The summer of 2010 was the first time most of us seriously considered the possibility of Chris Paul leaving New Orleans. The years leading to it -- starting with the rise of the team from Oklahoma City and building into the peak of the 2008 playoffs -- had been punctuated with the failures of 2009 and 2010, but for various reasons, both seasons seemed surmountable roadblocks, not permanent dead ends.
In a flurry, that whole paradigm fell apart. The Hornets' dire financial situation was leaked, a murky ownership situation arose, and the Miami Heat and eventually New York Knicks ushered in a new era of superteams. Suddenly, Chris Paul's departure went from a distant possibility to, depending on who was doing the reporting, an imminent likelihood. Trade "demand" isn't the right word for his rumored displeasure last summer, but the fact remains that his camp wanted it to be publicly known that if the Hornets didn't right the ship, he was ready to leap off of it. That it wasn't an outright ultimatum coupled with the fact that New Orleans still held strong leverage allowed us, as Hornets fans, to largely ignore the drama last year. The toast, Ken Berger's infamous "list," and the LRMRLOLRM transfer were merely reminders that some tough decisions lay in the future.
That future is, of course, now -- 6 months separates us from what could potentially be Chris Paul's final game as a Hornet. Last year, it made sense to ignore the process because it was a needless distraction. This season, with free agency unofficially opening today, it's something we have to discuss because the future of the franchise depends on the future of Chris Paul.
Let's start with the basics. Chris Paul has two years left on his current contract. The Hornets will pay him a prorated amount portion of his $16.3M deal for the 2011-2012 season. On July 1st, 2012, Paul can opt out of the 2012-2013 season (for which he'd be guaranteed $17.9M), and will, almost without a doubt, do so. And this, of course, is where the fun, or if you'd prefer a more negative, unprintable term here that's fine too, begins. Chris Paul faces a multitude of options to both exit and stay in New Orleans, beginning with the extend and trade.
The extend and trade was the tool Carmelo Anthony used to eventually force his way out of Denver and to New York. The problem is that the new CBA limits deals under extend-and-trades to three year maximums. So if a Knicks-Hornets trade were to happen now, Paul would only be guaranteed in New York through 2014; for a guy that's gone through what he has in terms of injuries, that's not a long time at all.
The sign and trade, which saw Chris Bosh and LeBron James arrive in Miami from Toronto and Cleveland, has also been tweaked. Sign and trade deals max out at four year contracts (six with the old CBA), with a cut in annual raise percentage. The combination of changes on the extend and trade and sign and trade laws means that the New York Knicks have nearly a zero percent chance of acquiring Chris Paul. The team has zero assets outside of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, so the Hornets shouldn't think twice about engaging them in trade talks; if Chris Paul were to opt out of his Hornets' 2012-2013 season and sign a new deal with the Knicks, he'd leave the $17.9M from next year on the table as well as an entire extra year that the Hornets can offer him (through owning his bird rights since he's been with the team for so long) that the Knicks cannot. Toss in the difference in annual raises the Hornets can offer, and Chris Paul would be giving away $40M to play with Anthony, Stoudemire, and, for lack of a better word, scrubs.
Reporters can talk all they want about how Chris Paul's first choice is the Knicks. The reality is that if Chris Paul tells the Hornets to trade him to the Knicks during the season or he's walking in the summer, Dell Demps and Co. can call his bluff with ease. And on top of that, they have zero incentive to negotiate with the Knicks at all. The CBA prevents Amar'e or Melo from restructuring their deals, so if you've had recurring nightmares of Paul playing out his days in Madison Square Garden, rest easy. The Knicks' trade for Anthony -- where they gave away literally every asset they had -- ensured that Paul couldn't ever become a Knick.
Of course, the Knicks aren't the only team chasing him. Boston has already reportedly offered Rajon Rondo for Paul and been denied. On the surface, Boston has very similar problems to New York, but they're also in a slightly better position. At the end of this season, both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen come off their books, and the team has just three players (Pierce, Rondo, Bradley) and $30M committed. The salary cap will stay the same next year by definition of the new CBA at $58. If the team can find a way to move Rondo this year, they could conceivably have $39M to split between Paul, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Assuming a max deal to Paul, that still leaves open the possibility of signing one of Allen and Garnett to another big deal, or working out lesser money to both guys for an opportunity to have a legitimate Big 4, at least for a couple seasons. And Chris Paul could also conceivably be traded there since the Celtics have a player asset in Rondo and expiring deals.
From Boston we next go to Los Angeles, and specifically, the bandwagon half. Of the three teams discussed already -- Knicks, Celtics, Lakers -- the Lakers are in far and away the worst cap position for 2012 summer; depending on whether they renounce Lamar Odom in the summer, they have between $80M and $85M already committed. Amnestying Metta World Peace could bring the figure into the low $70M, but unless they move guys like Gasol and Bynum for expiring deals during the 2011-2012 season and clear out the roster completely, there's simply no way Chris Paul signs there as a free agent.
The flip side of the Lakers' cap situation is, of course, the fact that the recipients of said cap space are also valuable assets. Odom's a skilled player that can also double as an expiring deal since his 2012-2013 contract isn't fully guaranteed. Andrew Bynum is one of the league's most skilled centers, injuries notwithstanding, and he's still only 23. Pau Gasol definitely has a couple All-Star caliber seasons left, and his is a basketball skillset that will age well. The point is that the Lakers definitely have pieces they can move for either Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, and as some have pointed out, it's actually possible they could get both. Well done, new CBA.
But before Lakers fans start celebrating, the Hornets' most likely trading partner is the team that plays in the same building. The Clippers have a bundle of assets - (a) a big expiring in Kaman, (b) Minnesota's unprotected 2012 draft pick in a very strong draft class, (c) Eric Gordon, whose combination of offensive efficiency and usage in 2010-2011 before turning 23 have been matched this decade by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Gilbert Arenas, and Tracy McGrady, and (d) extra pieces like Al-Farouq Aminu and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers are also reportedly on Chris Paul's wishlist, and while they would be able to afford him over the summer, they'd almost certainly do a midseason trade to ensure that he's paired with Blake Griffin.
Basically? If the Hornets have decided that they're moving Paul midseason full stop, the Clippers have to be the choice, among those four teams. Further contenders (with better assets) may eventually emerge, but among the teams expressing strong interest at the moment, the Clips are the pick.
Of course, this is all jumping the gun tremendously. The lockout hasn't even officially been lifted yet. And the real correct answer, at least in this corner, is none of the above. We don't know that Chris Paul wants to leave New Orleans, and it's not naive in the slightest to point out that he has genuine roots in the city. As lsuhornet17 has noted on more than one occasion, it's telling that Paul chose to swing his leg of the Homecoming Celebrity Game Tour (with LeBron, Melo, and Wade hosting in their hometowns of Akron, Brooklyn, and Chicago) through New Orleans and not North Carolina. And it's why, for now at least, the real answer for the Hornets should be this - power through the upcoming free agency, allow Dell Demps to put together the best possible roster he can with an eye towards long term growth and not just Paul's immediate future, play out the season, and see where the cards fall come June. Paul's presence on the team is a huge, huge selling point for potential new ownership as well, a point that can't be forgotten in all the commotion.
If Chris Paul has a healthy, productive year, the Hornets, as a team, will also have had a good year. At that point, the team can offer him significantly more money than any other franchise in the league. The Hornets will also get a good look at the health of his legs and a better evaluation of his future. As impressive as Paul's 2011 playoffs were, the regular season raised many difficult questions which a single (if incredibly elite) series simply cannot erase. If Paul does choose to pass on the Hornets' money in the summer, all power to him. The team gets him off the books and is afforded a fresh start with a GM who did a solid job in his first full season.
It's important not to give into the scary "but we could lose him for nothing!" line. The odds of getting equal value in a superstar trade in the NBA are next to zero, and unless a player with future superstar value is incoming (I'd consider Gordon borderline on this criterion; he could possibly be the second best 2-guard in the NBA behind Wade as early as next season) it's better to start from scratch than be caught in the middling good-but-not-great purgatory that afflicts so many teams.
It's also equally important not to write off Paul's chances of staying with the Hornets, as many national writers have already done. Indeed, Paul's theoretical "first choice" -- the New York Knicks -- is off the table entirely. Would Paul accept a trade to a team outside of the "big four" above? Are the Clippers, given their history, actually an option? There are far too many unanswered questions to definitively state that Paul should or should not be traded this season. Chris Paul playing out a full season may not only be a realistic option, it may just be the best one.