The images were irresistible, too: Paul and Anthony, working hand in hand Tuesday at a Brooklyn Boys and Girls Club, four and a half miles from Madison Square Garden. A short time later, they would put on a basketball clinic for children. For added effect, and Dwyane Wade — co-conspirators in the Miami heist of 2010 — were there, too.
The scene unfolded in the context of a community service event, but it felt like an exercise in subliminal advertising.
Hours earlier, , the ’ star point guard, wanted to play for the Knicks. On Sunday, The Daily News — with some skillful photo manipulation — put Paul in a No. 3 Knicks jersey on its back page.
From the moment the , Paul’s future has been the N.B.A.’s top (speculative) story.
“I try not to pay attention to all of that different type stuff,” Paul said Tuesday at an event to distribute food to needy families. “My heart is in New Orleans. And right now, the reason I’m here in New York is like what Melo just said — it’s for him.”
Anthony asked. Paul came. If only N.B.A. transactions were so simple.
The Knicks are as far from acquiring Paul as they are from contending with the Heat.
Sixteen months ago, Amar’e Stoudemire signed with the Knicks and said he would lobby Anthony to join him. That same week, Paul, in a toast at Anthony’s wedding, playfully suggested forming their own Big 3, to match Miami’s.
In February, Anthony indeed arrived, in a controversial trade that cost the Knicks nearly every asset they had. Now Paul is reportedly trying to complete the picture, by employing the same script that Anthony used — back-room lobbying, well-placed rumors and the threat of free agency — while denying everything in public.
Paul can opt out of his contract next summer, putting pressure on the Hornets to deal him this season, or risk losing him without compensation. This was the formula that got Anthony to New York.
Except now the rules and the parameters have changed. Having sent four starters and multiple draft picks to Denver, the Knicks have nothing of value left to trade.
And the N.B.A. — largely in response to James and Anthony — has erected new barriers to superstar movement.
Under the new labor deal, elite players who change teams will have to accept less money and shorter contracts. In Paul’s case, if he wants an extend-and-trade deal (as Anthony did), he would be permitted only a one-year extension, for $18.7 million in 2013-14.
Compare that with Anthony, who received a three-year, $65 million bump on the day he became a Knick. That deal inspired N.B.A. owners to try banning extend-and-trades altogether before merely imposing new restrictions.
Paul could sign a richer extension with the Hornets — for two years and $38.6 million, taking him through 2014-15. But under the new rules, the Hornets would be prohibited from trading him for six months.
Similarly, if Paul is traded without an extension, he will have to wait six months to sign one with his new team.
Paul will be a free agent next summer, and the financial incentives for staying put would be even stronger. The Hornets could offer Paul a five-year deal worth $100 million. The Knicks could offer only four years and $74.3 million, based on the new rules.
Rarely have superstars left their teams for such a drastic pay cut. Nor could Paul benefit from a sign-and-trade deal. Under the new rules, a player who leaves via sign-and-trade can get only four years (instead of five) and 4.5 percent raises (instead of 7.5 percent).
Signing Paul as a free agent may not be viable, either.
The Knicks have $44.6 million committed for 2012-13, to five players, including the rookie Iman Shumpert and an option on Toney Douglas. That does not include any free-agent signings they might make next month. Assuming the cap remains about $58 million — as the league expects — the Knicks might have only $13 million to spend. Paul would be eligible for a deal starting at $17.4 million.
The Knicks could clear $5.2 million by declining Douglas’s option and letting Shumpert and Renaldo Balkman go for nothing. But that would leave them with three superstars and no teammates, no cap room and few draft picks.
So the trade route remains the preferred option. Except the Knicks have nothing to entice the Hornets, unless they are willing to trade Anthony or Stoudemire. Their next best player, Chauncey Billups, is 35. They have already traded first-round picks in 2012, 2014 and 2016 and under league rules must keep their picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Of course, the Hornets have no intention of trading their franchise cornerstone. If they do, they will easily find better offers from the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers or any number of other suitors.
The wedding toast was cute. The scene in Brooklyn on Tuesday was collegial. But Paul’s big dream is probably nothing more than a fantasy.