And could Jeremy Lin be collateral damage?
Although it doesn't mention Houston, ESPN's Chris Broussard reports Dwight Howard and Chris Paul have been consistently communicating about being teammates. This is not the first time they've talked about the idea, either. During the 2011 lockout, their mutual target was the Dallas Mavericks—another Texas team.
That would give Houston a Big Three that's superior to the Miami Heat's, with all three superstar players still in their prime (as long as Howard is fully recovered next season).
And finally, there is the recent and suddenly pervasive rumor (here in ESPN) that the Rockets will discuss something I suggested about a week ago: a sign-and-trade involving Howard for Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
Lin, despite an uneven year, still has potential and marketing value; Asik had a superb first year as a starter. The only reason the Rockets would give both players up would be to create even more cap room—and the only reason the team would want to do that would be if they were intent on signing Paul (or another prime free agent).
Now granted, right now it's all speculation, rumor and innuendo—all sourced and legitimate, but hearsay nonetheless.
But I bring it all up to discuss once more what might be the inevitable: Will the Rockets have to jettison Jeremy Lin to sign Chris Paul?
The first question is whether or not they should. Lin's ardent admirers, and there are many, have a well-grooved refrain about Lin's tenure in Houston that can be summed up in one word: unfair.
The Lin faithful say the Rockets squandered Lin's talent by handing facilitating responsibilities to shooting guard James Harden, thereby robbing Lin of his ability to create. They contend Lin was still hurt from the previous season. They insist Lin was maligned by coach Kevin McHale. They claim Lin was great when Harden was sidelined.
We all know the song. I could argue the merits of each argument, but they all miss the point. Whether or not they're true, or merely wishful conjecture by loyal fans, the most important consideration—if one is a Rockets fan and not merely a Jeremy Lin fan—is what's best for the Rockets.
And even if all the arguments put forth by Lin's devotees are spot on, CP3 for JLin is still a no-brainer if winning is the goal.
Lin is a remarkably likeable fellow with an impeccable attitude and work ethic, but an uncertain and even questionable talent level.
Is Lin thrilling to watch at times? No question about it. Has he improved in certain areas? Yes. But would any of you bet their house that Lin ranks higher next year in player efficiency than 14.94, good for 35th place among point guards who averaged 17 minutes per game or more?
If you said yes, you probably either live in a tent or with your parents. It's just not a safe bet, simply because since his debut, Lin has been inconsistent. There have been flashes of brilliance, periods of mediocrity and stretches of ineptitude, like Lin's appearance in this year's playoffs.
The Rockets will miss Lin in the clubhouse, undoubtedly. And given the kid's incredible work ethic, they might well miss out on talent yet to develop.
But it's worth the risk. Because Chris Paul is a massive upgrade.
He's unquestionably the best of his generation at his position. Not since Steve Nash in his prime has a point guard been arguably the best player in the league. Not since Allen Iverson in his prime has a point guard been so breathtaking to watch.
If you don't believe me, ask John Hollinger. The Memphis Grizzlies exec (and former ESPN stats guru) estimates that Jeremy Lin was 5.2 wins to the Rockets last season.
Chris Paul was worth 17.9—over three times as many.
The question is not what would happen to Paul. The Rockets would be daft not to covet him. And paired with Howard, Harden and Parsons, they'll be a heavy favorite to win it all.
The question is what will happen to Lin?
If the Rockets are serious about pursuing both Howard and Paul—and by all current accounts, they are—Lin and Asik have to go, along with others, like forward Thomas Robinson and swingman Carlos Delfino.
So do they make the trade beforehand in hopes of getting Paul? Or do they make it once Paul agrees in principle?
That's the rub. If Paul says yes, moving Lin will become imperative. And though there will be ready takers for Asik's $8.4 million dollar contract with two years remaining, Lin's will give teams much pause, simply because Asik's season was head and shoulders above Lin's. At this moment in time, Asik is undervalued, while Lin is overvalued.
That's not to say there aren't teams who would covet Lin. The Los Angeles Lakers need a reason to put bodies in the seats; the acquisition of Lin would still have an impact on their fanbase…certainly not as great as it would have last year, but solid nevertheless.
Further, since the Lakers appear strongly committed to coach Mike D'Antoni, reuniting him with his star pupil Lin gives both a chance to prove doubters wrong. It also gives Lin the perfect offense in which to succeed.
Finally, the Lakers do need a point guard, because Nash (when D'Antoni doesn't use him at the 2) is aging, and the Lakers' best backup is career journeyman Steve Blake.
Los Angeles would be a dream destination for the league as well, because Lin is a very popular player internationally, and with Kobe Bryant's return not a sure thing, Lin would give the Lakers a player to feature should they fail to re-sign Howard.
So let's say Howard says yes, but Paul is hemming and hawing. Should Morey pull the trigger on dealing Lin and Asik, like he did last year in amnestying Luis Scola in a preemptive move to clear cap space?
Not securing Paul would then be potentially devastating to Houston's title hopes. But waiting until other teams are set at the point guard and center positions to start swinging a trade might mean Paul would have to wait quite a while before signing on the dotted line.
That's not good for anyone.
Plus trading with another team will simply net the Rockets more assets, which won't help them complete the deal for Paul and Howard.
For example, the Philadelphia 76ers, assuming they choose not to re-sign Andrew Bynum, could use a center and a point guard, the latter to spell Jrue Holiday and also play the point when Holiday moves to off-guard. Problem is, what do the Rockets get in return? A sign-and-trade wouldn't help clear cap space; it would just saddle them with players—or a player like, perish the thought, Bynum—whom they'd have to turn around and deal again to either the Lakers or the Los Angeles Clippers.
All right, so what about the Clippers themselves? Could the Rockets work a sign-and-trade with them?
Actually, yes. Asik, in my opinion, is an upgrade over DeAndre Jordan, though not a massive one. They're fairly equal on points per 36 minutes, though without CP3 to toss him lobs, Jordan's point total might well be lower. Also, Jordan averages .7 fewer turnovers and .7 fewer blocks. Where Asik shines, though, is on the boards: He's averaging over three more rebounds per 36 minutes than Jordan.
At the point, the Clippers have Eric Bledsoe, who has talent, and finally showed a bit of a touch from long distance, albeit in limited attempts. But Bledsoe is not going to make the turnstiles at the Staples Center revolve.
Jeremy Lin would pique fan interest should Paul decide to depart. He and Asik won't make the Clippers contenders, but they'd at least make them marketable. I question whether they could score a better sign-and-trade than that one.
Lin and Asik together make $16.75 million. The current collective bargaining agreement allows a team giving up more than $9.8 million but less than $19.6 million to take on a salary equaling the outgoing salaries plus $5 million. That means a sign-and-trade for Lin and Asik gives the Rockets the right to accept up to a $21.75 million contract, which would cover either Howard or Paul.
If the Rockets are truly serious about signing both Howard and Paul, they'll have to clear a Brinks truck full of cap space, and they have no amnesty candidate left. And since Harden and small forward Chandler Parsons have zero chance of being dealt, Lin and Asik will be moved, make no mistake about it.
There are only three ways the Rockets could make a deal that actually clears enough cap space, though: a sign-and-trade with the Lakers, a sign-and-trade with the Clippers or trading for players the Lakers or Clippers would want more than those players, then doing a sign-and-trade for the newly acquired talent.
So if the Rockets do acquire both free agents, it's a pretty safe bet Lin will be moving to L.A. A fresh start, and one that likely comes with a license to playmake, might be just what the doctor ordered for Lin.
And it's likely a move that would please most Lin fans.
But a starting lineup in Houston featuring Paul, Harden, Parsons and Howard is exactly what the doctor ordered if you're a Rockets fan.
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