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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Chris Paul? For the Knicks? Why not?

Thunder guard Chris Paul gestures during the second

Thunder guard Chris Paul gestures during the second half against the Nets at Barclays Center on Jan. 7. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the Oklahoma City Thunder fell out of the postseason and the announcement was made that coach Billy Donovan would not be returning with a rebuild on the way, minds began to race in front offices around the NBA with one thought: Where will Chris Paul be next season?

The rumors began almost immediately that a team such as the Milwaukee Bucks, bounced from the playoffs after posting the best regular-season record for a second straight season, would make a run at the 35-year-old point guard, who’d had a prime-of-his-career season for the Thunder. Other contenders — 76ers, Lakers — figure to check in on the market.

But one team that might seem an odd fit for Paul just might be the favorite to go all in.

The New York Knicks.

Though it may run counter to the begging and pleading of the fan base for a patient rebuild, the planets may have just aligned for the Knicks to shed the youth movement and chase Paul right now.

Those contenders may see Paul as a final piece, but the Knicks are in a completely different place and, even though he’s 35 years old, would be chasing Paul as the first piece. But consider the reality that the Knicks face right now. They have stockpiled their draft picks in recent years, but it has hardly helped them. The new lottery rules left them at No. 3 last summer and brought RJ Barrett instead of Zion Williamson or Ja Morant despite an NBA-worst 17-win season. This season, they dropped two spots and sit with the No. 8 pick.

Their crop of young players — Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. — hardly feel like the building blocks to a rebirth at Madison Square Garden. Paul would enter the roster as the best player on the team and the sort of leader who, along with new coach Tom Thibodeau, could push and prod the young players.

Knicks president Leon Rose is Paul’s former agent, having forged a long and close relationship. It’s a natural fit for Rose to bring Paul along as he tries to turn around the long-struggling franchise.

Most important, though, the Knicks can absorb Paul’s massive contract, $41.3 million next season and a player option for $44.2 million the next year. With more than half of the roster on team options for next season with low-cost buyouts, the Knicks are one of the few teams that can take on Paul’s contract in cap space without needing to figure out equal contracts to send back to OKC. For a team seeking a rebuild, do the Thunder really want to bring back Khris Middleton’s or Eric Bledsoe’s deals in a trade with Milwaukee?

The Knicks have accumulated draft picks, like the Thunder, and could pair up a pick with a player such as Knox or Ntilikina if the Thunder aren’t interested in the final guaranteed year of Julius Randle’s contract. Ntilikina, though he might fit better under Thibodeau than under previous coaches, will need to get a new contract after next season, putting him in the way of the next part of the puzzle. If the Knicks get Paul now, they could use him as a draw for another max-contract player next summer (or whenever the offseason will be after this coming season).

For now, Paul and Rose certainly could serve as a lure to bring back Carmelo Anthony on a low-cost deal. And despite all of the squawking about the allure of the Garden as a Mecca for players, the fact is that the Knicks haven’t seen one premier free agent come their way since Amar’e Stoudemire. Going out and trading for a star might be the only way, particularly with a draft that is regarded as weak in star power, for the Knicks to get the cornerstone piece they seek.

Then, with a measure of respectability, Rose, Thibodeau, Paul, Barrett, Robinson and this year’s lottery pick in place, could the Knicks get a star to join them next summer? It might be worth a shot. 

Back to work

The Knicks’ current roster will get its first chance to get on the court with the new coaching staff starting Monday as the eight teams that were left out of the bubble can begin workouts.

With COVID-19 testing in place, the Knicks will have a week of one-on-one workouts with a coach and player together — a maximum of four of these sessions happening on the floor at one time.

Then the next two weeks will be similar to the Orlando bubble, with all players, coaches and staff who will attend required to quarantine for 48 hours in a hotel room. Any positive test will knock out the participant, but the rest will be able to have group workouts and practice sessions, getting an introduction to Thibodeau’s system.

The Knicks, according to a source, are expected to have nearly the full roster participate in some form, including the potential free agents.

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