By themselves, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are incredible talents capable of steering their teams into the playoffs. Together, they'd form an unstoppable duo, the start of a Big Three capable of challenging the Miami Heat's trio for supremacy in that category.
The prevailing assumption for a while now has been that Paul would re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, while Howard would either stay in L.A. with the Lakers or spurn the Purple and Gold to join forces with the Houston Rockets.
That certainly remains a possibility, but ESPN's Chris Broussard is throwing a wrench in that plan by reporting that the league's best point guard and center would like to play in the same uniform:
Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have been in consistent contact recently about the possibility of becoming teammates next season, according to league sources.
Paul and Howard will be the biggest free agents on the market this summer, and their desire is to play together, the sources said.
"They would love to play together if somebody can make it happen," one of the sources said.
Well, there are four teams that can make it happen, and they have varying levels of realism. Paul and Howard, much like most superstars in the NBA, aren't easy sells. The teams pursuing them must meet all of their criteria.
First, they have to be able to offer enough money to make it worth their while. If CP3 and D12 can't sign max contracts, fuhgeddaboudit.
Additionally, both stars would like to play in large markets that offer them the chance for immediate success, with the presence of one more All-Star-caliber standout on the roster who doesn't play either point guard or center.
The first criterion knocks out most of the teams in the NBA, and the second further trims the fat, eliminating squads like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
All in all, we're left with just four franchises that have at least a snowball's chance in hell of adding both Paul and Howard.
Let's break 'em down.
The Atlanta Hawks are the most obvious choice, both because they're mentioned in Broussard's report and because they have more money to play with than any other team in the NBA.
The Atlanta Hawks could make it happen. Atlanta, which is Howard's hometown, has the cap room to sign both players to maximum-salaried contracts.
Howard is not particularly fond of the idea of returning to Atlanta, but he would do so to team up with Paul, the sources said.
But Paul, despite recently being upset with the Clippers over the perception that he got coach Vinny Del Negro fired, is unlikely to leave Los Angeles, one source said. He has gotten over his anger with the club and likes living in Los Angeles.
"It would be very tough for him to go to Atlanta," the source said. "He loved Atlanta when they should have drafted him in '05 but not so much since then. But hey, everybody is an option at this point."
But hey, money talks. Almost always.
Atlanta has just over $18 million in guaranteed salaries going into the offseason, owing money to literally just Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins. Mike Scott and DeShawn Stevenson are both on non-guaranteed deals, and they'd push the expenditures up to $22 million.
The Hawks are the most likely team for them to join forces on, but even that scenario looks shaky. Take that as a pretty clear indication that Paul and Howard becoming teammates is little more than a pipe dream at this point.
Assuming it somehow worked out, it's tough to find a better opportunity than this one.
Horford is the perfect third man in a potential Big Three that involves CP3 and D12, as he plays great defense, crashes the boards and can spread the court as a pick-and-pop or kick-out option. He'd basically serve in the Chris Bosh role, except he'd do it more effectively and provide more size.
Plus, general manager Danny Ferry would have so few contracts handed out that he could shape the rest of the roster around the trio.
If the two studs can get over their aversion to Atlanta, this would be a terrific option.
The Houston Rockets already have nearly $55 million on the books (team options included), so at first glance, this seems like an impossible landing spot for the most dynamic duo since Batman and Robin.
However, if we've learned anything about the Rockets over the years, it's that Daryl Morey is capable of doing whatever it takes to land him some stars. I'm surprised we haven't started calling him "The Astronomer" yet.
The process Houston would need to go through in order to clear space for Howard and Paul is a long and complicated one, but it's one that does ultimately present this as a semi-realistic scenario. Let's take a look at what would need to happen:
- The Rockets would need to cut ties with all their non-guaranteed players and decline all the team options. This means ridding themselves of Francisco Garcia, Aaron Brooks, Tim Ohlbrecht, James Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Carlos Delfino.
- Houston would then have to trade Thomas Robinson to free up even more cap space. This would need to be done with a team that also has space, as the Rockets can only take on draft picks, not players, in return. Players all have salaries; draft picks do not.
- After that, the Rockets would need to trade either Jeremy Lin or Omer Asik. Either one is fine, but both would be unnecessary. Again, the trade must be completed with a cap-rich team so that Houston doesn't have to take on salary in return.
- Finally, Houston could sign Dwight and complete a sign-and-trade for Paul, giving up the draft picks it had acquired in the process. From there, the rest of the roster could be filled up with non-guaranteed contracts and mid-level exceptions.
This step-by-step process, which can be found here in more detailed form, gives the Rockets one heck of a team on paper.
Chris Paul, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard and either Omer Asik or Jeremy Lin would be a terrific quintet to build around, but I have my questions about how well Harden and CP3 could mesh. Both are ball-dominant guards, and this situation is different than the one the bearded shooting guard experienced with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Although this would be a terrific team regardless of how well CP3 and Harden fit together, that uncertainty pushes them just below the Hawks in the pecking order.
Los Angeles Clippers
Broussard doesn't beat around the bush in his report, and he makes it quite clear that Paul and Howard would prefer teaming up in L.A.:
The preference for both players would be to play together for the Clippers, according to the sources.
Teaming up on the Lakers would be absolutely impossible, because the Purple and Gold have so much money tied up that any sign-and-trade not including Kobe Bryant would push them well over the salary cap, luxury tax and apron. Therefore, the Clippers it is!
However, there are three major hurdles that management would need to clear in order to make this feasible.
The first involves the Lakers again.
How exactly are the Clippers going to convince Mitch Kupchak to not only trade Dwight within the Pacific division, but also to a team that shares the same home court? The Lakers will be hesitant enough to part ways with the big man, much less to the Clippers.
Secondly, the Clippers would have to put together a package worth sending in the Lakers' direction. It would likely include Eric Bledsoe and Blake Griffin, so general manager Gary Sacks would need to strip away the "untradeable" tag that currently dangles around the Oklahoma product's neck.
Finally, would Paul and Howard be motivated enough to play together without a true third star? L.A.'s financial situation prevents it from landing a third one, even once Griffin is off the books, and DeAndre Jordan doesn't exactly deserve mention in any Big Three.
The point guard and center would be playing together, just not with any other notable stars.
While this scenario sounds good in theory, it doesn't seem even remotely likely.
A final possibility is one that will make Mark Cuban grin from ear to ear.
Going into the offseason, the Dallas Mavericks have $43,040,610 million committed to eight players (player options included), including Dirk Nowitzki, who isn't going anywhere this summer. However, that number is a bit too high.
O.J. Mayo has a player option for $4.2 million, and it's highly unlikely he chooses to accept that salary, which means that we can realistically drop the Mavs' expenditures to $38.8 million. Dallas could also choose to waive Josh Akognon and Bernard James, both of whom have non-guaranteed deals, and that would push the total down further to $37 million.
According to salary-cap guru Larry Coon, the salary cap will be set at $58.5 million:
Confirming @ESPNSteinLine tweet -- league's projected cap/tax for 2013-14 is currently $58.5M & $71.6M. For 2014-15 it's $62.1M & $75.7M.— Larry Coon (@LarryCoon) June 3, 2013
That's good news for the Mavs, because it gives them the opportunity to sign Howard as a free agent and figure out a sign-and-trade deal for Paul. Howard's max contract, after all, will come in right at $20.5 million, and that pushes Dallas right up against the cap in this hypothetical situation.
From that point, Dallas would need to trade Shawn Marion to the Clippers, along with some draft picks as incentives, to avoid going over the apron (set at $4 million above the tax threshold) in a sign-and-trade. That also frees up enough space to fill up the roster with non-guaranteed contracts, as teams completing a sign-and-trade can't go over the apron for any reason, even to complete the 15-man roster.
Much like the Rockets, Dallas would need to get creative in order to make this happen, but it is a possibility.
If I were ranking these scenarios, it would be the third-most appealing, behind the Rockets and the Hawks. Dirk is on the decline, so the championship window would already be shutting before Paul and Howard even put on Mavs uniforms.
Ultimately, it remains unlikely that Paul and Howard will have the opportunity to team up. If they do decide that they're willing to sacrifice a bit, it could happen, but a sacrifice is necessary at each possible destination:
- Atlanta: They'd have to bite the bullet and go to a city in which neither particularly desires to play.
- Dallas: They'd need to sacrifice the time period in which they can realistically win a title alongside Dirk.
- Los Angeles: They'd have to accept not playing with a third star.
- Houston: Paul would need to acknowledge that he can't always control the ball.
None of the other 26 teams in the NBA make much sense, so we're left looking at these four. Any of them could happen, but it's not going to get any more definitive than that right now.
While B/R's Joel Cordes and I were discussing the possibility of Howard and Paul teaming up, he brought up the video you can see above.
Of all the options on YouTube, nothing is a more accurate description of how these four teams are feeling right now.
In their minds, even if there's nothing more than a minuscule possibility, that's still a chance.
Note: All contract information comes from Spotrac.com.