Much was made of the recent Kendrick Perkins trade and what it has meant and will mean for the prospects of the Boston Celtics. Immediate media reaction pegged the move as reactionary and short-sighted, a panic move by Danny Ainge that unnecessarily compromised this year’s prospects for a Boston championship. Thankfully, many Boston-centric pundits threw cold water on the notion of Dealer Danny in any sort of reactionary or panicked posture. There is now a growing minority view that Ainge made a good trade – despite the team’s poor performance since – by leveraging this year’s depth at the center position for future assets. Some astute media members have speculated that Ainge is intent on retooling in the summer of 2012 by taking a run at Dwight Howard to pair with Rajon Rondo and possibly Jeff Green. I wholeheartedly endorse the view that Ainge is taking aim at Howard and will likely land him, but I suspect Rajon Rondo will not be around for the Howard signing. He will be traded for Chris Paul as a necessary precursor to a Howard signing.
A trade for Paul during the 2011/2012 season increases the comfort of a Howard signing for all parties. With his trades and free agent signings (as opposed to his drafting which tells a different story of home run upside and value) Ainge has demonstrated an appreciation of well-rounded versatile players who can play both ends of the floor and who have few holes in their games. As an isolated weakness in a player of his caliber, Howard’s weak free throw shooting can easily be overlooked by Ainge and coach Doc Rivers. However, when paired with Rajon Rondo’s equally deficient free throw shooting Howard’s primary weakness becomes magnified. One can easily picture the discomfort on Rivers’ face thinking of late-game postseason offensive possessions in which each of his two stars, his two primary ball handlers, could only be counted on to sink one of two free throws. Paul’s career free throw percentage of 85.4 offers a significant upgrade over Rondo’s 62.1 and would mitigate Howard’s weakness in late game situations. In many other ways Paul proves to be a much more complementary player to Howard than Rondo, as his lower turnover rate also helps compensate for another Howard weakness: turning the ball over. Throw in a true shooting percentage ten points higher than Rondo’s at 59.3%, a reliable jumper with three-point range (opening up the paint for Howard and improving team spacing), and a near or complete match of Rondo’s strengths in defense, steals, and rebounds and it becomes clear Paul is the ideal partner for Howard and would provide greater comfort to Ainge and Rivers. Assuming Howard makes it to free agency in 2012, these on court benefits will provide greater comfort to Howard who would no doubt be more receptive to a Chris Paul recruiting pitch than one from the mercurial Rajon Rondo.
Looking at the landscape and keeping an ear to the grapevine, a Rondo-for-Paul trade during the 2011-2012 season seems highly likely. By now, most casual NBA observers have heard of the famous toasts at Carmelo Anthony’s wedding last summer during which Paul professed a desire to team with Amare Stoudemire and Anthony in New York. While there is little doubt that Paul has sincere interest in this specific grouping, I maintain that the larger point is Paul’s desire to play on a potential winner, in a large market with an ownership group committed to winning, with complementary players of his age whom he knows and likes. If one assumes that Paul will be traded during the 2011/2012 season in similar circumstances as Anthony, and if one assumes that Paul and the Hornets will each employ some measure of leverage to dictate the destination, then Boston takes a rather logical lead in the running to land Paul.
Looking at possible trade partners (a) with whom Paul might sign an extension or agree to exercise his player option, (b) have the assets to appeal to New Orleans as a trade partner, and (c) have a need or desire to upgrade the point guard by trading for Paul, the informed observer recognizes a decided dearth of viable candidates. Isolating good, stable organizations in relatively large markets with good prospects for short-term and long-term success produces a relatively short list: The Lakers, the Clippers, the Bulls, the Magic, the Celtics, the Knicks, the Nets, and the Mavericks. I have included the Mavericks over the Spurs and Rockets by admittedly considering the very subjective and elusive cache associated with Mark Cuban’s franchise. Of these teams, two teams arguably don’t need Paul. The Bulls are Derek Rose’s team and will sit this one out. The Nets have a comparable point guard in Deron Williams with essentially the same contract: trading one for another does no good absent an extension agreement. Despite the emergence of young talent on the Clippers, franchise history and ownership reputation sabotage any chance of an elite player choosing to become a Clipper. Dallas’ aging core, many of whom are signed to long-term contracts, seems to discount the appeal of playing with Nowitzki or for Cuban.
If we believe that Paul would be open to playing for the Lakers, Magic, Knicks, or Celtics depending on specifics, then the race comes down to what assets each team can provide the Hornets and what that team is left with in order to convince Paul to sign long-term. The Lakers seem like a poor match. From a salary perspective, a trade of Gasol or Bynum for Paul works as does various combinations of Odom, Artest, Walton, and Fisher. Although Gasol and Bynum are great players, they do not seem to fit in New Orleans with Emeka Okafur signed for three years after this one. The Magic could trade various combinations involving Brandon Bass, J.J. Redick, and Jameer Nelson which might appeal to New Orleans. And we’ve already established the appeal of pairing Paul and Howard. But Paul might be reluctant to join a franchise with little ability to improve around the two superstars due to the constraining contracts of Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu, much as Lebron James saw the writing on Cleveland’s wall. So our trial pits New York versus Boston. How familiar.
It is difficult to imagine a truly compelling New York trade offer, unless the Hornets view Landry Fields as sufficient return for Chris Paul. From a salary perspective, the Knicks could offer Chauncey Billups and Landry Fields for Paul. This might appeal to the Hornets as it would free up payroll when Billups’ large contract expires at the end of the 2011/2012 season and provide a very affordable good young talent in Fields. However, the lack of a first-round draft pick in 2012 and 2014 prohibits the Knicks from including a pre-2016 first-round pick to sweeten the pot for New Orleans. If the Carmelo Anthony deal is indicative of what we can expect in a Chris Paul trade, then it will take more than an expiring contract and Landry Fields to pry Paul from the Hornets’ hands.
In contrast, the Celtics can offer a package centered on Rajon Rondo. Although Rondo is not Paul, he is an elite point guard on a very team-friendly long-term contract. If New Orleans is forced to trade Paul, the appeal of an elite player under team control for four years with an affordable contract cannot be overstated. As the Celtics current roster stands, the inclusion of someone like Jermaine O’Neal or a re-signed Jeff Green would balance the difference in salaries between the two point guards. Although many believe that Jeff Green is a big part of the Celtics future, I believe that if he is re-signed he will be viewed internally as a valuable asset/trade chip and would be included in a trade for Paul. A Rondo for Paul deal would seem to provide New Orleans with adequate return for Paul. If the bidding for Paul becomes particularly competitive, the Celtics have many additional assets to sweeten the pot as they hold an extra first-round pick in 2012 and additional second round picks in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. In short, the Celtics have the most appealing package to offer the Hornets.
From Paul’s standpoint, the appeal of joining the Celtics is obvious. Immediately, he would join a 2012 championship favorite by teaming with the talented and unselfish Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O’Neal. He would be playing for one of the most respected coaches in the league, a player’s coach who happens to have played the same position at a high level in the NBA. With a committed ownership group, an exceptional General Manager, and arguably the best fan base in the league there is much for Paul to like coming from a franchise like New Orleans. Paul’s chances of winning a championship next year are better if he moves to Boston than if he were to move to New York. Beyond that, the difference between franchises becomes potentially even more pronounced. Although the Knicks would provide Paul with two elite scorers in Stoudemire and Anthony, these two players are flawed defensively and share the same exceptional strength: a scoring proficiency that requires a high volume of shots. Therefore, the Knicks’ two best players cannibalize one another’s contributions rather than complement them. Even more to the point, with no first-round picks in 2012 and 2014 and without additional salary cap space to sign free agents, the Knicks ability to improve around its core three players seems suspect, a point not likely lost on Paul.
Beyond 2012 after a Rondo-Paul trade that included a Paul extension, the Celtics might have the ability to sign a max free agent (only Paul, Pierce, and Bradley would be under contract) depending on the new collective bargaining agreement and would have the Clippers first round pick as well as their own in what is expected to be a deep 2012 draft. There also exists the possibility of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett signing deeply discounted contracts – even the veteran minimum - to remain with the club beyond their current deals set to expire in 2012. In addition to the precedent of Shaq signing for the league minimum this year in order to play for Boston, Allen and Garnett have already signed below-market contracts in order to play with one another. If Chris Paul was confident he could lure an elite free agent…
Which brings us to Howard’s potential free agency. If Howard remains with Orlando through the season and Paul signs with Boston (not a huge leap of faith if we cynically conclude that Paul and Howard will coordinate to some extent like the Miami trio), then a Howard signing in Boston becomes all but guaranteed as they would be the only premier destination able to offer a max or near-max deal that would not require a sign-and-trade, unless New Jersey becomes a premier destination over the next twelve months. In Boston, a 26-year old Howard would join a 26-year old Paul, a 34-year old Pierce, two rookies chosen in the first round and some collection of veteran players on minimum contracts. With a young franchise cornerstone at the point and at center, Ainge would need to find a third young All-Star caliber player at the easier-to-fill shooting guard or forward positions. Armed with many extra draft picks and an elite coaching staff, it says here that Two-Head Red (Dealer Danny and Doc Rivers) – will continue Aurbach’s legacy by finding and developing a third elite player and winning multiple championships after 2012.