There are a choice few topics that have dominated conversation about the Los Angeles Lakers since Kobe Bryant and his bumbling band of basketball vagabonds stumbled to a four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs:
What went wrong, and who's to blame?
Who will replace Phil Jackson as the next coach of the Lakers?
And how will general manager Mitch Kupchak retool the roster, if he in fact chooses to do so?
That last bit of chatter has led to rampant speculation that the Lakers have targeted or will go after just about every superstar set to hit the free agent market in 2012, with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul as the most prominent and intriguing names of the bunch.
Now, there's certainly plenty of reason for haters and fans alike to balk at the prospect of "Superman" or CP3 in a Purple and Gold uniform next season; after all, the current roster is still pretty darn good and could very well contend for another NBA title given some slight adjustments on the fringes.
That being said, these are the Lakers we're talking about here, a franchise with a long history of making a big splash or two in the off-season and an aging superstar with only a year or two of high-level basketball left in him, if that.
And with an unusually long off-season in store, especially with the prospect of a league-wide lockout to start out the 2011-12 season, now is as good a time as ever to speculate as to which franchise player—Dwight Howard or Chris Paul—is a bigger "need" for the Lakers.
Positionally speaking, the obvious choice here is Chris Paul. The Lakers haven't had an elite-level point guard since Magic Johnson (unless you count Nick Van Exel as "elite") and were helpless to stop just about anyone at the position this past season, with Paul, Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea being the most recent culprits to expose LA's porous perimeter defense.
And, frankly speaking, the Lakers' current stable of lead guards, namely Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, just isn't cutting it. Fisher will be 37 when the 2011-12 season starts and Blake just looked lost during his first year in a Lakers jersey. All in all, the two combined to average 10.8 points and 4.9 assists per game for LA.
Chris Paul, on the other hand, trumped their production on his own, scoring 15.9 points and delivering 9.8 assists per game for the resurgent Hornets.
Paul is also headed into the final year of his contract for a franchise that is currently league-owned and will likely lose power forward David West to free agency after watching him sit on the sidelines with a season-ending knee injury from late March on.
Ever since giving his infamous toast at Carmelo Anthony's wedding this past summer, CP3 has been rumored as a shoe-in to team up with 'Melo and Amar'e Stoudemire on the New York Knicks once his deal is up.
However, the opportunity to play in LA with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol on an instant title contender would have to be at least somewhat appealing to Paul, at least if the ring truly is the thing for arguably the best point guard in the game.
The Lakers would likely have to make some significant concessions from their roster to get Paul, beginning with Andrew Bynum and possibly roping in Lamar Odom and/or Shannon Brown in any potential deal, though the return—an established superstar just entering his prime–would be well worth it for a franchise without an heir apparent to pick up where Kobe will soon leave off.
Of course, giving up Andrew Bynum would leave a humongous hole in the middle for the Lakers who by now know all too well that playing Pau Gasol as a pivot is a serious detriment to the team's defense, if not the offense as well.
Seeing as how LA would probably have to part with Bynum in any trade for an All-NBA-caliber player, why not simply trade upside and a few years of youth for the best center the league has to offer in Dwight Howard?
At 25 years of age, Howard is only two years older than Bynum and has proven over the course of his career to be a much more durable and reliable player than the Lakers' current center. The five-time All-Star and three-time league Defensive Player of the Year has also seen an uptick in his offensive production to better match his monstrous play on the boards, thanks to some diligent work on his game during the past few off-seasons.
As such, the Lakers, should they choose to swap Bynum and about half of the rest of their roster for Howard, would receive in return a young post player who is already a dominant force in the NBA and only figures to get better.
It just so happens that this summer will mark 15 years since Shaquille O'Neal ditched Orlando for the bright lights of Los Angeles and came away with three rings to show for it.
It also just so happens that Howard as already been rumored to have expressed a desire to play in LA, for a franchise with a long and storied history of top-flight big men, from George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq.
And, as would be the case of the Lakers were to land Chris Paul, they would then have in the employ an eminently talented and well-liked player to be the face of the franchise for the better part of the next decade.
When all is said and done, do the Lakers really need to make a big splash this summer? Panicky fans would say yes, but, really, if LA stood pat, they'd still have one of the better rosters in the NBA, with more than enough talent and experience to win another title next year.
Kobe himself even said so during his exit interview this week.
Then again, Kobe also characterized the 2010-11 season as "a wasted year of my life."
Which, in basketball terms, is a life that will be done with work on the hardwood sooner than later, making it incumbent upon Mitch Kupchak and his fleet of front office wiz kids to figure out something to get this team back on track next season.
Certainly, adding Chris Paul or Dwight Howard wouldn't hurt.
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