Long before game time Friday night, Thunder point guard Chris Paul, still in street clothes, made his way up the ramp and onto the court at the Garden. Then he made a beeline for midcourt, near the scorer’s table, where Leon Rose was waiting.
The two hugged, which was either a nod to their long relationship — Rose served as Paul’s agent before becoming the Knicks’ president — or a confirmation of a rumored reunion of a different kind.
A day earlier, SiriusXM NBA Network’s Frank Isola tweeted that according to NBA sources, the Knicks have been gathering intel on Paul and could make a run at him this summer.
Paul shrugged that off as he walked into the arena, saying, “They’re trying to take some of the attention from that Spike Lee stuff.”
Still, he did little to quiet the rumors when he hugged Rose. When reporters jokingly asked him to repeat the hug so photos could be taken, Paul, head of the NBA Players Association, said, “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
After leading the Thunder to a 126-103 win over the Knicks, Paul said, “Man, I’m so happy for Leon. I almost get emotional talking about it because I went through a lot with him. It’s bigger than an agent-player relationship. He’s like my family. You know what I mean? I found out when everybody else found out. Today was the first time I saw or really talked to him since. So I’m happy for him. I wish him the best. And that’s that.”
Asked if he thinks Rose can turn things around, Paul took the diplomatic route. “I don’t know. I’m a player,” he said. “Obviously, I know sort of how the league goes. I don’t know anything about the team or anything like that. All I can do is root for him from afar and control what I can control — my team.”
The point guard was available in the summer when the Rockets decided to break up the pairing of Paul and James Harden. The Thunder went all in, dealing Russell Westbrook in return for Paul, two first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps.
It still seemed like a risk for a team forced into rebuild-mode when Paul George demanded a trade, particularly with Paul seemingly on the decline at age 34 and saddled with a massive contract that will pay him $38.5 million this season and $41.4 million next season, plus a player option for $44 million in 2021-22. But Paul has taken to leading the young OKC squad (39-24).
Even when the Thunder swung the deal, they were searching for a third team to jump in, hoping to facilitate a landing spot for Paul with a playoff contender. The Knicks, who were focused on salary-cap flexibility, passed on the thought of taking on an onerous contract before the free-agent class that will be available in the summer of 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo will headline a high-powered group..
So what would the Knicks (19-44) want with Paul now? Team president Steve Mills, who put this team together and was making those decisions, is out, as is former coach David Fizdale. That plan is gone. And Paul has played like the elite player he was rather than as an aging point guard.
Perhaps most important, the Knicks still are searching for a point guard in a league dominated by scoring point guards. The Knicks have Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., none of whom has excelled, while the Thunder sometimes play three at one time.
“I think it’s how teams are built and how you’re going to play and all those kind of things,” Knicks coach Mike Miller said. “I think a lot of times when you get into it, you have to adjust to what your personnel is some. And obviously that’s what they’re doing. They haven’t played like that, I think, in the past as much as they are now. I think just as they got into the course of it, they had success with it and they’ve taken off with it.”