Chris Paul has revitalized the Phoenix Suns franchise to an extent not many expected when he was traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder last offseason. The Suns went from barely missing the bubble playoffs to the second overall seed in a brutal Western Conference. They were helped along the way as injuries struck at the heart of several of the better teams in the conference, but Paul's arrival coupled with growth from Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton turned the Suns into legitimate contenders, a mindblowing concept for a team that hasn't been good since Steve Nash was playing.
It may not be for long, though. Paul has a player option on his contract at the end of this year, worth $44 million. He could decline it and hit free agency at the age of 36. That feels certifiably insane because nobody is going to give Paul that much money in the open market, but that's what he intends to do, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus:
Paul has a $44.4 million player option, which according to several sources, he intends to decline with hopes of inking a new multiyear deal (perhaps in the $100 million range over three seasons). It's unclear if his recent shoulder injury changes his plans. Gordon Hayward, who has battled more severe injuries than Paul, made a similar decision this past offseason, opting out of his final year with the Boston Celtics to sign a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
I'm not so sure about that Hayward comparison. He did battle more severe injuries than Paul but is also five full years younger, which may as well be 100 years in NBA terminology.
Regardless, it makes a certain amount of sense that Paul may seek longer-term security rather than a big payday. More than $40 million is a lot to turn down, but the All-Star point guard knows as well as anybody how quickly injuries change things and he has a better shot at getting a three-year deal worth close to $100 million this offseason rather than next, when he'll be 37 years-old. And if money is his priority, that somewhat limits where he can go, but this year's free-agent crop is not exactly astounding and Paul would immediately become the best of the bunch should he hit the open market.
With all that in mind, here are four possible destinations for Paul if he does go ahead and decline his $44 million option from Phoenix.
New York Knicks
Obviously! The Knicks have a ton of cap space this summer. There aren't that many quality players to spend it on. They were good enough to make it to the playoffs but lost in five games to the Hawks in Round 1, showing they still have a long way to go. The closest thing they have to a table-setter like Paul is Elfrid Payton, who was horrid most of the season. Paul wouldn't allow them to make the same leap Phoenix did, but he would certainly bring enough to the team that they can put together another respectable performance next season. Then they make the playoffs, maybe win a round, and use it all as a showcase for any potentially disgruntled/soon-to-be free agent superstar that these are not the Knicks of old. At his age, I doubt Paul will take a huge contract from an objectively terrible team, but the Knicks can pay him what he wants and put together a decent squad around him.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers do not have the money to offer Paul a three-year deal worth close to $100 million outright. But they also didn't really have the money to take on Kyle Lowry's contract and still almost traded for him anyway before the deadline. Enough moves can be made to create some wiggle room that makes this feasible. Dennis Schroder and his $16 million salary will be off the books this offseason. Wesley Matthews is on an expiring contract. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is in the first year of a three-year, $39 million deal, but that's an extremely moveable contract.
The Lakers do not "need" another star, per se. But adding Paul makes title contention significantly easier. It's tough to build a consistently great team around Anthony Davis and LeBron James with a limited amount of money to work with every year and both have had their injury issues this season. If GM Rob Pelinka is willing to undergo the cap gymnastics required, adding Paul would be a no-brainer.
Just keep him around! It's more fun for everyone. As much as the NBA enjoys the ratings wins that come from having an LA team in the Finals every year, it's more enjoyable to see the concept of parity actually come to fruition in the form of the Suns rising to the top of the conference, buoyed by exciting young talent and savvy vets. Talking Stick Arena was absolutely buzzing in Game 5. It's a far more enjoyable outcome for Paul to stick around and see what this team can do as Booker and Ayton continue to grow than joining up to make another superteam in Los Angeles or helping the Knicks maintain their newfound relevancy. But if Paul is declining nearly $50 million to stick around for another season, it feels like a long shot.
The Heat were angling for Paul before they ended up with Jimmy Butler. They could end up with both, but it'll require some sacrifices. Miami doesn't have all that much cap space to begin with and Duncan Robinson is a restricted free agent; he is one of the NBA's deadliest shooters and crucial to how their offense operates with two non-shooters in Butler and Bam Adebayo. But! The Heat saw in this year's playoffs that a good system only gets you so far. A team needs legit stars to win postseason games, barring months-long stretches of hot shooting from the likes of Robinson and Tyler Herro. A sign-and-trade with Robinson for Paul would make the numbers work. The Heat would be in legitimate cap hell should they pull it off, but Butler isn't getting any younger and, more importantly, neither is Pat Riley.