About eight months ago, the Hornets were reasonably convinced that Chris Paul intended to leave New Orleans when his contract was up. They could trade him before the season or they could roll the dice.
So rather than peel it away slowly and let the pain build, they ripped off the Band-Aid and got down to business. Despite a failed deal with the Lakers to make them more competitive in the short term, they imagined a quick rebuild fueled by young players and draft picks. Cap relief would be nice, but secondary.
They asked the Clippers for all five of Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman and Minnesota’s unprotected first round pick, and were able to pry all but Bledsoe. At the time, it was the only package that made sense — the rare combination of team in position to keep superstar long term having such a robust collection of assets to move — but negotiations went down as one might expect for a player of Paul’s caliber, and New Orleans’ haul reflected that.
In a similar situation with Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic took a different approach. After almost a year of deliberations, they elected to send Howard to the Lakers for a package that makes you wonder if even one single previously reported offer was actually ever made: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga and a handful of subprime picks. For Dwight Howard.
Days later it’s still difficult to accept that this is what you get for the best big man in the game.
Afflalo is a nice player on a good team, but this won’t be a good team, and he’ll be making a good deal of money. He’s certainly no Eric Gordon. If Orlando is attempting to follow “The Oklahoma City Model” — which involves being fantastically bad for many seasons and getting very lucky — that makes the best case scenario for Afflalo to be their version of Nick Collison. (Collison is a terrific player, but “cornerstone” in a Dwight Howard trade, he is not).
They got a few young players — most notably Philadelphia’s last two first rounders, Harkless and Vucevic — but none are premium prospects. They couldn’t even pull a draft pick with lottery potential, as all three of the first-rounders they got come from good teams and with heavy restrictions. Protected draft picks. For Dwight Howard.
Afflalo (26 years old) and Harrington (32) could combine to make $52 million over the next four years (although some of Harrington’s deal is only partially guaranteed), so even while trading away the contracts of Howard and Jason Richardson, the Magic actually managed to take on significant long-term salary.
It would seem that Orlando is just wholly committed to being bad. They have decided that not only will they finish in last place this season, but they will almost certainly be in last place two years from now, when they could still be paying Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis, Quentin Richardson, Afflalo, and Harrington upwards of $30 million. It’s as if to ensure sufficient tanking, they intentionally chose a deal that did not include even the possibility of the type of draft picks or young talent that might potentially accelerate their recovery.
It’s important to keep in mind that we are not privy to most of what is said privately within the Magic organization. As was rumored to be the case when Otis Smith was there, I’m sure new GM Rob Hennigan is getting a considerable share of direction from above. You do have to wonder, though, what kind of message could come from, say, CEO Alex Martins that would lead them to this deal? Because even if the goal is to be bad, you can still get back pieces that will help you down the road.
Maybe you decide that Andrew Bynum isn’t the way you want to go. He’ll be too good and you want those high picks. Then why not trade Howard to Houston for Toronto’s 2013 first rounder? Daryl Morey has 21 guys under contract, for crying out loud, most of them young and loaded with potential. Even if half of them are off limits, that’s one hell of a start to a rebuilding effort.
Just the sheer number of options at Orlando’s disposal makes the return seem so staggeringly light. Houston’s offer, whatever it ultimately was, would’ve made more sense. The Magic could’ve taken Andre Iguodala or Bynum (maybe even both), who each went elsewhere in the deal. Depending on how you feel about 24-year old Brook Lopez, the Nets’ offer (after January 15, when Lopez would be eligible to be traded) could’ve provided a better mix of players, picks and even salary relief. Who knows what Atlanta, Howard’s hometown team, was willing to surrender, knowing that by trading for him they’d be positioned to sign him this summer?
For one reason or another, maybe you decide that none of these packages is a fair return for Dwight Howard. Completely understandable. But here is where the Clippers come in. Immediately following the lockout last winter, Neil Olshey was working on getting Chris Paul. He knew what he needed and what he had, and he found a way to turn a collection of assets into a star.
In Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Jordan and Trey Thompkins, the Clippers have assets — perhaps all they lacked was someone to work the deal. Because unless you are insanely high on Moe Harkless, this group has superior potential to what the Magic received, it costs less, and is also in no danger of winning excessively in the short term. If you are looking ahead, it’s tough to argue with a 22-year old starting point guard of the future, a 23-year old starting center with room to grow, and a 22-year old future Ryan Anderson, with three first-round picks and no trace of Al Harrington.
But sometimes we forget just how complicated an NBA deal is. High-level transactions are made through a web of relationships that includes front office executives and star players, as well as their representatives, and is by no means equitable. The best general managers have a way of finessing a deal so that they always come out ahead, but there is also something to be said for just snagging a seat at the table.
When you see Olshey and Celtics assistant G.M. Mike Zarren sitting together at the Vegas summer league, it comes as no surprise when you hear that Boston and Portland had worked out a deal that day. But when you are the Clippers, and you have not bothered to replace your departed general manager, it’s tough to join the conversation.
So even if they had a better offer than the one Orlando accepted for Dwight Howard (they did), and even if their offer might’ve been competitive with any other Orlando received (depending on what they were looking for, it might’ve), they had no chance because…who was going to make the call?
Who was going to interface with Howard’s people to make him feel comfortable, even enthused, about the move? Who was going to engineer the multi-team deal that gets everyone what they want, while making sure all the salaries work out? And who was going to walk into Donald Sterling’s office to spell out the gory details of the luxury tax?
We’ll never know what would’ve happened had any qualified professional been given the authority to carry out the duties of Clippers G.M. this offseason. It could look very similar. But with Vinny Del Negro entering the last year of his deal as coach, Andy Roeser as Sterling’s longtime basketball liaison, and Gary Sacks as the at-will, de facto G.M. in waiting, they simply sat this one out.
And as Zach Lowe of SI.com’s Point Forward points out, the trade’s impact on the Clippers goes beyond missing out on Howard themselves.
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.)
Odds are that for various reasons — comfort, money, inertia, winning, shoes — Howard and Paul will remain with their respective teams. Neither has committed past this year, but because of a wrinkle in the new collective bargaining agreement, it doesn’t make sense for either player to sign an extension during the season. So in that sense, this trade changes very little.
But as Lowe suggests, the Lakers will have cap space in a couple of years, and more importantly, the best point guard and center in the game remain on track to hit free agency together after this season. Until they re-sign on the dotted lines, L.A. basketball fans will have to live with the knowledge that there will be teams with room for both, should they desire to play together. Dallas and Atlanta will be there, for starters. And as the Lakers (and Nuggets and Sixers) remind us, there will always be savvy organizations ready to make a play.
It’s the Clippers’ move.