New York has been linked to a potential Chris Paul trade, something that screams Knicks management, but is it really the worst idea in the world?
After pursuing him in 2017, there are still some in the New York Knicks camp who believe bringing nine-time All-Star Chris Paul onto the roster would “jumpstart the franchise’s effort to build a winning culture [and] give these young players winning habits,” SNY’s Ian Begley reported in early May.
I think I can speak for the collective NBA fandom when I say we all reacted to that in the same way: with a big sigh followed by an “oh Knicks…”
The idea of the pairing is quite simple: the Knicks flamed out on signing big-name free agents this past summer (again), they have plenty of open cap space in the future and no bona fide star to sell hope (read: jerseys) to the fanbase.
Given our dearth of NBA content in the past months, we all lapped it up and took the opportunity to mock the Knicks.
But, upon further thought, it might not be the worst idea in the world. Here’s why:
CP3 is still good at basketball
When CP3 was sent to Oklahoma City in a trade that saw Russell Westbrook join the Houston Rockets, many people (myself included) thought it was the end for OKC and the start of a long rebuild.
With nothing to lose, the Thunder played fun, solid and competitive basketball, becoming one of the happier stories of the strangest NBA season.
Sitting in the fifth seed heading into the Orlando restart and every NBA nerd’s dark horse title candidate, the Thunder can thank the consistent play of their lead guard for their success.
CP3, at age 35, put up 17.7 points, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals per contest in just under 32 minutes per game and played in 63 of 64 possible games.
His usage was at its second-lowest mark since his rookie season, still in the 70th percentile among guards according to Cleaning the Glass, but he had to share the court with two nominal point guards this season in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis ‘The Patch’ Schröeder.
His on/off numbers, as per usual, are stunning, improving the Thunder by +13.7 points on offence when he was on the court and was just a hair above average on defence (+0.3) per Cleaning the Glass. His teammates shot much better than average across the board except for the corner three and OKC saw an uptick in efficiency in both the half-court and in transition.
Anyone with their head screwed on knows CP3 is an excellent player; he does boast the nickname ‘The Point God’ after all.
(Basketball reference also has the nickname ‘The Skate Instructor’ on his profile. Weird.)
But why the Knicks?
Development of young players
The Knicks are in a rebuild, or that’s what they’ll have you believe despite trading away the best young players to wear the blue and orange in recent memory.
Stable point guard play is one of the most critical elements to a team, whether they’re in rebuilding mode or title contention. The Athletic and Dunc’d On NBA Basketball’s Danny Leroux can often be quoted saying “one of the most important parts of a team is having capable point guard play for 48 minutes.”
The 2019–20 Knicks had a point guard rotation of Dennis Smith Jr, Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina. I actually like all three of those guys in a vacuum, but I’m not calling it “capable point guard play”.
The Knicks were 29th in offence and 22nd in defence this season per Cleaning the Glass and were dead last in points per play in the halfcourt. The transition numbers didn’t get much better as they were third-last but they didn’t have many transition opportunities last season.
Their shot chart is quite interesting, obviously playing up to their personnel, ranking fifth in attempts at the rim and dead last in three-point attempts.
It helps when Mitchell Robinson is likely to set the all-time, single-season record for field goal percentage. If Rudy Gobert doesn’t make 89 consecutive field goals in the bubble, Robinson would have officially passed Wilt Chamberlain’s 1972–73 record.
Their highest usage players, Julius Randle, Dennis Smith Jr, Elfrid Payton and rookie RJ Barrett are hardly entering a three-point contest anytime soon.
Enter Chris Paul.
With CP3 on the team, it’s a veteran lead guard throwing lobs to Robinson, not an inexperienced younger player. Apply that same logic to Randle pick-and-rolls (I’m still a Randle believer), RJ Barrett cutting off-ball or Wayne Ellington being able to fly around as he did in his last season with Miami.
Sprinkle in some young talent they’ll get with their high draft pick, (hopefully) signing some more shooters and this team is primed to roll the ball out there, run a capable offence and let the young players grow in a normal NBA environment.
He costs a lot
The main reason people push back on this trade is CP3’s hefty price tag. Being owed approximately $41 and $44 million for the two seasons after this one isn’t the most attractive deal.
Or is it?
The Knicks have tried and failed to sign the big-name free agents for the past few seasons and it was punctuated by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, two guys on New York’s 2019 shopping list, deciding to come to New York, but sign with the city’s younger brother in Brooklyn because the Nets just had it together.
Instead of looking at this with the mindset that it’ll cripple the Knicks’ cap space ambitions and their free agency goals, look at it as a block from them spending money on overpriced role players like Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris (Morris looks better as he was traded for positive value).
With almost half their cap space tied up in one player, it’d be pretty hard for them to go after the next big fish on the free-agent market like Giannis Antentekoumpo.
The Knicks would almost be forced into the mindset of: this is our big name on the roster, he may not be at a superstar level, but he’s closer to that level than any of our potential offseason signings and he is a guy who makes his teammates better.
But would it happen?
With his heavy price tag, Houston had to attach multiple first-round picks and pick swaps to move off Paul and his contract. This was partially a sweetener for taking on the contract and partially a way to pay for the ‘better’ player in Westbrook.
If you’re OKC and the Knicks want real assets alongside Paul to sweeten the pot, you turn it down immediately. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned why New York would want the point guard; reliable player, a good teammate and having no future cap aspirations, the same is true for OKC.
OKC general manager, Sam Presti is in no rush to rebuild and doesn’t need to get off this contract in a hurry. But if someone said I can take him off your hands for matching salary in the form of role players, he’d have to think about that.
Does OKC do that? If CP3 says he wants to play under his former agent in Leon Rose and be part of a big market rebuild, there’s probably some solid PR incentives in shipping Paul off.
Do the Knicks do it? It might end up being their best option.