By: rahat huq
Last Sunday, the Chronicle reported that the Rockets were diligently making preparations for a pursuit of Clippers star point guard Chris Paul. The report wasn't much of a surprise as the topic is one which has been widely discussed dating back to early last season. If the Rockets can't get Howard, they'll naturally want to be ready for the other big star on the market. Many have wondered, however, about the dream scenario pitting both Paul and Howard on the Rockets and its feasibility. Could it be done?
The biggest obstacle--aside from even getting these guys to commit--is that it almost certainly would require a sign&trade with either the Clippers or Lakers. This is because unless either or both of the stars agreed to discounts, it just wouldn't be feasible to create the amount of cap room to sign both players to their full max, outright. For instance, because the cap figure came in at $58.5million (rather than the $60million many had been expecting), to even fit in Howard's $20.5million max within existent cap room would require either (of the most favorable scenarios not involving Motiejunas/Jones) a) trading Thomas Robinson for essentially nothing along with paying a team to take on Royce White or b) trading Thomas Robinson and Greg Smith and waiving Royce White via the stretch provision.
Morey would then need to give away Asik and Lin for free (a combined $16.7million) and then, even after trading away one of Terrence Jones or Motiejunas for free, factoring in roster charges, could still only offer Chris Paul $17.2million. Paul's max is $18.7million. You're then looking at needing to deal away the other of Motiejunas/Jones, along with Beverley, to even approach that figure, assuming he'd budge. Considering you'd need to give away your entire team for free (or future considerations), in separate deals, it's just not entirely realistic. (While those deals would leave the Rockets in the $18.7million range, that figure would be reduced by outstanding roster charges.) This is not even mentioning the critical fact that I don't think it would be possible to give away Jeremy Lin's $8.3million contract without taking back incoming salary.*
The more plausible scenario would be the one that saw the team signing one of the two free agents outright and then trading Asik and Lin in a sign&trade for the other. The sign&trade scenario is more doable because, due to the rules, outgoing and incoming salary does not need to be matched dollar for dollar, but rather only need be within 125% (or 150% for non-tax paying teams). The Rockets wouldn't need to gut the entire team to get Paul his money.
The problem here, as I noted above, is getting one of the Los Angeles teams to agree to help. Let's assume the Rockets signed Paul outright with their cap space. While some have argued that Lin and Asik would help the Lakers rebuild, I just don't see it that way. If I'm Mitch Kupchak, and I'm losing Howard, I'd rather start fresh in free agency next season rather than saddle myself with $17million incoming. I'd almost go so far as to say that the Laker scenario has no chance of happening.
Your better bet is the opposite case: signing Howard outright and dangling Lin and Asik to the Clippers. I suppose one can envision the Clippers taking the two Rockets and then, with DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe, sorting their roster out on the trade market. But with Donald Sterling's documented frugality, I don't know if it is likely.
*[sidenote: Much has been made of Lin's marketability in discussions surrounding the point guard's tradability. While his presence on the roster surely does open up business ventures independent from the Rockets for owner Les Alexander, keep in mind that actual NBA revenue is shared. As far as those other ventures, we possibly won't ever be privy to the impact Lin is making upon the owner's bottom line. For another NBA team, in this discussion, the question becomes whether those other opportunities justify an $8million roster cost (and expected $15million 'real' cost in 2014) for a mediocre starting point guard. And yes, Lin is merely mediocre at this point in time.]
To even make the above scenario work, however, one would need to concoct a 'Prisoner's Dilemma', pitting Kupchak against the Clippers. Why? Because if one of the stars is signed outright, what motivation would the other star's current team have in cooperating in a sign&trade and helping Houston set up SuperFriends 2.0? For example, if the Rockets sign Howard with straight cash, the Clippers can just call Paul's bluff and refuse to deal - outside of Houston, there wouldn't be any superior alternatives to Paul than just simply returning to L.A. If Morey could get a commitment from both players upfront, the two teams would be pitted against one another in a race to at least get back value in Asik and Lin rather than be the team left with nothing. (This is of course assuming the unlikely scenario that the Lakers would even want Asik and Lin.)
With that said, however, the risky aspect of selling the two players upon a united front is the fear that they'd become enamored only with a 'Big 3' rather than just with the Rockets. If everything fell apart in negotiations, with the other teams refusing to deal, the Rockets would be in danger of losing not just one, but both players. It's imperative that Morey sell each player on the merits of playing with Harden in Houston rather than with Harden and one another.
Dwight Howard and Chris Paul may be watching the Finals tonight wondering what it would be like to form their own super-team. But unless they agree to paycuts, it's highly unlikely that will happen, at least in Houston. (While the national media has largely reported that the Hawks too can pair the two players, for detailed reasons requiring another post, this also cannot happen without discounted rates.)
And for Morey, while forming the next Big 3 is certainly enticing, the pitch would be a risky one that could leave the team without either.