Schmeelk: Buyer Beware For Knicks, Chris Paul

He’s One Of Best PGs, But Leon Rose Can’t Mortgage Future

John Schmeelk
March 06, 2020 - 1:34 pm
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It was only a matter of time. With former player agent Leon Rose being named Knicks president earlier this week, it was inevitable that reporters would begin connecting his former clients to the Knicks. First, it was Carmelo Anthony and now it’s Chris Paul.

With Anthony’s level of play nowhere near where it once was, that rumor is not one even worth spending time on. On Thursday, however, both the Post's Marc Berman and The Athletic's Frank Isola connected the Knicks to Chris Paul, a former Rose client, in a potential trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer.

Paul, due to turn 35 years old in May, is still one of the best point guards on the planet. He’s an elite playmaker and fierce defender and demands the type of excellence from his teammates that transforms teams. He would immediately make the Knicks a much better team, vault them into playoff contention and make them more attractive to free agents.  

So, it’s simple, right? LET’S DO THIS! LEEEERRROOOOYYYYYYYY JENKINS!

Not so fast.

Paul’s age should be the first warning sign. Even though his skills haven’t significantly deteriorated yet, it doesn’t mean they won’t soon. There is no way to know how dramatic a drop there could be in his effectiveness as early as next season. Injuries also become more likely as a player ages.

Chris Paul reacts to a call in the second half against the Chicago Bulls Feb 25, 2020; Chicago, Illinois
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The second flashing red light should be Paul’s contract. He has two years remaining on his deal (making the safe assumption he will not decline a $44 million player option for 2021-2022) that will pay him $85 million. While the Knicks have a lot of cap flexibility, a contract of that size would seriously eat into their 2021 cap space and might prevent them from having enough space to sign a max free agent.

The final thing to consider is cost. There’s an assumption being made out there by a lot of Knicks fans that Thunder general manager Sam Presti would be interested in trading Paul for what would amount to a salary dump. It’s extremely unlikely. Even with Paul’s exorbitant contract, the Thunder are not on pace to be a luxury tax team next season.

Salary cap space also isn’t something that the Thunder consider a premium commodity. With Paul not on the roster and the Thunder likely losing Danilo Gallinari in the offseason, they would be entering a full rebuild. Free agents would not consider the Thunder a free agency destination, making the creation of cap space a very low priority for the organization.

Unless the Knicks take a large portion of Paul’s contract into open cap space in any trade, the Thunder would also only get salary relief for one season, 2021-2022. The benefit of a salary dump for a player like Paul is very small, and the franchise is more likely to prefer keeping him on the roster and making playoff runs for two more seasons. The Thunder would never trade away future picks so a team would take him off their roster.

If the Knicks could acquire Paul for some combination of Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Bobby Portis and one of the Clippers or Mavericks picks or a player like Kevin Knox or Dennis Smith Jr., they should probably do it. The problem is that kind of trade is not going to move the needle for the Thunder.

The Thunder have already accumulated a staggering amount of draft capital in their Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades (they could own as many as 15 1st round picks in the next 7 years), setting them up perfectly for a potential rebuild. A team can never have enough future assets when their only way of acquiring stars is through the draft or via trade.

In any Paul trade, the Thunder are going to want more picks and young players to supplement their cache. Players like Dennis Smith and Kevin Knox are probably not going to move the needle for them given their struggles. The Thunder also might not value late first round picks given their huge stockpile of those types from the Rockets and Clippers.

They will probably require the Knicks to send them one of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson or one of the Knicks own first round picks with very limited protections in a trade for Paul. The Knicks are not in a position to trade one of their most valuable young players or future assets for a 35-year old point guard that will only move the needle for the franchise for two seasons.

The Knicks need to ask themselves what would come after Paul moves on. They would be short a good young player than they would have had before the trade. They might have made playoff runs for two seasons (not be true contenders), but they would also be selecting in the teens in the NBA Draft with little chance to acquire a transformational impact player in the draft. The team would be right back where it is today with fewer future assets to make winning sustainable over a long period of time.

The only way this doesn’t happen is if the team manages to keep a maximum salary spot open in the summer of 2021, and Paul improves the Knicks enough and plays at a high enough level that he can attract a true max level free agent to the team that summer. It would be the only gambit where a trade like this makes sense for long term success.

Knicks fans are desperate to win more games and be relevant. James Dolan probably is too. Leon Rose certainly wants to show his boss that he can turn the Knicks into winners. But Rose needs to resist the prize that relieves short-term pain but could prevent long-term sustained success. Chris Paul, depending on the price to acquire him, might be just that.

Follow John on Twitter (@Schmeelk) for everything on the Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can find John's podcast, "The Bank Shot," on WFAN.com, RADIO.COM and all your favorite podcast platforms.

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