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NBA Daily: Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Los Angeles Lakers.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers tend to dominate NBA headlines. This has been especially true during season 1 of the LeBron James era. A week ago, the Lakers decided to rest James for the remainder of this season. Losing James was a strong reminder of what Lakers fans and NBA observers had noted for some time: the Lakers would not be returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Long since being effectively eliminated from playoff contention and now without James, the team isn’t a complete disaster, however. While the team’s most talented and recognizable players are out for the season, fans nonetheless have enjoyed the resurgent effort the team has been displaying and, for example, have enjoyed watching every big Alex Caruso moment. Caruso most recently led the Lakers to a comeback victory over hallway rival Los Angeles Clippers with a 32-point, 10-rebound and five-assist effort.

With all of this in mind, now is the time to look at the Lakers from top to bottom to find out what is working, what needs to be changed and where things may go from here.

What is working?

The Lakers have been under less game-to-game scrutiny since being eliminated from the playoff race and lesser-known players have stepped up. Jonathan Williams and Moritz Wagner have had nice moments and Caruso’s play is not a surprise to many Lakers fans who now wonder whether the team should have been utilizing Caruso as an option at point guard earlier in the season.

Nevertheless, it’s necessary to go back further to analyze what is working for the Lakers. Earlier this season, all was going well for the Lakers. The team was in the upper tier of the rankings in the Western Conference and if things had held up, the team may have been able to secure home court through at least the first half of the season. Of course, things didn’t hold up. James went down with a groin injury, Lonzo Ball couldn’t stay healthy, trade deadline trade rumors placed a cloud over the Lakers and the team slowly fell apart. Earlier in the season, Ball and budding star Brandon Ingram both made strides. When injuries ultimately did derail the season, an equally important issue rose to the surface and is addressed below: imbalanced roster construction.

So long as James is healthy and playing at his usual elite level, the Lakers have a shot to win on any given night. The team features several talented youngsters who could take significant steps forward in their development and the Lakers will always be a major destination for top-level players. However, many changes need to be made around this basic formula in order to maximize the remaining years on James’ contract and turn the team’s fortunes around in a long-term manner.

What needs to change?

  1. Roster Construction Around the Core

The Lakers feature solid, young talent around James. Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma are all capable NBA players with various levels of upside. While these players will become progressively more expensive, for now, these players are the team’s most valuable assets after James.

How to best support this core is key. Last year the team signed a number of veteran players on one-year contracts that were meant to offer supplementary ball-handling around James. This smorgasbord of veterans proved incapable of helping the Lakers stay afloat when injuries struck. In addition, the players the Lakers signed did not offer the outside shooting and spacing that James-led teams have thrived with for the past decade.

While each of these players has had good moments throughout the season, they proved to be a poor fit around James and their return is uncertain. So far, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee have lobbied to return but renewing their contracts is a matter that is of secondary concern to a larger issue below: signing a star free agent.

  1. Health

As discussed elsewhere, no single factor alone submarined this season. But look no further than James’s late December groin strain as the most pivotal moment this season. Without James, the Lakers got off track and never recovered. Making matters worse were injuries to Ball, Hart and Ingram. Ingram going down late in the season is one of the individual occurrences that helped make clear the season wasn’t going to end well.

So long as he rests and rehabilitates, Lakers fans can look forward to a healthy James that won’t be coming off of a prolonged postseason campaign for the first time in the last decade. Considering James’s advanced mileage as a pro, this can be an invaluable key to his continuing longevity. Ingram’s recovery will be key as well. Assuming Ingram can fully recover while not suffering another blood clot (deemed likely after his successful surgery), then he can continue to grow as a key player alongside James or perhaps serve as a centerpiece in an eventual trade for a superstar.

  1. Coaching

This change is also the most unfair criticism, perhaps. In the discussion and criticisms that have followed in the wake of this season, the performance and job status of head coach Luke Walton has come up repeatedly. Despite the many other, real factors that weighed against Lakers’ success this season, it’s clear that Walton is going to be left to shoulder much of the blame. Firing and hiring a new coach can often be the easiest way for a franchise to achieve a reset of sorts and, for now, that looks to be the approach the Lakers will take. Being an NBA head coach, of course, requires an advanced knowledge of the game, Xs and Os, and other key strategies. In addition, a modern head coach must be capable of managing many of the out-sized personalities that currently occupy the league. Coaching James is a complicated matter and requires a delicate balance, which Walton arguably struggled with this season. Add in a youthful core and an uneven mix of veteran free agent acquisitions and the result is no easy task for any head coach. Perhaps another coach with a clean slate will have a positive effect on the team moving forward, should the Lakers choose to move on from Walton.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Wanting to hit a home run in free agency is an annual tradition in Los Angeles. This constant focus came to dominate headlines as Kobe Bryant’s career came to a close and the Lakers then tried to rebuild following Bryant’s retirement. Now the Lakers can lean into a sales pitch centered around playing alongside James and their talented core. The Lakers missed out on Paul George last year, but James signaled his desire for another star and stated that he’d be willing to assist in the pitch.

“I will be as active as I need to be for this franchise to get better. That’s why I came here. I came here to win. And obviously, we need to get better, as far as our personnel. We have an opportunity to get better. And there’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of guys that can help our franchise. So I’ll be as active as I need to be for us to get better and go from there,” James told Bleacher Report.

This summer will feature a top-tier free agent class, including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. After these players, the Lakers will likely also look to Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker, among others. While listing nearly any free agent as an opportunity is not realistic for many franchises, the Lakers are no ordinary franchise. Signing James confirmed that and in addition, with another star player, the Lakers are well poised to be at least among the Western Conference contenders, depending on how this upcoming offseason unfolds.

Focus Area: Trade Market

The Lakers continue to have the necessary assets to trade for another team’s star player (Anthony Davis is the most obvious candidate). However, complicating factors persist for the Lakers. Their draft pick comes during a weak draft. Furthermore, the Lakers’ recent wins have helped to reduce the odds of jumping into the top four, likely dooming the pick to be outside the top 10. While Ingram’s prognosis is positive and he should not experience another blood clot, potential trade partners may be wary of assuming that risk. Such thinking would lower Ingram’s value as a trade asset. Ongoing business and family related drama combined with an inability to consistently stay healthy also potentially hampers Ball’s value as well. Throw in the lopsided Zubac trade and the poorly handled trade attempts for Davis, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the Lakers will be able to pull off a blockbuster trade.

In New Orleans, former general manager Dell Demps was fired shortly after the Lakers-related trade drama. With the introduction of personalities in the Pelican’s front office, the Lakers can only hope that the Pelicans may come back around to revisit what the Lakers might offer in a deal for Davis. Remember, Davis is under contract for another year and any non-Lakers team that would trade for Davis would do so with no guarantee or indication that Davis would stay beyond the last year of his contract. Should the Lakers strike out on any new attempts to acquire Davis or any other potential star via trade, the team, as mentioned above, should pivot and make clear that they will be building around their young players to help quiet the trade rumors that swirled last season.

The Lakers face a very important offseason. Signing James last year set a new course for this franchise and has positioned it to make a significant leap forward. If the Lakers learn from the mistakes of this season and find some luck in free agency and the draft, they will be well-positioned to earn favorable headlines next season, which would be a nice shift from a disappointing first year with LeBron on the roster.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Grading the Offseason – New York Knicks

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the New York Knicks.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA offseason is dramatically different than it was as recently as a decade ago. In the past, the offseason began following the conclusion of the NBA Finals. And save for a few exciting happenings (e.g., the NBA Draft), the sports world moved on to other items of interest.

But presently, the first half of the summer is still very much the NBA’s. Until mid-July, that is. With the NBA finally ready to enter a lull in activity, we can safely begin assessing teams’ offseason moves. And with that, Basketball Insiders continues its “Grading the Offseason” series.

Spencer Davies kicked things off by assessing the Cleveland Cavaliers and David Yapkowitz graded the moves made by the Chicago Bulls. Next up is possibly the most polarizing team in the league – the New York Knicks.

Overview

The Knicks entered 2018-19seaason with low expectations. However, there was hope for the future with 7’3” unicorn-esque center (Kristaps Porzingis), their three rookies (Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier) and a boatload of projected cap space on the books.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2019 and the Knicks are in a surprising spot relative to last year. Their assumed core of the future was dealt a blow when it became clear that Porzingis wanted out of New York, resulting in a trade to Dallas. And while they failed to land a major free agent – despite freeing up the cap space for two max free agents – there is actually reason for optimism for the Knicks.

Offseason

Despite finishing the 2018-19 season with the worst record in the NBA, the new lottery structure led to the Knicks landing the third overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Fortunately, the third pick in the draft was a no-brainer regardless of who was making the selection. RJ Barrett – guard/forward from Duke – is a talented scorer and playmaker who will instantly become the best Knick at drawing fouls and creating off the dribble. Barrett can struggle with his efficiency and other aspects of his game, but he will show flashes of greatness throughout the upcoming season.

But that’s not all the Knicks did on draft night. As I discussed last week, the Knicks traded up in the second round to select Ignas Brazdeikis, a forward from Michigan. Brazdeikis entered NBA Summer League with a lot of questions around him, most notably his lack of foot speed and athleticism, and he answered them in a big way.

Brazdeikis proved he can contribute to an NBA team immediately. His shot-making, shooting ability, strength and motor all shined through in many of the team’s Summer League games. The Knicks may have hit another home run in the second-round, which makes them two-for-two in as many years (Mitchell Robinson was selected by the Knicks with the 36thoverall pick in 2018).

Speaking of Robinson, he flashed his potential throughout Summer League, too. He demonstrated good progress, posting 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 25 minutes per game — and winning first-team All-Summer League honors. Robinson has a lot to prove this season, as expectations have changed dramatically for the 21-year-old, but at least the Knicks have their center of the future.

Free agency didn’t go quite as well for the Knicks. Many experts felt that the team had a good chance at signing Kevin Durant and a second major free agent. But the Knicks struck out on superstar free agent signings.

And what’s more, the Knicks signed a number of players shortly after the start of free agency, which prevented them from absorbing unwanted salary in exchange for future picks (e.g., the Los Angeles Clippers received a future first-round pick for taking back Maurice Harkless from the Portland Trail Blazers). The narrative quickly became that the Knicks failed at free agency.

But perception and reality are not always one and the same. Ultimately, the Knicks were able to attach a second-year team option and/or signed free agents to one-year deals for six of their seven free agent acquisitions (with the seventh free agent being Randle, for whom the Knicks own a third-year option).

This means that very little – if any salary – is guaranteed beyond 2019-20, making all of the aforementioned players attractive additions to contenders come the trade deadline – many were likely attractive as of June 30, but most contenders didn’t have the requisite cap space to sign players like Portis, Payton or Morris after making major investments in superstars.

All of the Knicks free agent additions can contribute at a relatively high level – save for Bullock, whose health is still in question following a recent back surgery — for both the Knicks as well as a contending team down the line. And the Knicks can liquidate most of their roster and free up significant cap space to chase the likes of Anthony Davis and others in 2020 if so desired – and they may even get themselves additional assets in the process. So the Knicks’ 2019 free agency period could be viewed very differently at this time next year (or 2021), depending on if they are able to convince a star player or two to join their young core.

PLAYERS IN: RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris

PLAYERS OUT: Kadeem Allen, Mario Hejonza, Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Emmanuel Mudiay, DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Henry Ellenson and Billy Garrett

What’s Next?

The Knicks’ offseason is probably over considering they added nine players and will return six – with one exception being potentially working on a reunion with the recently-waived Lance Thomas.

The Knicks signed seven quality free agents who can all hypothetically be traded for assets or waived following the 2019-20 season. They also added two NBA-quality rookies, both of whom should carve out a role on the team. The team’s challenge will be picking a direction. Scott Perry recently scoffed at the notion that Knicks will tank in 2019-20. Thus, they may hang onto most of their signees for the entire season in hopes of getting their young nucleus playoff experience.

While playoff experience is great for any young player, it will be challenging for David Fizdale and the rest of the coaching staff to carve out a rotation that features all of the team’s young players. The Knicks will have to create lineups very deliberately, pairing youth with veterans so they don’t experience too much falloff when shifting from one lineup to another.

Another unresolved item remains: Frank Ntilikina. Rumors circulated in the lead up the 2019 NBA Draft that the Knicks were going to trade their former lottery pick, but Ntilikina remains with the team. Ntilikina’s time in New York might be nearing an end unless he shows significant improvement early this season. It is worth mentioning that Ntilikina showed up earlier in the offseason on social media sporting a smoother and more natural-looking shooting form.

One final improvement the Knicks will look to build on is their leadership. Credibility trickles down from the very top of an organization. While James Dolan has made questionable decisions over the years, the rest of the Knicks’ management is operating more thoughtfully than it has in years.

The team’s leadership and coaching staff remained entirely intact for the first time in what feels like decades – the Knicks have had five coaches (six tenures) and three Presidents (four tenures) in the past eight seasons. And while players win games, they are attracted to situations that appear stable and supportive. The Knicks and Scott Perry, Steve Mills, and David Fizdale began laying the foundation for this type of situation. They now need to demonstrate progress on the court to take the next step and possibly start to build themselves up as a free agent destination (outside of simply being the Knicks). Lastly, they need Dolan and the team to remain out of the news for negative reasons as much as possible, such as being in the news for a lawsuit against the City of Inglewood around contractual issues pertaining a new Clippers arena.

This wasn’t the offseason that Knicks fans were hoping for, but it wasn’t the disaster some portray it as either. The Knicks have the means to take a positive step forward this season and set the stage for bigger things in the future.

Offseason Grade: B-

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For Chris Paul

Left in the lurch, there are few feasible options for Chris Paul headed into the 2019-20 season, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official, we have hit the dog days of the NBA offseason.

What began at such a frenetic pace has inevitably sputtered and slowed, as deals have been made, unmade and some of the biggest names in the NBA have moved house. Everything that could have happened seems to have and now, with Summer League over, basketball is left with almost nothing to occupy the seemingly infinite amount of time between today and training camp.

And, unfortunately for Chris Paul, it may feel even longer than that.

Despite the Houston Rockets’ declaration to the contrary, Paul has since been traded, stranded on an Oklahoma City roster that has no business competing in a stacked Western Conference next season.

Between his contract – more than $124 million over the next three seasons – and his regression a season ago, Paul’s removal from the Rockets’ roster was a necessity; it’s a business, and the point guard was a hinderance to Houston’s championship aspirations.

But the situation hasn’t changed for Paul – he is still unwanted, a (very) pricy veteran miscast on his current roster.

So, where does that leave him? There are but a few teams that could afford to take on the massive amount of money owed to Paul and even fewer that would want to. There is no doubt that, given a clean bill of health, Paul could recapture some of his prior form next season but, still, would it be worth his price tag?

Probably not. And that should only limit Paul’s options further.

The Thunder reportedly want to get a deal done “as soon as they can” according to Adrian Wojnarowski, but discussions are “parked” for now. They could always opt to retain him; who better to serve as a mentor for the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than the Point God himself?

But would Paul want to serve in that role? There would be a clear opportunity to rebuild some value and open up potential landing spots. But, Paul, 34, is a soon-to-be 15-year veteran with a single Conference Finals appearance to his name. Surely, if he were to step back into a secondary role, he would rather do so for a contender.

And, of course, the money would be an issue as the Thunder, despite the recent roster reconstruction, are still expected to pay a heavy luxury tax penalty next season. Given their current situation, it should be obvious that keeping Paul on his current deal isn’t the best move.

The Lakers serve as another potential destination — don’t forget, Los Angeles tried to acquire Paul back in 2011, but the deal was subsequently nixed by then-commissioner David Stern.

While there is almost no connection between that iteration of the Lakers and the current one, it is still an interesting option. Los Angeles is an obvious fit because, for lack of a better option, the Lakers are set to start LeBron James at point guard next season. With Paul in the fold, James could serve in his normal role and reduce his workload with time off the ball.

The prior relationship between James and Paul could also serve to benefit the Lakers’ chemistry and may allow for an easier roster transition.

But, again, Paul’s contract looms large. The Lakers opened a max-slot in their salary cap earlier this summer, hoping to land recently-minted champion Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard spurned them for their in-house neighbor, the Clippers, they made use of that space to fill out the rest of the roster with complementary players.

Now, a buyout would be necessary to facilitate any deal before the start of the season. Otherwise, the Lakers would have to wait until December, when those players that signed new contracts would become eligible to be traded.

And then, of course, there are the HEAT. Miami is almost always mentioned when a big-name is available, whether as a free agent or via trade, and the rumors proved true this offseason in the case of Jimmy Butler.

Despite the awkward fit in Philadelphia alongside other stars such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, Butler proved his worth and, at times, looked like the 76ers’ best player during the postseason.

Now in Miami, Butler should almost certainly bolster their future outlook, but they are far from done with the roster. Without a subsequent move, they aren’t a championship contender — could Paul be the one to take them a step further?

The reported mutual interest, according to Brian Windhorst, should only fuel the flames, but a deal involving Paul could be as much of a necessity for Miami as it was for Houston.

The HEAT were the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago and Butler is a major upgrade, but the rest of the roster is underwhelming at best. While Butler and Paul could prove an awkward fit basketball-wise, there is no doubt that the two of them together would significantly elevate the HEAT’s ceiling above that level. Miami, unlike many of his other potential suitors, would also have the salary to match Paul’s incoming deal.

But a dispute over draft compensation seems to have tabled discussions until further notice.

Beyond those scenarios, it’s hard to imagine Paul anywhere else next season.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Paul is anywhere other than Oklahoma City to start next season, barring a change of heart (either from Paul regarding a buyout or the HEAT and Thunder regarding potential compensation), anyway.

And so, the long wait for Paul will continue. It would be foolish to doubt him now, after 14 seasons in the NBA, but it’s hard to imagine that Paul will come close to providing adequate value relative to his contract. Ultimately, a potential move may be out of his hands, left up to the teams to determine whether or not Paul is an asset worth acquiring.

So far, it would seem the NBA has deemed him not worth it.

But, it is the NBA and if the offseason thus far is anything to go by, anything could happen.

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