevel exception in free agency. No matter how over the cap and into the tax teams were, they could still use this to sign a rotation-quality player, outside of being able to only offer the minimum. If Paul is waived before June 28, Phoenix dips back under that second apron.

Most importantly, if Paul cleared waivers, Phoenix could re-sign him to the veteran’s minimum. We could be looking at a situation where that was the plan all along, one Paul agreed to thanks to the partial guarantee, something The Four Point Play Newsletter used some sorcery to forecast when Paul initially signed his deal two years ago.

Getting access to the TPMLE would be the benefit of waiving him, which is what the initial report put out into the world before quickly being denied. Arizona Sports can confirm directly from the team that Paul has not been waived. In addition, team sources confirmed the previous reports on the Suns’ conversations with Paul to discuss the potential avenues going forward. That includes waiving him, stretching and waiving him and trading him.

After going over waiving him, the stretch is another way of opening up more resources to use in free agency but with one critical difference that Paul would not be able to return.

The benefit would be access to the non-tax-payer midlevel exception, a $12.2 million annual salary as opposed to the $5 million for the TPMLE, with the numbers courtesy of ESPN’s Bobby Marks. The MLE access would also come with the bi-annual exception that Marks checks in at $4.5 million.

All of the possible outcomes surrounding Paul is because of Phoenix’s current inability to upgrade its roster this offseason. If the Suns stand pat and do nothing up to free agency, the only signings would have to come in on the veteran’s minimum. Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Deandre Ayton and Landry Shamet are under fully guaranteed contracts for next season. That’s it.

Let’s say the Suns stretch and waive Paul, then trade Ayton. They could sign a player each off the MLE and BAE, acquire two for Ayton and then let’s toss in an early-to-mid second-round pick as well in that trade. That’s five players for two.

Those are the types of team-building gymnastics owner Mat Ishbia and Phoenix’s front office will have to prove capable of, executing a double-back-tuck through a hoop. On top of that, after how the last two postseasons ended, the writing is on the wall with fresh ink that some type of shake-up beyond just the head coach has to happen. The Durant trade wasn’t enough. Neither was firing Monty Williams.

Phoenix could trade Paul too, or at least is floating that it so totally could do that still. It’s hard to imagine other teams dashing to the front of the line in trade talks when knowing there’s a real possibility Paul gets waived and could be added without giving up any assets in the process.

Then again, all it takes is one team, but that organization would have to present the Suns an offer that is better than what they envision themselves doing with newfound wiggle room in free agency.

Of everything to come out of Wednesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided the only real nuggets, in that Paul wants to come back to the Suns but also wants to know sooner rather than later if he’s going to be a free agent.

And if he’s a free agent without the Suns stretching him, Paul accepting the veteran’s minimum from them without at least hearing out other teams first would be an insane amount of loyalty. He did decline his player option in 2021 but that was followed by getting a guaranteed $75 million from the Suns.

After all, Paul has been burned before.

He told The Pivot Podcast that when he was traded from the Houston Rockets, Paul’s general manager Daryl Morey told him a week prior he was not getting traded to Oklahoma City because Paul chose to come to Houston. A week later, OKC is precisely where Morey sent him, and before Morey could even call Paul to tell him, he saw an app notification breaking the news to him first.

“It is what it is and it shows you in this league, in professional sports, don’t nobody owe you nothin’,” Paul said.

Just like in any career, you have to look out for yourself first, because no one else sure as hell will. Even though Paul will pocket $15 million from the Suns for next season, what’s to stop him from taking more than the minimum with another team that he feels like he has a better chance to win his ever-elusive first title on as well?

Who is going to tell Chris freaking Paul, a basketball genius, what’s best for him on the court?

“And one thing I can say and I can say here is don’t nobody know this game better than me. That’s real,” he said. “The ins, the outs, the nuances of this game. I wake up in the morning (and) my kids know I’m watching film, I’m thinking strategy. You might be better at something than me but you not gonna know this game better than me. Because I’m invested. I love it, from every aspect of it too.”

What about the Los Angeles Lakers in his backyard?

It’s an example to magnify how slippery of a slope it is for Phoenix to navigate all this. One part of its plan could blow up in its face immediately. And if it’s a delicate stack of cards, a light breeze is coming at some point. It’s impossible to thread the needle like that in a NBA offseason.

That’s why the Suns’ “plan” is a multi-faceted one with endless “what if’s?” covered. They’re ready. They’ve got no other choice.

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