Chris Paul will begin his 17th NBA training camp in late September with the same crater of a hole in his résumé that, as recently as two Fridays ago, he appeared on the brink of filling.
A championship has eluded Paul again, even after his Phoenix Suns seized a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals over the Milwaukee Bucks, and the immediate fear, with his 37th birthday looming next May, is that he might never have a better chance to win it all.
Yet he achieved so much in his first season in Phoenix, before the Finals collapse, that Paul has other teams out there looking for their own CP3. At the top of that list: New Orleans.
I reported earlier this week that the Pelicans are expected to join the bidding for free agent-to-be Kyle Lowry, even though the other teams mentioned most often as Lowry suitors (such as Miami, New York and Philadelphia) are regarded as more viable destinations. With free agency still about 10 days away, it’s unclear whether the Pelicans can move the contracts they would need to move to be able to present Lowry with a representative offer, whether that’s Eric Bledsoe’s or Steven Adams’ deal or both — or if they can assemble a sign-and-trade package that would interest the Toronto Raptors.
The motivation for pursuing Lowry, by contrast, is crystal clear. The Pelicans really need to make the playoffs in Zion Williamson's third season, amid the mounting pressure they face to quell the young superstar's reported discontent in the wake of a turbulent first two seasons in New Orleans.
Trying to import Lowry's veteran know-how, to support former Phoenix assistant Willie Green as Green takes over for Stan Van Gundy as the Pelicans’ new head coach, would be a move directly inspired by the Suns' Paul blueprint. It’s equally true that the Pelicans are due for a signing or trade that lands the key difference-maker in New Orleans after the last two blockbuster deals they took part in helped the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis) and Bucks (Jrue Holiday) win championships.
As noted in last week’s maiden Tuesday newsletter extravaganza, severe salary-cap constraints will make it extremely challenging for the Lakers to acquire the secondary creator they covet to allow LeBron James to lighten his playmaking load (at least somewhat) and enable James and Anthony Davis to play more power forward and center.
Yet I still see the Lakers as the most realistic threat to derailing the Suns' hopes of re-signing Paul, no matter how hard it is to pinpoint a pathway for them to acquire him because of the cap complexities. The reasoning: We know Paul would want to play again in Los Angeles, where his family still resides during the season, and also that he would want to play alongside James. The fact that Magic Johnson was tweeting about Paul-to-the-Lakers scenarios minutes after the Finals were over certainly won’t dissuade conspiracy theorists from believing that the Lakers are, at a minimum, exploring the options here.
Don’t forget, furthermore, that it was the Suns' proximity to Los Angeles, as much as the roster Phoenix had, that convinced Paul to push for a trade from Oklahoma City to Phoenix last November. Location is of massive importance to him.
The Lakers can’t offer Paul anything remotely close to the $44.2 million player option he holds for next season without a sign-and-trade — and I imagine that the Suns would find it even more unpalatable to help them if Paul and Phoenix go their separate ways than they did years ago in the Steve Nash sign-and-trade. Yet it's even harder to imagine Paul wanting to relocate to the opposite coast to join the Knicks, regardless of how close he is to Knicks president of basketball operations Leon Rose, his former agent.
A related aside: Seemingly daily discussion about the Lakers’ interest in various veteran guards not named Dennis Schröder increasingly suggest that the Schröder’s future is elsewhere.
It wasn't his most egregious act of the series — that would probably be the shove to Antetokounmpo's midsection as Giannis was finishing off Holiday's exquisite lob for a clinching dunk at the end of Game 5 — but I'm surprised more wasn't made of Paul walking off the floor after Game 6 without shaking any of the Bucks' hands.
Crushing as the defeat was, Paul isn't just the Suns' on-court leader but also president of the Players Association. Highly disappointing decorum.
Update: After this piece posted, I received an email Friday afternoon from reader Steve Hoenstine pointing to a thread on Reddit that showed Paul congratulating Khris Middleton, Holiday and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer before leaving the court ... which makes my characterization too harsh.
My good friend Chad Ford has the Substack exclusively devoted to the NBA Draft, which I urge you to check out immediately. But I can't file TWIB notes this close to next Thursday's draft without at least one draft tidbit. So here goes:
Golden State has indeed signaled a willingness to trade the 7th and 14th overall picks, league sources say, but the Warriors are said to be trying to construct a deal that brings back "a star." Star translates to Washington's Bradley Beal or Portland's Damian Lillard — neither of whom figures to be available for a trade package in which, irrespective of how many draft assets are attached, Andrew Wiggins is the standout veteran.
The hiring of a developmental specialist in Kenny Atkinson to join the Warriors' coaching staff could signal that they want to be ready in case no megadeal materializes and they will be moving forward with James Wiseman, Golden State's No. 2 overall pick in 2020.
How close were the Bucks to losing in the second round to Brooklyn? Milwaukee co-owner Marc Lasry told me recently that, as a courtside spectator, he thought Kevin Durant's shot late in Game 7 regulation in Brooklyn was a 3-pointer until his son Alex, who is running for the Senate in 2022, told him Durant's foot was on the line. Durant’s dagger would have won the game for the Nets, rather than merely forced overtime, had he been able to plant both feet behind the arc.
That said, by the time they lost the first two games of the Finals in Phoenix, Bucks players (and officials) had been steeled by the various bouts of tension they grappled with throughout the season. Among them was the two-week wait in December for Antetokounmpo to sign his five-year, $228 million contract extension, which didn’t happen immediately after he had returned from a short vacation in Greece for the start of training camp.
”I think we felt we had a really close relationship with Giannis on the ownership side, and our GM [Jon Horst] is also close to Giannis,” Marc Lasry said. “I think Giannis cares about one thing, and that's winning. We felt pretty confident that if we showed him we were going to spend the money and build a team around him that he would stay. Doesn’t mean you weren’t nervous about it.”
Giannis just became the fourth NBA Finals MVP born outside of the United States, joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki. Since Nowitzki was the most recent before Giannis, I planned to reach out to the German for his reaction after Milwaukee closed Phoenix out on Tuesday night — only to learn that, because of Nowitzki’s new role as a special advisor to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, he is precluded from publicly commenting on another team's player thanks to league tampering rules. … New Magic coach Jamahl Mosley made a run at bringing Mavericks player development coach God Shammgod with him to Orlando, but Shammgod — whose ballhandling exploits earned him a signature shoe from Puma even though he retired as a player in 2009 — is expected to stay with Dallas. … In a piece I wrote for The New York Times just before the playoffs began, Milwaukee’s Holiday referred to his wife Lauren, formerly a standout midfielder for the U.S. national women’s soccer team, as “literally the athlete and the winner in our family.” The Holidays’ combined trophy haul now includes an NBA championship to go with Lauren’s two Olympic gold medals and the 2015 Women’s World Cup.