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Could Knicks' cap situation eventually entice Paul?

New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul (3) takes

New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul (3) takes the ball around Sacramento Kings forward Ime Udoka (3) in the first half of an NBA game in New Orleans. (Dec. 8, 2009) Credit: AP

NEW ORLEANS - In the 14 years since the Knicks last had the salary-cap room to be major players in free agency, the league has rarely had a major-market team waiting with an open checkbook the way it does with the summer of 2010 approaching and several star-level players available for the big-money Knicks.

If the looming presence of the New York market can prompt stars such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to press pause on signing an extension with their current teams - at a much higher price than any other team can offer - what would it mean for future star players in similar situations?

When Carmelo Anthony two weeks ago jokingly was asked if he was ready to talk about 2011, a Denver television reporter quickly interrupted, "No!" and later said, "He's all we got."

The same sentiment is felt here in The Big Easy, where for the rebuilding, low-budget Hornets, keeping Chris Paul happy is The Big Challenge. His opt-out comes in 2012.

"We're not going to start a frenzy like you guys have," general manager Jeff Bower said before Friday's game against the Knicks. "We're looking at today; we're looking at right now."

Right now doesn't look very optimistic. Bower took on the role of head coach a month into the season despite having no head-coaching experience. He brought in former USC and Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd to assist him on the bench, and it wouldn't be a surprise if cost-conscious owner George Shinn opts to keep Bower in the dual role permanently.

But what type of message does that send to an all-star in Paul, who earlier this season expressed a desire to play for a championship in his prime?

"This is my fifth year in the league," he said when the Hornets lost to the Knicks at the Garden, "and I'm not trying to wait until I'm an old veteran in this league to win a championship."

The challenge for Bower is to somehow build a championship-caliber team around Paul while paying him a superstar's salary and also keeping the team payroll under the luxury-tax threshold. Virtually impossible.

"I think the key in general in being a small market is to be efficient and to get a return for your investments and to be effective with the pieces and the players you surround him with," Bower said. "I think that's the most important thing. When you can do that, when those pieces are aligned, you can be effective."

Either that, or you reach a reality that says Paul is too valuable an asset to allow to walk away, which makes it time to trade him.

It is cases such as this that motivated Donnie Walsh to carve out as much cap space as possible not just for 2010 but to have flexibility in the coming years.

Of course, for the Hornets to come to such a dire conclusion could mean the end for this franchise.

"If you lose Chris Paul," said one person with knowledge of the Hornets' inner workings, "you might as well fold the team."

Notes & quotes: Friday's game included two of the league's top three-point specialists in Paul, who leads the NBA with 57.5 percent marksmanship from downtown, and the Knicks' Danilo Gallinari, who leads the league with 62 made threes. Gallinari, who went into Friday ranked 12th among sophomores in scoring (14 points per game), is a candidate for the NBA Rookie Challenge Game during All-Star Weekend in Dallas and perhaps the three-point shootout as well.

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