Chris Paul speculation gains life, will Houston Rockets pursue?

Ken Berger:

When Paul was quoted a few weeks ago as saying he’d be open to a trade if the Hornets aren’t committed to building a championship team, it was only a small hint as to the size of the chasm that exists between the franchise and its cornerstone player. Paul, in fact, has put into motion an aggressive exit strategy that will accelerate in the coming weeks, and his clear intention is to be traded before the start of the 2010-11 season, a person with direct knowledge of his plans told Wednesday.

Update at 7:15PM on Sunday afternoon

To begin, many apologies for my truancy.  I needed to take care of some design changes but was not expecting the league’s best point guard to hit the market during my hiatus.  We have much to discuss.

We’ll work our way through the matter, from top to bottom, in sort of an inverted pyramid manner, touching on the broadest issues first.  No other logical means by which to proceed.

To begin, could the Rockets even make an offer if they wanted?  Paul has allegedly narrowed his choices down to a select few teams, the Rockets not being among them.  Yet he has two years remaining on his deal, thus not having the same leverage usually present in these sorts of situations (when the star player announces he just won’t re-sign with that particular team.)  On the other hand, as we’ve seen in the past, Paul could just refuse to report and kill the deal, an outside-the-rules reality in the post-generation-X NBA.  So could the Rockets even enter the bidding?  I don’t know.  (For those of you wondering why stars aren’t tripping over themselves to relocate to the Bayou City, take off the homer glasses – I’ll touch on this later.)

Moving on, should the Rockets make a pitch, knowing they run the risk of losing Paul altogether when his contract expires?  Absolutely.  From top to bottom, this team has pieces which fit perfectly and in a complementary manner, giving the Rockets hope for the playoffs.  For a player the caliber of Paul, that all goes out the window.

There’s a strong case to be made that the player of whom we are speaking has been the best point guard in basketball since Magic Johnson.  This is a legitimate top-5 talent, in the prime of his career.  Getting Chris Paul immediately enters you in the discussion for championships, so long as you can build a supporting cast, which Daryl Morey can.  It’s these elite level talents which are so rare to find, and if you can acquire one, you do it, the system be damned.

What would it take?  For starters, you’ll have to take back Emeka Okafor.  The deal would require, at the least, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill, and picks (with the larger contracts of any combination of Battier, Jeffries, and Ariza to make the numbers match.)  Frankly speaking, you’ll have to give up a king’s ransom.

Do the Rockets have a chance?  It all depends on Paul.  If he won’t agree to come, it’s a moot point.  If he signed off on a deal, I don’t see a team out there that can offer the Hornets a better package.

Would the Rockets pursue a deal?  I think so.  Daryl Morey has spoken at length of the need to acquire an elite level talent.  He’s been saving for this moment for the last two years and now would be that chance to break the proverbial piggy bank and make “his” move.

While Okafor owns the most flagrant contract currently in basketball, this is a player with considerable on-court worth; we’re not talking about Eddy Curry.  He can anchor a defense and keep Yao fresh, platooning with Scola to give the Rockets an impressive big-man trio.

A lineup of Paul, Martin, Yao, and Scola, with Lowry, Okafor, and whichever of Ariza/Budinger wasn’t dealt could contend now.

More importantly, and this is just me speculating, I wonder if there could be stipulations in the new collective bargaining agreement which would allow for a team to more easily retain its talent (ie: greater disparity between maximum annual raises, a franchise tag etc.)  Were that the case, I’d bet Morey would be more than willing to gamble on Paul, liking his chances to re-sign him in two summers.

Update: Couple of thoughts this morning while I drink my coffee.  First, unless the Hornets have deluded expectations for their season, it makes little sense for them to deal Paul before February.  One might argue that not acquiescing to his demands would make him a cancer, but the Hornets weren’t going anywhere this year anyways.  They’re better off just holding onto him and hoping he changes his mind with time.  They also can’t afford the losses they would take at the gates if dealing Paul so early.

On the other hand, one could argue that perhaps if they were overwhelmed by someone’s offer, say the Rockets’, and feared it would not again be available (ie: the Rockets would use some of those parts to trade for someone else if turned down now), they would deal Paul now.

When seeing Dallas mentioned among the list of preferences, two thoughts immediately came to mind:

1) how stupid do the Mavs feel now for prematurely trading their best chip in the partially guaranteed contract of Dampier?  That contract was so attractive because, unlike Battier and Jeffries, an acquiring team could gain instant savings.  In the case of normal expiring contracts, teams prefer to wait until the deadline so as to only need to pay a half-season’s worth of deadweight salary.  Dampier would have given the Mavs an edge there.  For those of you earlier expressing frustration with Morey for standing pat after striking out on Bosh, let this be a lesson.  Patience is a virtue.

2) The first report mentioned only Orlando, New York, and LA, with LA sort of the default ‘desirable destination,’ leaving me to worry that these trade demands were exclusively born from a desire for a ‘SuperFriends 2.0′ union.  That the Mavs and Blazers are on Paul’s list means it could just be about going to a good team, giving the Rockets some small glimmer of hope.

To those of you wondering why the Rockets are never mentioned on these lists, it’s not exactly rocket science.  For one, while we here all feel optimistic about their future with Morey at the helm, the team hasn’t exactly enjoyed much playoff success in recent history – what reason would an objective outsider have to feel that same optimism?  More importantly, if you’re muscling your way out of town, it’s doubtful you’d be tripping over yourself to come to a team whose best player might not ever play.  Again, we’re all optimistic about Yao’s surgery, but why would any of these players be?  All they know is that this guy has been injured for most of his career – why would anyone hitch their wagon to that?  That’s just how it goes.

So it comes as no surprise that the Rockets aren’t on Paul’s wish list.  We just have to hope that he’d deem it an acceptable destination.  Hey, that’s at least something.

Final thought for now is on Okafor who actually has me excited as a potential acquisition.  This normally shouldn’t be the case, but if you’re over the luxury tax, it’s better to be far over then just barely, assuming your owner is willing to allow it.  I won’t dig into the Synergy stats until there’s some indication Houston could have interest, but Emeka is defensively elite.  He could anchor the middle and help the team restore some of what its lost of its defensive identity.

He would also allow you to play Budinger and Martin in tandem on the wings as they wouldn’t be so vulnerable with someone behind them.  A perimeter trio of Budinger, Martin, and Paul would be frighteningly explosive with the former two certain to see looks they never knew existed.

Update: I find it mind-blowing that there are actually people out there who don’t think the Rockets should pursue Paul.  Unless clouded by some delusion of where the team stands, I have to ask who exactly you’re waiting on – Lebron James and Kevin Durant just inked new deals.

Chris Paul puts you in the conversation.  That’s all you need.  Right now, the Houston Rockets are not in the conversation and there’s no telling when they might be ever again.  If you have Chris Paul, you can start to talk about rings.  Would they be the favorites?  No way.  If trading for Paul, there would be just as good a chance this year as getting the 2 seed as there would be of not securing home-court.  But with a year of gaining familiarity and  revamping the cupboard, you’re right there.

This is the deal Morey has been waiting for since he took over.  For all the media talk on awaiting that one big blockbuster from Morey, this is it.  There has not been a guy on the market like this since Morey took over and there likely won’t be ever again, at least not while the Rockets have the goods to strike a deal.  I think some of us take these situations for granted considering it was just 5 years ago that we nabbed a player of similar stature.  Chris Pauls don’t change teams at age 25.  We just saw Lebron leave and he did it on his own – you can nab Paul while he doesn’t have a choice.

As great as McGrady was in ’04, CP3 is more dominant and that’s scary.  He doesn’t have the same question marks and would instantly bring leadership.  He puts you in the conversation.  Right now, with a team approach, the Rockets have to hope everything is clicking come playoff time to even have a chance.  With a player like Paul, one who can win a series by himself, you gain that much more room for error.  When you can pencil in 25 and 10 (assists) for the series per game, you no longer need everyone else to play flawlessly to win a round, you now just hope a few others step up to win two or more.  And you’re in the conversation.

Update 10:26AM:  Jonathan Feigen:

The Rockets’ chances to get Paul, should the Hornets decide they can make the best of his dissatisfaction by dealing him, do not look good.

They can put together an attractive package, with enough expiring contracts, young talent and picks to make a deal workable and attractive, with maybe enough money included to take a bad contract (Emeka Okafor, come on down) off the Hornets hands. But the best player the Rockets could offer, Aaron Brooks, plays the same position as Paul, the same position as similarly swift and slight young point guard Darren Collison.

I’ve seen this argument posed many times in making the case against our chances, but this doesn’t make much sense.  The Hornets don’t have to keep Brooks – they can arrange a deal to ship him elsewhere or do it at a later date the following summer.  If you’re not a contender, the key in trades is to extract maximum value not positional need.

Both surprising and interesting that Feigen cited that as the prime case against our chances when our biggest hurdle is actually the fact that Paul could just refuse to report and kill a deal.

Update at 8:14PM on Friday night: A reader, Zenmonkeys, writes:

I don’t like the trend that this would be encouraging. It sets a bad precedent to let players demand the terms of their own trades. When you sign a contract, you give up the freedom that comes with being a free agent in exchange for job security in the event that your market value decreases. Now players want the best of both, the ability to move at will and guaranteed money.

I’m glad someone brought this up because I’ve been meaning to address it – I completely agree.  You all know that I had no problem, or even fully supported, Lebron’s decision to bolt.  He was a free agent, had paid his due, and was within his rights.

But this? With still two years left on his deal, what Chris Paul is trying to do….this is just deplorable and flat-out bad for the game.

Having said that…you all know me.  I’ve never been one to let my moral compass guide my thought process in basketball matters.  (Perhaps I should be embarrassed about that but I’ve never claimed to have good character.)  If the Rockets can benefit from a situation I find detestable, I’m all for it.  (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but that’s really how I stand on this.)  This shouldn’t be happening, we can’t let this happen, make sure it never happens again, but damn if it’s going to happen, let’s get in on it…

On that note, I’m pretty confused by the media coverage of this whole thing.  By the constant trumpeting of Paul’s “wish list” and its particulars, you almost get the sense that only those teams actually have a shot and the Hornets are really going to actually bend over for this guy and acquiesce to his wishes.

Wait a minute.

That’s not really going to happen, right? It seems like he’s just given off the vibe that he won’t report anywhere else because I really can’t believe New Orleans is actually considering those packages from New York and Orlando.

I should mention I’m waiting for the report to break that the Blazers have turned down a Hornets offer of Paul for Nick Batum (plus contracts).  It’s about that time of the month for one of those to be leaked by the Blazers brass.  Has there ever been a more overrated prospect in sports history than Batum?  Kris Benson comes to mind.

Update at 11:40AM on Saturday: Just browsing through the news, one thing I find bewildering is that aside from a Bill Simmons tweet (which was undoubtedly born out of merely his friendship with Morey rather than conviction about the statement) I have yet to see even a single mention of the Rockets as a possible partner.  I’m not talking “likely” or even “possible” destination, just even a “hey, the Rockets would make some sense, don’t you think?” mention akin to the exposure we got with Bosh…

That’s really surprising considering there isn’t a single team in the entire league other than Houston that can offer cheap young talent and absorb Okafor’s contract without sending back long-term salary AND still be left over with a lineup that could still contend after the trade.  Hell, forget the last one, you can’t even find another team that can satisfy the first two.

That leaves us with only two possibilities:

1) the media has been slothful in its diligence, neglecting inquiry into the full scope of possibilities and overlooking a potential suitor in the Rockets

2) Paul actually has more leverage than should be comprehensively possible for such a situation

I picked the first one for the Bosh chase, so I have to go with #2 this time around, which, if true, is quite a shocking and sad, sad, utterly pathetic state of affairs for the NBA.  It should come as stupefying that a team is being held hostage by a player with two years remaining on his contract and might have to turn away a suitor that could meet all of its needs (to as reasonable of an extent as such an unfortunate situation would allow).

Set aside my loyalty to the Rockets – the insinuation that the Hornets would even entertain those garbage offers from Orlando/New York should come as insulting to one’s intelligence in any normal world….and yet, it’s real!

I sided with labor after the Lebron fall-out.  But this…this is not good for the NBA.

Update at 10:24PM on Saturday night: I think Tracy McGrady might be signing with the Bulls…hmmm.

Back to Chris Paul: I don’t know why his contract status would be seen as sufficient deterrent and I would bet Morey feels the same way.  It’s a two year window to convince a guy to stay, not to mention a potentially favorable CBA.  Sure, he might not be “thrilled” to come here, but if he came, with our already loaded roster, you’d have to like our chances at changing his mind and keeping him aboard.  It’s a risk but that’s just a chance you have to take.  Dare to be great or you’ll be stuck on the sidelines.

The real question is whether he’d just flat out refuse to report and kill the deal.  Some in the comments are of the opinion he wouldn’t dare out of fear of further tarnishing his reputation.  I disagree.  I think the mindset is that now that the damage has already been done, he damn well at least better be able to get what he wanted or this was all counterproductive.

How good could this team be with Paul?  Just considering the matchups, they would stand a fair chance against the Lakers.  Paul would destroy their 1′s, offsetting Kobe’s production.  While Kobe would have his way with Martin, he would also have to play defense, something he hasn’t had to do against the Rockets.  Budinger, with Paul feeding him, you would think would more than have his way with Artest.  And with so much offense from the perimeter, you could even just go with Okafor and Hayes instead of Yao and Scola to shut down Gasol and Bynum.  This team would be sickeningly loaded.  We can only dream.

Adding Chris Bosh would have vaulted this team into contention.  But even then, they would have had to hope for the Pistons model of success, something very rarely done – Bosh is just a great piece but can’t carry a team.  With Paul, you’d be trying to win it the way its usually won – the hard part would be done; you’d finally have “that” guy.

Update at 2:29PM on Sunday afternoon:

A reader, Carl Herrera, writes:

One other thought: I wonder if Yao Ming and the Hornets would agree to pull a “Big Z Trade-and-Sign Manuver” in a CP deal. That is, his huge expiring contract gets involved in a CP trade to allow the Rockets to the most salary, with the understanding that the Hornets would waive him and he would then sign back with Houston (they still got their bi-annual exception).

I heard somewhere that the Hornets would prefer to dump both Okafor and Posey with CP. Tough enough to take on Okafor and CP, adding Posey makes it even more difficult, perhaps even impossible for any team to pull it off while giving back only expiring or cheap contracts.

The Rockets has plenty of expirings other than Yao, but to eat all 3 of them, Yao’s salary would probably have to be involved.

An interesting possibility inasmuch as that it would also allow for Yao to rest during the moratorium period before he could be re-signed.

The only problem here is that while Bird Rights transfer via trade, the clock is reset upon a player’s being waived (see: Coon, questions #19 and #26).  They could sign him back this year with the bi-annual or the veteran’s minimum, but they’d have no way of keeping him next year unless he settled for that same amount or the MLE.  Yao’s selfless, but I can’t see even him sacrificing the difference of $12million.

Another note: as I’m feeling quite comfortable with this new long column format (as opposed to the daily short posts from last year), I’ve set it to automatically send out a tweet upon post updates and not just new posts as it had been.  Be sure to follow Red94 on twitter.

Update at 6:41PM on Sunday afternoon:

Okafor’s contract makes Paul to Orlando unlikely:

The Orlando Magic might be atop the wish list of disgruntled point guard Chris Paul — which is expected with center Dwight Howard on their roster — but they don’t sound very confident of landing him anytime soon.

They are not convinced that New Orleans will be bullied into trading their franchise player, not with two years remaining on his contract.

And they still are not interested in taking the bloated contract of teammate Emeka Okafor to make it happen because it would sentence them to long-term payroll disaster.

from the same article:

The Hornets, though, are under no obligation to accommodate Paul, and they try and convince him Monday to buy into their future plans with a new coach and new general manager. If they decide to trade him, they will open the bidding to everyone, create a frenzy of interest.

Update at 7:15PM on Sunday afternoon:

First, my thoughts on the above.  The Houston Rockets are really the elephant in the room.  It’s become increasingly clear that few teams have the goods or the stomach to take back Emeka Okafor.  If nothing is resolved by the Monday meeting, and the bidding is opened, will the Rockets finally even be mentioned as a possibility?

A reader, Nobody is better than Jordan, writes:

I’ve also noticed that the concerns I’ve addressed in this thread about his knee injury are being more openly discussed among fans from teams that actually have a chance at landing CP3.
It’s a real concern elsewhere, yet for some reason people still can’t factor it in for fear of it ruining their fantasy.
Look, Houston didn’t get any of the big free agents, it isn’t the end of the world….well maybe for Cleavland it feels like it’s the end of the world…but hey!…In Houston things are just getting started again.
It’s gotten a little embarrassing to see Houston fans going through superstar withdrawal. Loss of TMac and doubts about Yao got people feeling a little deprived lately? Relax, buy a freakin’ Scola jersey and man up H-town. We’re gonna be alright.

A reader, Stephen, offers my response:

Aside from actual on-court play-things like passing inside to big men where they can do something w/the ball and penetrating and dishing-I want Paul for his mental attitude. He is a leader,a fierce competitor who hates to lose,someone the Rockets sorely need. This mental aspect is something the SF flavor of the moment lacks.
The Rocket roster would be a perfectly tuned Steinway for Paul to make beautiful music with. The SFs mentioned are just another electric guitar w/out an amp.

The reader is right that if no moves are made, it certainly will not be “the end of the world.”  As I’ve said myself, the Rockets could take the floor tomorrow and contend for the #2 seed.  But this misses the point entirely.

We shouldn’t become complacent with mere respectability.  The goal is competing for championships and to that end, this team as currently composed, is still quite a ways away.  It takes risks and this one would be well worth it.

Remember the “but he still can’t lead a team” question marks we overlooked with Bosh because he was such a great fit?  Those aren’t there with Paul.  He would instantly instill leadership and put this team on his back.

Final thought for now: I remembered earlier today something Charles Barkley was fond of saying in ’97.  He often said, during interviews, regarding himself, Hakeem, and Clyde, that they were “no longer great players, but were just very good players.”

That’s the case with this current team.  Yao included, they have a lot of “good” to “very good” players, but no “great” players.

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