Adam Silver reportedly delivered nine ominous words to the NBPA in May, when the league’s short-term future was at its bleakest. “This CBA was not built for an extended pandemic,” he said, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. He was largely referring to the NBA’s financial outlook, and the sacrifices it was going to take from both the players and league ownership to forge ahead in such uncertain times, but he was also stating a fact. Neither the NBA nor the union built pandemic provisions into the CBA. The league’s rules are written to serve the league’s original schedule: games from October through June, followed by a four-month break.
That is something that the NBA is going to have to reckon with in the coming days and weeks, because there are rules written into the CBA that mean almost nothing under normal circumstances, but could change the entire face of this offseason if left unaltered in the coming days and weeks. That minutia might be what prevents the Lakers from acquiring Chris Paul.
In fairness, we don’t know for sure that such a trade is even being discussed, or whether either side would be interested. The mere scope of such a deal makes it farfetched, but there is reason to believe that it is at least possible. At present, we have a report from Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus citing an expectation from insiders that the Lakers will pursue him as well as some common sense. Paul is close friends with LeBron James. James has said publicly that he would like to play with Paul at some point, and Paul has revealed that they almost did at one point in their careers. The Lakers sorely need another ball-handler, ideally one that can shoot and defend like Paul can. His Thunder appeared headed for a rebuild. He used to play in Los Angeles. The dots aren’t too hard to connect here. The mechanics of this sort of trade, however, would be enormously complicated.
NBA rules state that, when trading for players that make as much money as Paul does, the acquiring team must send at least 80 percent of that salary back in the deal. Paul is set to make $41,358,814 next season, according to Spotrac. That means that the Lakers would need to send out $33,087,051. That is where this gets tough, because at present, the Lakers don’t have that much salary on their books to trade. They currently have six players under contract for next season: LeBron James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker. They are awaiting official word on five player options as well: Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo are expected to opt-out, and are therefore untradeable, while Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee are expected to opt-in. That would make them tradeable.
If that is indeed how the options shake out, the Lakers would have eight players to deal. We will assume, for obvious reasons, that LeBron is not going to get traded. That leaves seven players to work with, but given his youth, contract and performance last season, we’ll assume that the Lakers would prefer not to include Caruso either. The same argument could be made for Kuzma, but his fit isn’t as clean and he is eligible for an extension now. Plus, the Lakers do need to give up value in this deal. Kuzma makes the most sense.
That leaves us six players who make $32,651,363 combined … less than $500,000 short of the salary necessary to land Paul. The Lakers could include Caruso to put themselves over the top, but prior to Friday, they had no reason to. They had a perfectly legal way of bridging that gap without him that also allowed them to keep Horton-Tucker in the process. Their last chip is the No. 28 overall pick. Using the 2019-20 rookie scale, that player could earn as much as $1,964,760 next season. Add that figure to the Lakers’ pot and remove Horton-Tucker’s and you get $33,098,142. That’s $11,000 past the goal line, giving us a legal trade.
This is where our problem comes in. First-round picks can be traded in one of two ways. If they are traded before the draft, as a pick, they have no attached salary. Technically, the Lakers couldn’t trade this way anyway. They owe their 2021 first-round pick to the Pelicans and the Stepien Rule prevents teams from being without a first-round pick in consecutive seasons. They would have to take the second route: trading the pick after it has been made, when it is considered a player. Once the pick has signed his rookie contract, he is considered an NBA player with a salary number attached that counts in trades. This is how the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers managed to trade for Kevin Love. They drafted Andrew Wiggins, signed him, and then traded him with his salary attached to hit that 80 percent figure. The issue here is that, according to the CBA, rookies cannot be traded until 30 days after they sign their contract.
Now, in a normal offseason, this wouldn’t be a problem. Rookies are eligible to sign their contracts on July 1, when the moratorium begins. The new season doesn’t start until October, so waiting until the beginning of August is never an issue. Teams can endure that 30-day period and complete their trades with time to spare before training camps even begin in September. Cleveland didn’t technically sign Wiggins until July 24. They completed the Love trade on Aug. 23, and Minnesota had more than a month before training camp formally began on Sep. 29. A four-month offseason affords teams the freedom to wait this period out if necessary.
But a two-month offseason does not, which brings us to the meat of our problem. On Friday, reports indicated that the NBA wants to start the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22. The NBA Draft is slated for Nov. 18. While nothing is set in stone on this front yet, current indications are that free agency will begin on Dec. 1. If we treat Dec. 1 as this season’s equivalent of July 1, there literally is not enough time on the schedule for the Lakers to wait out the 30-day period after signing their first-round pick. Under current rules, the Lakers cannot trade for Paul in time for opening night without including Caruso or expanding the deal in an unrealistic way.
Put aside the Caruso consideration for a moment. What about making the trade after opening night? Aside from the optical issues that presents as well as the difficulty of putting so many players in limbo, doing so probably wouldn’t be possible either. Remember, we’re talking about a six-for-one trade here, without other teams or players involved. In the offseason, that is manageable. Teams get five additional roster spots, and they can tinker with the order of operations behind their transactions in order to maximize them. But during the season, teams are stuck with only 15 slots. Such an unbalanced trade isn’t possible at that point. The construction would have to involve several other teams, which complicates matters further.
The Lakers could also theoretically use a step-ladder trade, where they ship out this package for something more expensive, but cheaper than Paul, and then trade that stuff to Oklahoma City instead. That creates another issue: it would have to be only a single player, as players acquired through trade cannot have their salary aggregated for 60 days afterward. You’d need to acquire a single player making $33.1 million or more. There are 17 such players in the NBA, and they’re all either stars (James, Stephen Curry, James Harden) or bad contracts (John Wall, Blake Griffin, Tobias Harris). They aren’t getting the former and the Thunder aren’t taking the latter.
The other possibility is using a sign-and-trade on one of their own free agents to create some extra tradable salary. There are a number of problems with this tactic as well. For starters, it creates another party that needs to agree to the deal. If none of the Lakers free agents want to go to Oklahoma City (a safe bet given their veteran statuses), they’d have to find a third team, which adds yet another party that needs to agree. Let’s say a fellow contender agrees to a deal with Rajon Rondo. Why would that team want to help the Lakers by cooperating on a sign-and-trade? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might be pursued by non-contenders, but the Lakers would probably like to keep him. At a certain point, the Lakers have to retain some depth along with their three superstars here. Caldwell-Pope would project as their starting shooting guard here. This is a possibility, but it creates so many complications that it shouldn’t be viewed as a likely one.
Add all of this up and we reach a simple conclusion: For the Lakers to trade for Paul this offseason, they either need to include Caruso, or hope that the NBA tweaks this rule given the constraints of the pandemic. There are a few possible ways for the league to go about that.
Allow rookies to sign their contracts as soon as the night they are drafted. This is actually somewhat plausible. There is going to be no need for a moratorium this offseason as the league and players are expected to negotiate a new cap number rather than relying on the league’s typical formula for determining it. The moratorium is an accounting period, but if no accounting is needed, the league can get somewhat creative and perhaps either start the new league year the moment that agreement is reached, or the moment the draft ends. If the Lakers could sign their draft pick on Nov. 19, they could complete this trade on Dec. 18, only a few days before the start of the season. That isn’t ideal, but big names have started well without the benefit of a full training camp before. Harden got traded to Houston only four days before posting a 37-point debut. Remove the waiting period entirely. This is the most sensible option. That 30-day waiting period was designed for offseasons that literally included at least 30 days. This one doesn’t. Lower the salary threshold for trade-balancing. There are going to be owners that push for this, particularly those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and want to shave salary. But this is dangerous. It could have a similar impact to the cap spike of 2016, in which an elite team manages to acquire a player it otherwise would not have had access to and tilts the balance of power in the league irrevocably. This is the least likely option. The league wants to start on Dec. 22. That doesn’t mean that it will. Originally, the NBA pushed for a Dec. 1 start. Then we heard Martin Luther King Day. Things can change. This might not even be a problem in the end.
Lakers fans can be forgiven for their skepticism on this front. The last time the Lakers tried to trade for Paul, outcry from small-market owners (led by, of all people, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert) killed the deal. Paul’s original team, the New Orleans Hornets, were owned by the league at the time. That made commissioner David Stern their acting governor, and he famously declined the trade for “basketball reasons.”
Changing widely-used rules that affect every team is going to be necessary this offseason, but small-market owners aren’t going to be thrilled with the idea of tweaking such a minor bit of minutia in the name of helping the Lakers acquire a superstar. If Los Angeles really is a rule change away from acquiring Paul, there is going to be a faction of owners demanding that said rule be left untouched. They’ll argue that if the Lakers want to complete the deal so badly, they’re just going to have to include Caruso’s salary as the CBA dictates.
This situation is so fluid that it hardly warrants such hand-wringing yet. The schedule might change. The rules might change. The Lakers might not be interested in Paul at all, or the Thunder might have no interest in sending him to Los Angeles for the package Rob Pelinka can offer. More than anything, this is a testament to the difficulties the league is going to face in mapping out the 2020-21 season. This is only one example of how the pre-pandemic CBA failed to adequately prepare for life with the coronavirus. There are going to be more, and there is no easy answer for how the NBA should deal with them. Silver has preached flexibility since before that ominous message in May. He is going to need it now more than ever as the league grapples, through no fault of its own, with an outdated set of rules.