Report: Chris Paul signing with Spurs 'legitimate concern' for Clippers

Chris Paul can exercise an early termination option in his contract this summer, forgoing the final year of the five-year maximum-salaried pact he signed to stick with the Los Angeles Clippers in the summer of 2013 so that he can re-enter the unrestricted free-agent market. It’s long been rumored and reported that, if he were to do so, the future Hall of Fame point guard was a near certainty to re-up with the Clips on a new five-year max deal that would pay him nearly as twice as much as the last one to carry him through his mid-30s.

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But “near” isn’t “total,” and after another disappointing first-round playoff exit for Paul’s Clippers — albeit, once again, with mitigating circumstances — some NBA analysts and observers have wondered whether CP3 might seek a new home that might increase his chances of moving past the second round of the postseason for the first time in his career. A new home like, oh, I don’t know, the perennially title-contending San Antonio Spurs, perhaps?

“There’s been a lot of rumblings about [a marriage between the Spurs and] Chris Paul, and I think that’s real,” ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe said during Tuesday’s episode of his podcast, “The Lowe Post.” “I think there’s mutual interest there. I don’t know how real it is, given the Clippers can offer a gigantic amount of money and are also a really good team, and the Spurs, like I said, have no sort of cap flexibility to get there. I’m very curious about what they do this summer and who’s on the team next year.”

Those rumblings got even louder on Friday, when ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the Spurs “are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run” at CP3, and that the Clippers “regard the threat of San Antonio signing away Paul as a legitimate concern.”

The depth San Antonio would have to sacrifice to afford a top-dollar offer for Paul undeniably poses a challenge to Spurs management. But the prospect of adding Paul to the frontcourt duo of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge could potentially create a star trio that closes the gap on the Golden State Warriors, who capitalized on an ankle injury Leonard aggravated in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and went on to complete a 4-0 series sweep of Gregg Popovich and his 61-win team.

The Clippers are widely regarded as strong favorites to retain both Paul and fellow free agent-to-be Blake Griffin when they hit the open market July 1, given their financial advantages over competing teams in trying to sign them. But the Clippers’ nagging inability to dodge injuries and reach the conference finals even once in Paul’s five seasons there has given interested suitors such as San Antonio hope that he will strongly consider external interest.

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As detailed by Bobby Marks of The Vertical, deciding how far to extend themselves with Paul — and fellow star Blake Griffin, who also holds an ETO for next season, and who is also expected to exercise it to sign a new and much more lucrative contract — lies at the heart of the Clippers’ immediate and long-term plans:

Re-signing starters Paul, Griffin, Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute would cost a combined $85 million annually in cap hits, which is possible but financially irresponsible.

The Clippers should focus on Paul and Griffin.

Paul will be 32 years old and getting a $200 million-plus contract, and Griffin has been oft-injured the past few seasons, failing to stay healthy in the playoffs the past two years.

But they are integral if the Clippers want to stay competitive and if they lost both players they would only have $18 million to replace them.

While it might cause Clippers owner Steve Ballmer a bit of indigestion to shell out such major coin to bring back his top two stars, it seems likely it’d pain Paul even more to pass in pursuit of greener pastures. Remember: Paul’s the president of the National Basketball Players Association, the head of the union who fought for the adjustment of mechanism in the collective bargaining agreement that dictated whether or not players were able to earn max money as they reached a certain age. From The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

The NBA’s 36-and-over rule that prohibits players from signing a five-year maximum contract if their 36th birthday falls during the life of the deal has changed to a 38-and-under rule, league sources said. Several members of the union’s executive committee, including president Chris Paul, vice president LeBron James and executive committee member Carmelo Anthony could benefit financially from the rule. Under this change, Paul, a perennial All-Star, is eligible for a five-year, $207 million deal to stay with Los Angeles this summer.

The most a non-Clippers suitor could offer Paul in free agency this summer? Four years and $152 million.

That’s certainly not chump change, and the take-home difference drops drastically when you account for the disparities in income tax rate (13.3 percent for the top tax bracket in California, a flat 0 percent in Texas) and cost of living (health care, transportation, utilities, groceries and housing all cost between 13 percent and 65 percent less in San Antonio than they do in L.A., according to the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index. Even so, though: is Paul really going to pull up stakes after pushing for the adjustment of the over-36 rule, and knowing that it might be significantly tougher to lock in a $40-plus million payday to make up any lost potential salary in the first year of a new contract at age 36 when the 2021-22 season tips off?

Chris Paul sizes up Kawhi Leonard, and considers his option. (Getty Images)

Complicating matters even further: even if Paul does want to link up with Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard in Texas, the Spurs would have to move heaven and earth to make it happen. From Jesus Gomez of Spurs blog Pounding the Rock:

Let’s assume the Spurs are ready to renounce their rights to [point guard and free-agent-to-be Patty] Mills, in order to clear his cap hold, and the exceptions, to go below the cap. [Restricted-free-agent-to-be Jonathon] Simmons’ cap hold is small, but they would need all the cap room they could get, so let’s say they renounce him too. That leaves San Antonio with $93,751,709 in salary. They need to get that number down to around $68 million to accommodate Paul’s $34 million max, so they would have to salary dump and waive-and-stretch players in order to get there.

Leonard is obviously untouchable. Moving Aldridge without getting anything back is just not smart. In a vacuum, [injured incumbent point guard Tony] Parker would be a perfect candidate to either be traded or stretched, but there’s too much history for that to happen, unless the Spurs assume he’s done with basketball after his injury. So far, there’s no indication of that.

That leaves [center Pau] Gasol and Danny Green as potential targets to shed salary. If the Spurs manage to somehow dump both — not easy at all — they would get close to their goal, as they would have $69.185.439 in committed salary. Move [reserve forward Kyle] Anderson as well or get Paul to take a little less than the max and they are there.

The problem is they would have only six players under contract: Aldridge, Leonard, Paul, Parker, Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans. The only tools to add more pieces would be the room exception, worth $4.3 million, and minimum contracts. It would be really hard to fill the two open slots in the starting lineup with quality players and the Spurs would have no depth. It’s hard to see that team contend, so Paul would have no motivation to join it.

That’s an awful lot of maneuvering for Spurs general manager R.C. Buford to pull off before July 1, all for the right to import a 32-year-old point guard with an injury history who’s never played in the conference finals. And yet, you’d imagine Buford would gladly jump through whatever hoops he’d need to, because, as the great Tom Ziller of SB Nation wrote this week, “he’s Chris [expletive] Paul!”

Is there a more Popovichian point guard than Chris Paul? Is there a coach as exacting and CP3ian as Gregg Popovich?

The knock on Chris Paul is that he wears on his teammates for demanding so much, for paying such close attention to every detail and expecting everyone else to do the same. The knock on Gregg Popovich is … exactly the same. He rides his players and expects them to limit mistakes and execute the game plan on every possession.

The bitter dismay Popovich has for an out-of-shape Boris Diaw or an out-of-control Patty Mills is the same exactly disapproval Chris Paul gives to a DeAndre Jordan turnover or a J.J. Redick missed assignment. They both expect so much because they are each so capable of so much.

Put them together with an inexhaustible and deferential superstar like Kawhi Leonard and you have straight-up magic.

It’s no sure thing that such a “magic” combination, supported by a reserve corps compiled out of unproven youth and minimum-salaried helpers, would be sufficient to end the Golden State Warriors’ three-year run atop the Western Conference. But if CP3’s really considering a change rather than just looking for leverage to ensure that the Clips pony up every last dollar (and maybe a no-trade clause and a trade kicker, a la Carmelo Anthony) on his new deal, and if the Spurs really are intrigued enough by the prospect of adding one of the greatest point guards of all time to undertake a massive reconstruction project over the next five weeks, it’s sure as hell an interesting possibility to consider as we wait to see how Warriors-Cavs Round III shakes out.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!