How Does Howard to the Lakers Affect Chris Paul's Future?

Feb 26, 2012; Orlando, FL, USA; Eastern Conference center Dwight Howard (12) of the Orlando Magic is surrounded by Western Conference guard Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers (3) Brake Griffin (32) of the Los Angeles Clippers and Kevin Durant (35) of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the fourth quarter at the 2012 NBA All-Star Game at the Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

I was at a wedding when the Dwight Howard trade happened so I missed my chance to write about it right away. I had several immediate reactions to the news.

  • Orlando made an astoundingly bad trade, one that is very difficult to rationalize. Not only did they get far less than other teams who have dealt superstars recently, they got less than other offers they've apparently had in the very recent past. I put it this way to my cousin Tim at the wedding -- in a four team trade, when three of the teams get better, you know that the fourth team got a lot worse. It's a real head-scratcher.
  • That the Lakers were able to get Howard for Bynum and one protected pick in the very distant future is mind-numbing. Before the Steve Nash trade, the general thinking was that Bynum and three first rounders wasn't enough to get Howard. After the Nash trade, it seemed as if the Lakers were necessarily out of the running since they were out of assets. Once again, the Lakers fall into a massively one-sided deal, simply because they are willing to spend money. Amazing.
  • The bad news for the Clippers is that two conference rivals got better in the short term. Orlando obviously is the big loser in this trade, and Philadelphia incurs a double risk that (a) Andrew Bynum might not re-sign and (b) Andrew Bynum is Andrew Bynum and could implode in any number of ways. But there's really no way around the fact that Denver and the Lakers both got a lot better, which makes the Western Conference playoffs that much tougher than they already were.
  • The good news for the Clippers is that Chris Paul will almost certainly re-sign with the team and that this doesn't diminish the team's future potential much at all.

Now, there seem to be many who disagree with me on that good news item. Among several hand-wringing analyses of how this might affect CP3, the usually reliable Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated probably summed up the pessimist's position best:

Chris Paul, a free agent in 2013, now has to think really hard about whether the Clippers have the goods as a franchise to justify his continuing presence after next season - even if the Lakers might have this insane four-man core of Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash only through 2013-14. (Deals for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Bryant and 32-year-old Gasol expire after that season.)

Now, we can sit around and lament the superteam era and the corresponding mentality until the cows come home. The basic premise that a player at a certain level (like CP3) has to rethink everything based on not being on one of the very few most stacked teams in the league is a bit absurd right on its surface. It seems as if the new expectation is that all first team All NBA selections have to be on one team, and then the second teamers go on another team, and the rest of the league can just play for third, or something like that.

And by the way, what exactly is there to rethink? Paul already has a second team All NBA teammate in Blake Griffin, a guy who happens to be just 23 years old still. Exactly how many rosters in the NBA would even represent an upgrade for Paul versus remaining with the Clippers? Not many.

More importantly, assuming Howard will be a Laker for awhile (which seemed to be Lowe's assumption), how exactly would Paul get to one of those teams? It's not like the Heat or the Thunder or the Lakers will have cap space next summer when Paul will be a free agent. The Dwightmare scenario for the Clippers was that Howard would stay with Orlando this season, or wind up in a place where he had no long term future, and would therefore also be a free agent in 2013 along with Paul. Teams would have been trying to do what the Knicks and Bulls and Heat did and clear the space to sign both of them in that scenario, and Paul might actually have been tempted to pair up and start fresh somewhere, the best point guard in the NBA alongside the best center in the NBA. Instead, with Howard presumably a Laker next season and off the table, it seems to me Paul is much more likely to be a Clipper than he was before the trade.

It's not just that he doesn't really have anywhere to go. The reality of this trade is that it didn't really alter the Clippers reality significantly. Sure, it hurts their chances this season and next season, when they will likely come in second in the Pacific Division behind the Lakers and will have a second superteam along with the Thunder to battle in the Western Conference. But truthfully, that's really only an issue if the goal was to make it to the Conference Finals. If the goal is to win a title, then the Clippers time horizon was probably two or three seasons out, and that hasn't changed.

Griffin, as we've already pointed out, is just 23. Any projection of the Clippers winning it all involves significant ongoing improvement from Griffin, which can certainly continue for several more seasons. If the Clippers' intent is to re-sign Paul for five more seasons, does it not follow that the hope is that the team is at or near the top of the league for all five of those seasons? If indeed Paul does re-up for five seasons, he and Griffin would be synched up for those five seasons, culminating in the 2017-2018 season, when Paul will be 32 and Griffin will be 28. Meanwhile, the Lakers superteam has a shelf life of two seasons, after which Gasol and Bryant will be free agents and Nash will be 106 years old. Sure, Howard gives them yet another dominant center to build around going forward, but Howard couldn't win it all by himself in Orlando, and won't be that long until he's by himself in L.A.

There's one other thing to bear in mind about any gloomy predictions about Paul's future as a Clipper. If you take almost any other of the recent cases of superstars forcing trades -- Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves, Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets, Paul and the Hornets and of course the Dwightmare itself -- the warning bells were ringing at least a year ahead of free agency. In fact, Garnett, Paul and Howard were all traded before the start of their final contract seasons, and everyone believed that Carmelo would be as well. So there's one big problem with predicting the ChrisPaulcalypse -- it should already be happening, but it's not. Quite the opposite, Paul is taking every opportunity to say super-positive things about being a Clipper and to send the message that he intends to stay. Could it all go south between now and next summer? Of course it could -- Clipper fans remember the FElton debacle all too well -- but for the time being, Paul seems genuinely thrilled to be a Clipper and seems to want to remain with the team, in stark contrast to the hostage situations we've seen recently in Denver and New Orleans and Orlando.

The Clippers championship window, for all intents and purposes, isn't really open yet, and that has little to do with Howard joining the Lakers. The dual juggernauts in Miami and Oklahoma City are currently better than the Clippers, and while it's certainly nice to imagine hoisting a trophy next June, that seems unlikely as long as LeBron James and Kevin Durant are healthy and surrounded by so much talent. So having a supernova Lakers team, that is going to burn very brightly and fade very quickly, is not really on the Clippers' critical path to a championship.

For now the plan is for Griffin to improve, for Paul to re-sign, and to surround the two of them with additional talent. Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler et al may or may not be the right players around them, but those parts are easier to change. Assuming that improvement from Griffin is more or less a given, the next step in the big plan is to sign Paul -- and the trade of Dwight Howard to the Lakers makes that more likely, not less likely. So while the two year outlook may have gotten a little more menacing, the three to six year window is the one that really matters, and right now it's looking very good.

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