Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NBA Offseason Preview: Part III -- The Chris Paul and Dwight Howard Problem

Oh yay, we get to do this again...
This is Part III of my three part NBA Offseason Preview. In Part I, we examined the potential impact of the amnesty clause. In Part II, we looked at the free agent and ranked the bad contracts that will soon be given out. In Part III, we're going to break down the Chris Paul and Dwight Howard "hostage" situations, figuring out the best strategy for dealing with these types of situations and picking the best available deal for each team.

Just a few short weeks ago, NBA owners had the players union (what was left of it) by the throat. The league was resolute in what it wanted from the new CBA, and they were not willing to be denied. Of course, their resolution was greatly aided by the fact that the players had little to no leverage. As hard as it is for us to imagine how much money some of the players make, it’s unfathomable how deep the pockets are on some of these owners. Needless to say, the owners were far more able to withstand a lengthy standoff than a players association notorious for blowing their money on a lavish life of luxury.

With the lockout firmly in the rearview mirror, the natural order of things has once again taken hold. Basically, the shoe is on the other foot now. No matter what the owners want to think, the NBA is a player driven league and, apart from a labor dispute, the players have all the leverage.  Nobody pays money to see owners run a business; they pay money to see Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant put on a show.

In case you’re dubious of my claim that players have all the leverage, please see the below examples:

Kobe Bryant – Kobe was able to successfully force out Shaq and Phil Jackson in one fell swoop, as the Lakers brass proved willing to do anything to please their young superstar. A few years later, after Kobe once again escalated fear that he would bolt in free agency, the team went out and dealt for Pau Gasol, eventually upping its payroll to over $90mil.

Vince Carter – Vin-sanity might be the best proof of ultimate player leverage. Unhappy with his situation in Toronto, Carter decided that he would simply stop playing hard, eventually forcing a trade to the New Jersey Nets. If that’s not leverage, then I don’t know what is!

Lebron James – For seven seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers organization was tripping over themselves to please their young superstar. James told them who to pursue in free agency, and the Cavs obeyed. James told them who to target in trades, and the Cavs acquiesced. (A little off topic, but this is one of the main reasons I hold resentment towards Lebron for leaving Cleveland. You can’t complain about the mess if you made it.) After all this, Lebron displayed the absolute best use of player leverage – he left.

Carmelo Anthony – Pretty sure we all remember hearing daily updates about this one last year. It says a lot when a player under contract can force his way to the team of his choice with no consequences.

So yes, it’s pretty clear that the players have complete and total leverage in these types of dealings. Of course, this type of thing was supposed to be remedied in the new CBA. Suffice it to say, it was not.

Now, two franchises have a gun firmly planted against their head, and the odds of them getting out of it unscathed are slim at best. In looking back through basketball history, there are precious few examples of a team that has made out well in these types of situations. Superstars ARE the NBA. You can’t win without them. To have a player like Lebron James meant the world to Cleveland…to lose him meant the second worst record in the league. Even the Nuggets, whose trade haul was lauded league wide, are not necessarily in a great position going forward. None of the players they received are stars, and Wilson Chandler’s weird situation means they could be left with just Danilo Galinari and Andre Miller’s expiring contract. That’s really the best they could do?

These two franchises, of course, are the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic. One is about to lose the best point guard in the league, the other is about to lose the best center in the league. Needless to say, the prognosis is not good for either of them.

Getting back to the leverage thing, how exactly are these teams supposed to get fair returns for their respective players? Both Paul and Howard will be free agents after the season, so everyone in the league knows they MUST be dealt. Not only that, but the fact that BOTH players are on the market at the same time further reduces leverage. Regardless, making a deal of this magnitude is always tough. Teams simply don’t want to part with valuable assets, even if they’re receiving the best player at a given position. For example, the Clippers are balking at including Eric Gordon in a Chris Paul deal. Really? Do you really think you can land the best PG in the world without giving up anything? But therein lies the problem – the Clippers, and everyone else, know the Hornets are screwed. Why should they pay full price when they feel confident they can get Paul for .75cents on the dollar?

So, where do teams usually go wrong in this process? What mistake do they consistently make that hinders their ability to get a fair price and expedite the rebuilding process? Personally, I’m of the opinion that GM’s enter the process with an unrealistic sense of the market, an unrealistic sense of their situation, and an incorrect view of the rebuilding process.

For example: Did Toronto really think Chris Bosh was coming back? If Bryan Colangelo had taken the emotion out of the situation, accepted that Bosh was not going to be a part of the team’s future, and moved him when the market was able to provide an adequate return, the Raptors would be much further along in the rebuilding process. Instead, he foolishly chose to hold out hope for Bosh’s return, and missed an opportunity to add a valuable asset.

In lieu of giving you example after example, I’m going to lay down the guidelines for dealing with a situation like New Orleans’ and Orlando’s.

1 – Give up Hope

Dear New Orleans: Chris Paul is not re-signing.
Dear Orlando: Dwight Howard is not re-signing.

It sucks for those franchises that they’re going to lose their star player, but holding out hope for a “change of heart” is the worst thing you can do. They aren’t coming back. Time to move on.

2 – Losing is Good

 Here is where most teams go wrong in this process. Dealing Howard to the Lakers for Pau Gasol would obviously net them more wins than if they received a package of prospects and draft picks, but what does it do for them long term? If they couldn’t win with Howard, they certainly aren’t going to win with Gasol. Sure you might sneak into the playoffs two or three times, but you’re never going to contend for a championship until you land another Dwight Howard. And that’s really the point – in order to win in the NBA, you must have superstars. Unless you’re the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Heat, or Bulls; that means bottoming out. A deal for established veterans accomplishes nothing.

3 – Understand the Market

As much logical sense as the deal makes, the Oklahoma City Thunder are not dealing Russell Westbrook straight up for Chris Paul. Unfortunately, most teams expect to receive elite young talent in return for their guy. The Nuggets held out hope for that last season, but ended up with a pool of second tier young talent instead.

4 – Trade Now!

This is the only chance at any semblance of leverage for New Orleans and Orlando. There are over a dozen teams with cap space right now, and a bunch of them have shown interest. While only a limited number of those teams are true possibilities, the fact is that the largest pool of able suitors is right now. Within a few weeks, most of that cap space will be gone, several teams will have moved on to new plans, and the pool of prospective trade partners will be slim. Not only that, but waiting into the season also undermines tenet #1. The Magic are certainly going to win more games with Dwight Howard! He should have been the MVP last season! Waiting until midseason guarantees a lesser haul and sets the rebuilding process back an entire season. Not a good idea.

Now that we’ve established how both teams should approach the process, we can take an educated guess on what each team should do. I’ll list the contenders, and rank them from the worst deal to the best deal.

Chris Paul

Suitors:  Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks

#5  New York Knicks – Let’s just get this out of the way now…the Knicks don’t have a prayer. Chris Paul reportedly understands that they don’t have enough assets to deal, so thankfully this one can be put to bed. Unless, of course, you think Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, and a 2nd round pick is a “haul.”

#4  Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers are picking up steam lately, but it seems like the rumors are all hot air. Dealing Paul and spare parts for some combination of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum just isn’t a good deal for the Hornets. It gives them no young assets (and no, a constantly injured Bynum doesn’t count), no good draft picks, and no chance to bottom out. Sounds like the Hornets are not so wild about this prospect, and I don’t blame them.

#3  Boston Celtics – Believe me, I’d love for the Rondo and Jeff Green for Chris Paul deal to get done, but it makes little sense for New Orleans. Rondo is an undeniably talented young player (with a friendly contract), but there’s a reason I want this deal to happen. In his sophomore year at Kentucky, Rondo displayed a disturbing “quit when things are going bad” attitude that has me in abject fear. What happens when the Big Three are not good anymore? What happens when it’s on Rondo to lead the team? What happens when we go through some tough times? I love Rondo more than anyone else has a right to love someone, but I feel very strongly that he isn’t a franchise player. He’s a front runner, pure and simple. Unless they can get a third team involved to flip Rondo for better assets, I’d stay away if I were them.

#2  Golden State Warriors – Rumors have surfaced that New Orleans is inquiring about Stephen Curry, and I wholeheartedly support that type of deal. Curry is the type of young building block they should be seeking. Unfortunately, Golden State is understandably concerned that Paul will not sign an extension, meaning they would have shipped off one of the best young guards for nothing. Still, I would pursue this if I were New Orleans. Don’t get greedy, just try to get what you can and be done with it. An offer of Paul for Curry, Biedrins, and a draft pick would have to be very enticing for Golden State, and may force them to roll the dice on Paul’s contract situation. That would leave the Hornets with a great young piece, a future draft pick, the ability to amnesty Biedrins and clear $9mil in cap space, and at least one horrendous losing season to ensure a high draft pick. Winner all around.

#1  Los Angeles Clippers – If I were the Hornets, I’d be on the phone with LA four times a day, begging them to make a deal. As I said, the best way to build a winner in the NBA is to acquire high draft picks. Since the Clippers own Minnesota’s unprotected first rounder, this is where the jackpot is at. The Clippers are currently balking at any offers including Eric Gordon, and New Orleans needs to understand they’re not getting both Gordon AND the pick. (By the way, getting both Gordon and the pick would easily be best case. Unrealistic, but awesome.) Nevertheless, the Clippers have several desirable pieces. Here is what the Hornets should ask for:

Eric Bledsoe
Al-Farouq Aminu
Minnesota’s unprotected 1st round pick

You can fill in the gaps with various contracts like Chris Kaman, Jarrett Jack, and Trevor Ariza…just make sure you get THAT group of guys. It’s the only package that gives you a real opportunity at building a contender. With that package, here is how things could look:

Minnesota, who is bad, ends up with a top five pick.
New Orleans, who is bad, ends up with a top five pick.

Two top five picks in the strongest draft since 2003? Yeah, I’ll take that. Throw in the fact that both Bledsoe and Aminu could be tremendous players in a few seasons, and you have the makings of something special. What if one of those picks ends up being #1? What if you end up with Anthony Davis and Harrison Barnes? Or Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes? Or Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? (You get the idea…)

To summarize: The Clippers package gives you four chances at a superstar. You can’t do better than that.

Considering how good that package is, I’d make it my #1 target if I were Orlando as well. Unfortunately for them, it currently appears as if the Clippers are far more interested in Chris Paul than Dwight Howard. This leaves the Magic in a bind.

Dwight Howard

Suitors:  New Jersey, Golden State, Chicago, Los Angeles Lakers

A Dwight Howard deal becomes difficult because the list of suitors is going to be far more restrictive. There are several teams that could theoretically offer attractive packages, including both Indiana and Cleveland, but its highly doubtful that Howard would want to play in those markets. Therefore, we’re left to sift through what remains.

#4  Los Angeles Lakers – Again, I don’t see the value in acquiring Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. Orlando would be stuck in NBA purgatory with those guys, and that’s the worst place to be.

#3  New Jersey – The Nets have reportedly offered Brook Lopez and a bunch of first round picks, including Houston’s lottery protected first rounder. Really though, what value are first round picks if they’re all outside of the lottery? The success rate of those players is so poor and Orlando would be foolish to consider that as a legitimate fix.

#2  Chicago – The Bulls have reportedly jumped into the fray, with talks that any three players (not including Rose) are in play. I must admit, the thought of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, and Charlotte’s protected first rounder (unprotected in 2016) is intriguing. Noah and Gibson would form a nice frontcourt for the future, while Deng could potentially net them a young asset in the trade market. In fact, they might still be bad enough to bottom out! File this one away under “Maybe.”

#1  Golden State – The offer certainly trumps everyone else’s, as Stephen Curry is the best young building block being mentioned in these talks. The real question is, would Dwight want to play in Golden State? I’m kinda doubting it…

As you can see, Orlando is up against it in this process. The market isn’t giving them much, and Dwight’s insistence on playing in a “preferred destination” is killing their leverage. Gone are potential hauls of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and a draft pick. Gone is a potential package of Tristan Thompson and a future #1. Instead, the Magic are left to sift through some soft deals that don’t leave them in a very good place.

Regardless of what happens, both the Hornets and Magic will be losers in this process. If they choose to drag this out into the season, the fans will be as well.  

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