From Sugar Land to the Woodlands, it seems all of Houston is buzzing with the rumors that Dwight Howard is going to be the max-contract free agent the Rockets sign, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com.
But lost amid the hoopla are the available services of another transcendent talent: Chris Paul.
Would CP3 be a better fit for the Rockets than D12?
I've comprehensively discussed Howard and how he'd fit with the Rockets in another article. In this piece, I'll focus more on Paul.
There are important qualities CP3 would bring to this young and talented Rockets squad that Howard would not.
Paul is the league's foremost floor general. His on-court decisions are generally spot-on. He's a terrific distributor. He can create his own shot.
CP3's three-point shooting percentage was an adequate .328, and he's got arguably the best dribble-drive in the business, not to mention he negotiates his way through traffic like Steve McQueen in Bullit. Both are strong indications he'll fit in with the Rockets trey-or-rim shot selection strategy.
In addition, though he averaged 19.8 points per game this season, Paul took fewer shots than scoring point guards like Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams. This means that he has at least a fighting chance of meshing with ball-loving shooting guard James Harden. In fact, there's a chance that Harden would even relinquish ball-handling duties to a player of Paul's stature, or at worst, they could share the duties.
He's also an excellent short- and mid-range shooter, which would mesh well with the pick-and-rolls the Rockets like to run. It also means that on plays where defenses collapse on Harden, The Beard would feel very comfortable finding Paul for a jumper.
There's also his defense.
This NBA.com article, which celebrated Paul being voted to his third first-team All-Defensive squad, and fifth All-Defensive squad in total, sums up his prowess on the other side of the ball succinctly, saying:
Paul has vaulted into the upper echelon of guard defenders because as one Western Conference front office member said, “He has good instincts and quick hands, not just getting steals but deflections. He does a good job of avoiding screens and is just tenacious.
Paul’s instincts are probably his most prolific attribute. He is meticulous and studious, watching film for countless hours to pick up opponent tendencies and weaknesses. He reads screens and cutters, knows when to dig down on opposing big men to rip the ball free, and baits opposing point guards into bad decisions.
CP3's lightning-fast quickness and razor-sharp instincts helped him lead the league in steals for the third straight season.
Howard is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But even though Dwight was 16th in the league this past season in defensive rating, he missed being selected to an All-Defensive team for the first time since 2007. Further, he just didn't seem to have the same range or intensity on defense last year, sometimes even letting opponents' shots go unchallenged.
It may well have been due to his injury, but it's a concern for sure.
Back to Paul. I mentioned earlier how terrific a distributor he is. Paul averaged 13.9 assists per 48 minutes, good for second place among point guards this past season. His 4.26 assist-to-turnover ratio was tops in the league. Those totals will be more difficult to achieve in the Rockets offense because of Harden's penchant for wanting to facilitate, but talent will out, and Paul's skill at finding the open man or tossing the lob will be on display.
Who Paul will lob it to is a different question. Omer Asik does not yet have great hands. Their power forward position, which would right now be filled by the acquisition of Howard, is in flux, as the Rockets are looking to deal presumptive starter Thomas Robinson, last year's fifth overall pick, in order to make room for a max contract, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
Assuming T-Rob departs, that would leave Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Royce White—if the latter even makes the team next year. Jones has great leaping ability, but none of the three grabbed the position in a chokehold—nowhere near it.
Only a delusional fan would not admit Paul is a massive upgrade over the Rockets' current point guard, Jeremy Lin. Lin came in with sky-high expectations and put in a decidedly mortal season.
But Lin is a terrific clubhouse leader and role model. In addition, he showed progress in some areas this season and is known to work hard on his game in the offseason.
Further, he started the season coming off an injury and had to give up the lion's share of the facilitating responsibilities, limiting the most exciting part of Lin's game. Plus the point guard position is an area where many starters struggle in the early going, and this was in fact Lin's first full season.
So there are reasons to think Lin may be capable of more, even much more, than he exhibited this season.
Having said all that, Patrick Beverley, on a much smaller scale, did this year what Lin did last year—come out of nowhere to impress. First, he made the Rockets' unit for his first stint in the NBA since he was drafted in 2009. After that, he earned his spot by playing with maximum energy and surprising self-confidence, and displaying a nice shooting stroke.
Don't get me wrong: Beverley's season was no Linsanity, not by a long shot. And he has a tendency to play out of control. But he earned himself a lot of deserved notice from the Rockets' coaching staff.
If the Rockets choose to pursue Howard, this is a make-or-break season for Lin. If they instead go all-out for Paul, they'll almost certainly look to deal Lin, whose contract is big for his on-court performance, but who has marketing value beyond his play.
What about win shares? Well, if you believe in such a thing, there's no question Paul is the better choice. In both offensive and overall win shares, he was third in the league last year. Howard wasn't even in the top 20.
There's one final factor, as I see it: health. Howard and Paul were both injured last season, and Howard actually played in six more games than Paul.
But Howard's back surgery and shoulder injury were seemingly much more severe than Paul's knee and thumb injuries. And Paul's don't figure to be an ongoing problem. Howard's health in the future is much less sure.
OK, enough case-making. Who fits the Rockets better?
Going after Howard fills the immediate need the Rockets have at power forward, but gives them a cog in the wheel—an All-Star cog with massive talent, but a cog nonetheless.
Targeting Paul, however, means upsetting the infectious team chemistry built over a generally joyous 2012-13 season. It would, however, land them a player who can and will run and lead this team. He will make everybody on the court better. And he and Harden together would undoubtedly be the premier backcourt in the NBA by a long shot.
As marvelous a player as Paul is, personally, I prefer not upsetting the apple cart. In addition, though I believe Harden will make adjustments were Paul to become his teammate, there's no guarantee they will mesh together. The Rockets went through the same thing with Lin and Harden last year, and though as teammates they seem close and friendly, as a backcourt duo they've been less than was first hoped.
Howard is more of a risk, because of health, because of a questionable attitude he brings both on and off the court. But he also seems the more likely of the two to fit into the team. The arrival of Paul, on the other hand, while a reason for celebration, would also mean another overhaul of this team's offense, and one that wouldn't be guaranteed of success.
Further, even though Lin had a disappointing season, the Rockets have a far greater need for offense down low than they do at the point, and Lin's ceaseless effort and sparkling attitude have, I believe, earned him the right to man the floor for another season and see if he can become the point guard we all hoped he would be.
That means that, although I'd be thrilled with either superstar, were I Daryl Morey, I'd opt for Howard.
Speaking of which: Daryl, in case you read this, if you can find that last bit of cap room without getting rid of Thomas Robinson, please do it. I still say that guy is going to be top-10 at his position in a couple of years, especially if he gets to apprentice under Howard.