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If Paul wants out, he can't take LeBron or Melo route

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Chris Paul might find it difficult to team up with Melo in New York. (AP)  
Chris Paul might find it difficult to team up with Melo in New York. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- There they were all in a gym together, the three men whose actions largely precipitated the lockout, along with a sidekick who must deal with the consequences.

Chris Paul sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James Tuesday for a good cause: feeding about 800 families in a partnership of Anthony's charitable foundation and Feed the Children. On a rainy day at the Boys & Girls Club of Brooklyn, four of the biggest stars in basketball were back to talking about the game.

But it's so often not about the game when it comes to the superstars of the NBA, and so it will be with Paul over the next however many months it takes him to get where he wants to go. James made it to Miami with Wade, getting the maximum length, dollars, team and teammates he wanted. Anthony got out of Denver with the same max extension he would've gotten had he stayed there. Under the new collective bargaining agreement that has been tentatively agreed to and will be ratified in the coming weeks, neither is permitted.

This is where the tangled web woven by James, Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and Anthony in New York intersects with Paul and his desires to join Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire with the Knicks. The power and control that James and Anthony enjoyed are largely gone.

In other words, what happened in the old CBA stays in the old CBA.

"I try not to pay attention to all that stuff," Paul said, referring to the renewal of speculation about forming another Big Three in New York with Anthony and Stoudemire. "My heart is in New Orleans, and right now, the reason I'm here in New York, like Melo just said, is because of him."

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There is a way that this could happen again for real, with Paul not merely visiting Anthony but becoming his teammate. But given the restrictions the owners succeeded in placing on star player movement in this new system, it's far more likely that Anthony's presence with the Knicks will wind up being an obstacle in Paul's quest to get there.

The extend-and-trade arrangement that Anthony used to get to New York with a three-year, $65 million extension technically is still allowed -- but with an important hitch. Such deals can total only three years under the new rules, so with two years left, Paul would only be able to get one year added in an extend-and-trade to New York or anywhere else. Not happening.

Sign-and-trades also are allowed, but all such deals can only be four years in length with 4.5 percent annual raises. The star-friendly rules that got James and Bosh to Miami with six-year deals at max dollars are no longer there for Paul.

"I have no idea about that," Paul said. "The thing right now that I'm most focused on is getting all these boxes out of my house in North Carolina and getting everything shipped back to New Orleans so I can get ready for the season."

Not so fast. If anything, cutting off the sign-and-trade escape route may result in stars like Paul and Dwight Howard getting traded long before they become free agents. The Cavaliers, for example, knew that if all else failed, they could work with James to get him his max money while also getting assets in return. If Paul declines his player option on July 1, 2012, there would be no incentive for him to work with the Hornets on a sign-and-trade because he'd get the same money regardless of whether he left via trade or a straight free-agent signing.

And at that point, he already would've cost himself at least $26 million. A five-year deal with the Hornets in July 2012 would be worth $100 million over five years. A four-year deal with non-Bird raises with another team would be worth $74 million. (And by the way, Paul isn't extending with the Hornets, either. That route would get him four years and $79 million, and he would still, you know, be in New Orleans -- most likely, without David West.)

If Paul tried the same tactic as Anthony, telling his team that the Knicks are the only team he'd sign with, the Hornets could call his bluff. Even if the Knicks tore down the roster to just Anthony and Stoudemire, they'd only have $13.5 million of cap space to offer Paul in 2012-13 -- resulting in a four-year, $58 million deal under the new rules. So it would be in the Hornets' interests to urge Paul to determine if playing for the Knicks is worth a $42 million pay cut.

There is, however, a scenario where Paul and the Hornets could work together next July so that each accomplishes something. If Paul hit the free-agent market and really wanted to go to a team without cap room to sign him for close to the max, like the Knicks or Lakers, the only way he could get there would be via a sign-and-trade. The Hornets would be under no obligation to send him where he wanted to go, but keep in mind that no team would even engage such discussions without assurances that Paul wanted to be there.

That's a potentially unappealing scenario that the Hornets do not have to consider if they don't want to. And it's for these reasons and more that the best avenue for New Orleans may be to trade Paul long before July 1, 2012 arrives. This is only way under the new rules for the Hornets to maximize the assets they receive and for Paul to get a five-year max deal with a team other than New Orleans. It would go like this: 1) New Orleans trades him sometime between the day business reopens and the February trade deadline; 2) Paul opts out; and 3) and his new team signs him to a five-year $100 million deal after a six-month window forbidding such signings expires.

To satisfy the new six-month rule and allow his new team to sign Paul first, then use the mini mid-level, and actually have some decent options to fill out the roster with minimum deals, the trade would probably have to happen in January.

So yeah, Paul may not want to unpack those boxes once they arrive in New Orleans.

Even in this scenario, the Hornets would control, to a degree, where Paul wound up. New Orleans would be far more interested in dealing with the Clippers, who badly want Paul and have assets like Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Williams and/or Chris Kaman's expiring contract to offer, than the Knicks -- who traded the vast majority of their assets for Anthony. The Clippers also would have some leverage in that deal because A) they have Blake Griffin; and B) they have the cap room to sign Paul after the season. Given all we've learned about negotiation over the past five months, that would be an interesting one.

Paul was on the players' executive committee throughout the CBA negotiation, and while he didn't attend all the meetings, it must've become clear to him that his way out of New Orleans wasn't going to be paved with gold. In a cruel twist, the very path that he's trying to follow has been largely cut off because of the backlash against those who paved it.

"I was fortunate enough to be a part of the executive committee, to be in those meetings," Paul said. "But this deal is not about one person. It's not about me. It's not about any one of these guys. It's about a collective group."

It's also about a sport where the rules have changed and leverage has shifted. Despite the Mount Rushmore of basketball sitting in a Brooklyn gym Tuesday, the NBA is a place where they don't make star power like they used to.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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