If the Knicks are going to land a second star this summer, which was the plan going in, it's going to take some effort on the part of that star player, be it Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul. According to a report from Ken Berger of CBS Sports.com, Paul is already doing his part.
K-Berg cites a person with direct knowledge of the all-star guard's plans saying Paul "wants to play with another superstar" and "follow LeBron's model of teaming up with other great players." Paul has the Knicks on his wish list, along with the Lakers and Magic, and has informed the Hornets that these would be his preferred destinations.
Berger cites another NBA source that said members of Paul's camp have told the Hornets, "He's not going to start the season in New Orleans."
The Knicks are very much aware of Paul's interest, just as they are of Carmelo's interest in passing on the contract extension with the Nuggets to make himself available as a free agent in 2011. The catch is, unlike free agency, the Knicks can't actively pursue Paul (who won't be free until his opt-out in 2012) unless the Hornets make it clear they are open to shopping him.
The most recent intelligence I have been able to gather on this is that Donnie Walsh in May made initial contact with former Hornets GM Jeff Bower about Paul. Bower told Walsh that the franchise was going through an ownership transfer and, as a result, it wasn't the right time to discuss moving the franchise's most valuable player. Bower didn't exactly close the door, but he made it clear there wasn't any rush to move the player, either.
Several teams started making calls to Bower about Paul, including the Magic. Otis Smith denied it publicly because, well, he had to. What started to upset Hornets president Hugh Weber was that Bower was taking the calls and listening to offers. The two got into a heated argument on July 12 at the team's hotel in Las Vegas during the NBA Summer League and Bower resigned as GM the next day.
Bower knew Paul wanted out because Paul knew the Hornets -- whether it was current owner George Shinn or Gary Chouest, whom is in negotiations to take over as majority owner -- weren't going to be able to afford to sustain the type of payroll it would take to build a championship-contending team around him. Paul has grumbled quietly while the Hornets, with decisions based on finances, dismantled a team that won 56 games and reached the second round of the playoffs in 2007-08.
He maintained loyalty to the franchise and to New Orleans, a desperate city. But at 25 years old, Paul's greatest concern is losing his prime years on a team that has no chance to compete in the challenging Western Conference.
How could he not take heed of Kevin Garnett's words, which we reported here in the Fix, which he spoke in regards to LeBron James after the Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs?
"Loyalty is something that hurts you sometimes because you can't get youth back," Garnett said. "I can honestly say if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know with this [the Celtics] organization, I would have done it a little sooner."
I have been making parallels between Paul and Garnett since last year. Garnett kept staying loyal to the T-Wolves until he finally got himself to publicly accept the idea of leaving to pursue championship aspirations. He was traded to the Celtics in July 2007 and won a title that season. Two years later, Boston reached the NBA Finals and lost in seven games to the Lakers. It might have been that group's last shot at another ring, especially with the juggernaut that has emerged in Miami.
With that in mind, it is crystal clear that Paul is starting to take the necessary steps to begin the process of breaking ties with the Hornets. It started when he left his agency, Octagon, and signed with LRMR Marketing and Branding, a Cleveland-based firm which, of course, is bankrolled by his buddy, LeBron James, and run by James' friend and business partner, Maverick Carter.
The move came the day after Paul was in Akron with LeBron on July 6 for James' basketball camp. Paul knew when he left Akron the next day that LeBron was going to Miami. He didn't need to watch 'The Decision' to find out.
That weekend, Paul was back with James at Carmelo Anthony's wedding in New York City. As we first reported here in the Fix, Paul was talking up a storm about how he wanted to get Melo to come with him and join Amar'e Stoudemire (also at the wedding) with the Knicks in New York.
The Knicks, of course, were very aware. There's a reason why the team made the moves they did this summer after giving a $100M commitment to Stoudemire, the plan went back to preserving cap space and maintaining flexibility for the future. The David Lee trade yielded three quality players, one or two which could be viewed as assets or, possibly, players who could make others already on the roster (read: Wilson Chandler) more expendable.
The set up wasn't too difficult. The execution of the end game will be. First, the Hornets don't have to trade Paul. Second, they can demand a heavy price in return, plus force a team to take on another big contract to save them money. Paul is scheduled to make $15.2M this coming season and $16.6M in 2011-12 and $18.1M in 2012-13.
What we know is a franchise such as this won't be interested in taking back big contracts, so the Lakers would have to get very creative (but if you consider the Pau Gasol trade, they always seem to find a way, don't they?). Could Paul co-exist with Kobe? That would be worth seeing. But Kobe has great trust in Derek Fisher and Fisher comes cheaper.
In Orlando, Paul and Dwight Howard could be a stellar pick-and-roll duo, with the perfect supporting cast of perimeter players (Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick) to kill sagging defenses. The Magic, who could really liven up the Florida rivalry with the Heat, could offer Jameer Nelson (affordable $6.7M with three years left), but New Orleans would probably be better off going forward at point guard with younger, cheaper and just as talented Darren Collison. What other young, high-ceiling player do the Magic have to offer? No one.
Now for the Knicks, where Stoudemire is yet another perfect complement big for a dynamic point guard (recall his years with Steve Nash) and the D'Antoni system is tailor made for his talents. (And, of course, Isiah Thomas will be quick to remind Garden brass how often CP is compared to him and how Paul has consistently expressed his admiration for Isiah's success on the basketball court. But the Knicks don't need a recruiting tool at this point, they need someone who can pull of what, right now, appears to be an impossible deal).
The Knicks absolutely love Anthony Randolph, who came as the centerpiece of the David Lee sign-and-trade. But would the Hornets be interested in Randolph ($1.9M), who, by the way, played at LSU, as a main piece? The Knicks could add Chandler ($2.1M) and Toney Douglas ($1.07M) then include Eddy Curry's expiring $11.2M and agree to take another hefty contract off the Hornets' payroll, such as Emeka Okafor, who has four years and $52M left on his deal. Okafor and Curry are almost a match in salary for 2010-11, so the issue would be matching Paul's $15.2M with cheap players. The Knicks only have about $2M in cap space left. They could try to engage a third team, of course. And then there's this: do they consider including Danilo Gallinari?
Keep in mind that point guard Raymond Felton, who signed a two-year deal, can't be traded until December. The Knicks are fine with waiting on Paul and people I've talked with believe this is a situation that isn't likely to be resolved quickly. The longer it drags out, the better it is for the Knicks. But they have to be careful not to allow another team to sneak in the back door.
The team I see as a quiet threat would be the Oklahoma City Thunder. You recall Paul enjoyed playing in OKC when the Hornets were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2006-07. The Thunder also have cap space and tremendous young assets to offer, starting with Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Kevin Durant is a superstar already in place on the team and he and Paul could be a dynamic duo.
Right now, Bower's replacement, Dell Demps (previously Spurs VP of Basketball Operations) has his work cut out for him. While teams such as the Knicks will be sure to call Demps and get a sense of his strategy, attempts will be made by Demps to reach out to Paul, discuss the future and see if the team can talk him back into the fold, especially for the sake of rookie coach Monty Williams.
But Paul has different voices in his ear now: those of Maverick and the LRMR crew, who are congratulating themselves over the colossal move LeBron made to Miami. How much power does LRMR really have? Before they signed Paul, their most notable client was Jonny Flynn. Now they have a major star with major endorsement deals (Right Guard, for one) and a very likable brand.
LeBron may have spurned the Knicks, but perhaps he has a consolation prize to offer.