Bucks, CP3 got what they wanted

After the Milwaukee Bucks lost so handily to Miami in the second round of last season’s bubble playoffs, they assembled a list of players to pursue to flank Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton with a top-flight lead guard.

One of Milwaukee’s best options to create a true championship-worthy troika, seemingly, was Chris Paul.

The Bucks indeed considered a trade run at Paul for many of the same reasons that the Phoenix Suns ultimately did. Milwaukee was perceived to be far closer to title contention than Phoenix after posting the league’s best regular-season record in back-to-back seasons, but the Bucks had a clear need for Paul’s veteran know-how after bitter postseason disappointment.

Turns out that the Bucks, though, liked another Western Conference guard even better than Paul. One source familiar with Milwaukee’s thinking insists that constructing a trade with New Orleans to acquire Jrue Holiday was always their preferred scenario.

Perhaps that’s what you would expect to hear now, since the Bucks are committed to Holiday for the next four seasons at nearly $135 million and relying on Holiday so heavily to emerge from his recent shooting woes entering Saturday’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Paul-led Suns in Phoenix. Yet that stance does compute when you note how enthusiastically Holiday welcomed a trade to Milwaukee, as I detailed in this New York Times piece heading into the playoffs, and then factor in Paul’s well-chronicled determination to play on the West Coast for family reasons. The Bucks were naturally drawn to a player who wanted them … and Holiday’s arrival duly helped convince Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year contract extension worth $228 million.

As a reward for the professionalism and leadership Paul displayed throughout the 2019-20 season, in the wake of his trade exile from Houston in July 2019, Oklahoma City promised to work with him on re-routing him to a contender via trade after one season together. A swap with Milwaukee would have sent the Paul in the wrong direction and proved a short-lived possibility. The combination of the Suns’ proximity to his family in Los Angeles and the presence of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton as such promising sidekicks had Paul pushing to go to the desert.

Some eight months later, Holiday and Paul will match up Saturday night in the biggest game of the season to date, both desperate to rebound from a raggedy Game 4 since only one team can emerge with ultimate happiness next week.

Holiday is shooting 15 for 55 from the floor for the series if you exclude his excellent Game 3. Paul has numerous observers wondering if the damaged ligaments in his right hand or his taped-up left wrist are more significant injuries than he has let on after a wholly uncharacteristic 15 turnovers in the past three games against Holiday’s hounding defense.

Late in the regular season, chatter began to circulate that Paul might actually want to leave Phoenix after one season.

I didn’t really buy it then and I certainly can’t see it now after all of the Suns’ winning.

Paul, 36, has a mammoth $44.2 million player option for next season and will have to decide soon whether to exercise the option and negotiate a contract extension for two more seasons, or decline the option to test free agency. Yet it’s a serious struggle, either way, to imagine Paul playing anywhere else.

He meshes cozily with Booker, Ayton and Coach Monty Williams. Staying with the Suns would keep him close to home and keep him with an on-the-rise franchise. Paul is headed for some profound regret (and, presumably, heavy criticism) if Phoenix becomes just the fifth team in Finals history to lose the series after taking a 2-0 lead, but the goodwill he has amassed figures to soften that blow somewhat. At least locally.

Booker told my former Times colleague Malika Andrews in a recent television interview that he isn’t sure Suns management would have been motivated to trade for Paul if Phoenix hadn’t gone 8-0 in the Walt Disney World bubble to narrowly miss a playoff berth last season. That puts him on the same page as Williams, who told me earlier this season that the Suns’ Disney trip was a critical step in their evolution.

Phoenix is the first team in league history to advance to the Finals after a whopping 10 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs. A year ago at this time, Booker, Williams and Co. were settling into the Yacht Club hotel on the NBA campus with the second-worst record of the 22 teams that qualified for the league’s restart.

“I felt bad for the teams that didn’t get to go, because the more time we spent there, you could see our team growing,” Williams said, calling it “a huge blessing for us to just be able to be there.”

The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, like Paul, has to decide whether to exercise a pricey player option ($36 million) or head to free agency in August. Unlike Paul, Leonard must do so while facing long-term injury uncertainty after it was announced this week that he underwent surgery on a partially torn ACL in his right knee and is out indefinitely.

The most likely scenario, league sources say, remains Leonard opting out to re-sign with the Clippers — or, in Steve Ballmer’s worst nightmare, to shock the league by signing elsewhere. Leonard’s well-known affinity for Southern California has led various rival front offices to presume that he would have no interest in switching teams for the third time, but the notion that Leonard is unattainable seems to be waning a bit as the Aug. 2 start of free agency nears.

Dallas, just to name one expected suitor, will not be dissuaded from pursuing Leonard even if he’s forced to miss all of next season, league sources say. Leonard’s situation is frequently likened to Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2019 after Durant had sustained a torn Achilles tendon in the Finals. Brooklyn furnished Durant with a four-year, $164 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade with Golden State, with the Nets knowing they would have to play a whole season without him. Even at 30 and with a worrisome injury history, Leonard appears capable of generating similar interest.

At his introductory news conference Thursday, new Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison acknowledged being pursued by multiple teams in the past for a front-office role but electing to stay with Nike each time until Dallas made a run at him. Two of those teams to express interest, according to league sources: San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Spurs were high on Harrison’s potential as an executive and the Lakers knew him well after Harrison’s extensive work with the late Kobe Bryant. ... Said one admiring Western Conference assistant coach of Devin Booker’s play in the Finals: “His ambidextrous shooting and passing is remarkable. The passing with either hand is really underrated.” ... For those intrigued by agent machinations: After resigning from Dallas, Rick Carlisle hired Excel Sports to represent him in negotiations with Indiana. Led by Jeff Schwartz, Excel has also been the agency utilized for years by Jason Kidd, who replaced Carlisle as Mavericks coach.