The 2011-12 NBA league year officially began on Friday after both sides ratified the new collective bargaining agreement. Training camps opened and teams became able to sign free-agents, setting the stage for a flurry of activity from now until the first set of games on Christmas Day.
The two most talked about players so far have been the Hornets’ Chris Paul and the Magic’s Dwight Howard. You already know why: they’re both the best player at their position, and both have an opt-out clause after this season that they are almost certain to execute if they’re not traded. Here’s a look at what’s been talked about with each player—and what the best case scenario would be for all parties involved.
News broke Thursday night that Paul would be traded to the Lakers in a three way deal, with Pau Gasol going to the Rockets and Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and the Knicks’ 2012 first-rounder going to the Hornets. Shortly thereafter, David Stern blocked the trade for “basketball reasons.” As of now, it’s unclear what exactly will happen to Paul, but one thing is apparent: he doesn’t want to play for New Orleans.
Looking at the above deal, there’s really no reason for Stern to block the trade. New Orleans is probably making out the best in that trade, while the Lakers are arguably getting the short end of the stick. The Hornets only have one option with Paul, and that’s to trade him this season. Because they’re owned by the league, GM Dell Demps isn’t going to be able to throw around money luring free agents and making a concerted push for a title in order to make Paul stay. Instead, it makes sense for them to get something back in return since Paul will be leaving anyway. Landing a #1 pick, as well as Martin, Scola and Odom, three legitimate NBA starters to pair with Emeka Okafor (and possibly David West, if they re-sign him)? That’s a very, very good haul. And while a team with that nucleus won’t contend for a title, if they can add one marquee free agent (a possibility depending on their new owner), that’s a quality basketball team.
Houston does okay in this deal; they get Gasol, one of the league’s top big men (if you ignore the second half of last season) and gain some cap flexibility. The Lakers, though, are probably hurt by the deal, even though they’re getting the best player in the trade. Paul would be a good fit for LA and new coach Mike Brown, but giving up Odom AND Gasol turns their frontcourt, formerly the league’s strongest, into an area of concern. If they could have said yes to a deal that landed them Paul and allowed them to keep Gasol, they would have been set moving forward. That’s Paul’s best-case scenario—he’s playing for one of the league’s top teams with a quality big man—and the best-case scenario for the Lakers (because they get a new superstar to build around for the foreseeable future). However, this isn’t the scenario that’s being discussed. The proposed trade, as it stands, hurts LA for two main reasons:
-They turn their biggest strength into a weakness. Among Dean Oliver’s Four Factors (the four most important components to winning basketball games: shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free throws), the Lakers were best at offensive rebounding, ranking fifth in the league in that category, as well as placing fifth in offensive rebounding percentage. Between the two of them, Gasol and Odom pulled in 5.4 offensive boards per game, while the rest of the Lakers combined for just 6.7. Replacing those two with Chris Paul doesn’t exactly offset that production.
-Paul and Andrew Bynum, the two players who will be relied upon to lead the transition to the post-Kobe era, both have legitimate injury concerns. Paul missed 37 games in 2009-10 with a torn meniscus, and his regular season numbers have suffered because of it, dropping consistently across the board in 2009-10, and again in 2010-11. Paul was fantastic in last year’s playoffs, but those performances also showed that Paul’s injury may have caused him to become tentative in the regular season. Still, Paul is in a lot better shape than Bynum, who’s missed an average of 27 games per season since entering the league in 2005. More troubling is that Bynum is only 24 and plays a physical position—he only figures to get more banged up as his career goes on. And without Gasol or Odom to help him out anymore, he’d be counted on to play more than the 24 minutes per game that he’s averaged throughout his career. If you’re the Lakers, do you really want these guys as your top two in a brutally compressed 2011-12 season?
The only silver lining I can see for Lakers fans is that, by acquiring Paul, the Lakers may be able to become more competitive in the future. Their current core group is aging, and after last year’s playoff flameout, it’s unclear if they have another run in them. However, the Lakers have always been able to lure free agents, and the presence of Paul, coupled with Jerry Buss’s deep pockets, would make LA an extremely attractive free-agent destination. It’s still not a great trade for the Lakers at the moment, but Paul is a better fit for them than his other suitors (the Knicks don’t need a point guard and Paul doesn’t want to play for Boston), and he’d be a natural choice as the Next Great Laker.
Earlier this summer, the two trades that seemed likely to happen were Paul to the Knicks and Howard to the Lakers. Now it seems that neither of them will end up going through. That’s a good thing, because the best situation would actually have been the opposite: Paul going to the Lakers to replace the aging Derek Fisher and Howard to the Knicks to give them a dominating inside presence that actually plays defense. I’m sure the Knicks would have loved to get Howard, but with Howard apparently looking to join Deron Williams and the Nets, they agreed with Tyson Chandler, who like Howard is a defensive-minded center. Though he is playoff-proven after last year’s Finals run, Howard is better than Chandler in almost every category, including age (Chandler is 29, Howard turned 26 on Thursday). Even with Howard, I’m still not fully convinced the Knicks would have been a title contender. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony have a combined 14 playoff appearances, yet none of their teams have ever reached the Finals. Chandler will help the Knicks’ biggest concern—interior defense—but until Stoudemire and Anthony prove to be more than just scorers, the Knicks won’t do anything in the playoffs.
So what to make of Howard? His situation is actually pretty similar to the one LeBron faced in 2010. He plays for a quality team and even led them to a Finals appearance, but they never managed to find quite the right pieces, so now he wants out. Going to New Jersey/Brooklyn to play with Deron Williams (one of the league’s top three point guards) and a free-spending owner is fine for Howard, but the Magic won’t get anything close to what the Hornets would get for Paul (the Nets reportedly offered Brook Lopez and a couple first-round picks). But what is the best-case scenario for Howard? That’s dependent on what happens with Paul.
You know how I mentioned LA has a history of luring top free agents? Well they also have a history of Hall of Fame centers, from George Mikan (then with Minneapolis, but still) to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal. Is it really that much of a stretch to think that the Lakers could land Paul AND Howard (assuming Orlando doesn’t trade him and he signs as a free agent next summer)? Forget the Nets; that’s Howard’s best option. He goes to a marquee franchise, with the league’s top point guard feeding him alley-oops. The league is trending towards superteams—why hasn’t this option been discussed in more detail? If I’m Howard, there’s no way I’m asking for a trade anywhere until I see how the Paul situation plays out. Paul’s clearly going somewhere; it makes the most sense for Howard to wait to see where that domino falls before making a decision.