In a remarkably similar situation to the middle of the previous season, the Lakers find themselves prominently listed on the trade wish list of one of the league's premier players. For those of you who recall, the first player was Chris Bosh, and as of today, Chris Paul has indicated his interest in joining the reigning champions. Per the fairly reliable Ken Berger of CBS Sports, Paul lists the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and the Los Angeles Lakers as his preferred landing spots.
More analysis after the jump:
For those of you who have been in a cave the last few years, Chris Paul is one of the league's premier point guards, and largely by consensus, is considered the best point guard in the league, much to the collective scorn of Deron Williams supporters in Utah. In terms of statistical measures, Paul is an incredibly efficient player. For what is essentially an "off" year for him due to injuries, Paul shot 49.3% from the field, 40.9% from three, and topped that off with a 58.4 TS% last year. His offensive game covers the entire floor, with adept three-point range aided by an insanely good floater that he can use up to 10-12 feet out. Just to illustrate this, the typical percentage for players on 10-12 foot shots is around the high 30s, as these usually tend to be contested and require a floater. For the '08-'09 season (used simply because the data for this has already been compiled), the top four players in this category were Paul (49.7%), Yao Ming (49.7%), Pau Gasol (48.8%), and Dirk Nowitzki (48.6%). So Paul shoots better, as a 6'0'' point guard, on contested floaters than the 7'0'' Gasol. If that doesn't indicate that he's devastating from every point on the floor, I'm not sure what else I can tell you.
And naturally, Paul is a point guard, so he's obviously feeding the ball to other players when he's not carving up defenses himself. Although not as flashy as Steve Nash or working within a dedicated screen-roll system that generates easy looks like Williams, Paul is a highly effective passer who rarely errs in the process. For the previous season, Paul put up a 36.6 assist ratio (percentage of his possessions that ended with an assist) as compared to a minuscule 8.5 turnover ratio (percentage of his possessions that ended with a turnover). This results in Paul's putting up daily numbers that match and exceed a lot of the gaudy stats that LeBron posts night after night, but the unquestioned part about of it is how much he improves everyone around him, perhaps best seen in how he turned Tyson Chandler, an offensive liability, into a force off the pick-and-roll that usually ended with Chandler dunking the ball. As a final note on this, to begin the '09-'10 season, Paul shot 59.4% from the field and 65.5% from three before succumbing to injury. I'll stop there.
Of course, there's the slightly relevant point that the Lakers run the triangle, which minimizes the role of the point guard in the offense and is why we won two championships with Derek Fisher at the helm (with all the according respect to Fisher's intangibles). In the triangle, point guards typically walk the ball up the court, make the initial pass and then go squat in the corner until someone passes them the ball for what is usually a wide-open three. Obviously, this is radically different from the highly one-dimensional high pick-and-roll offense run by Bryon Scott in New Orleans that Paul has played in for the majority of his career. Thankfully, we have Phil Jackson, who mercifully saved us from Bryon Scott coming to L.A. to implement the aforementioned dismally uncreative offense, coordinating the triangle, and I absolutely refuse to accept the notion that Phil would be unwilling to tweak the triangle to accommodate one of the most gifted perimeter players of our generation.
Aside from that, Paul fills an important need that was sorely lacking last year outside of Kobe and (very seldom) Odom: creativity off the dribble. When the triangle stalls and it inevitably does so, the usual solution is to give Kobe the ball to create a shot for himself or for a teammate by drawing the defense towards him. Usually, the second player who is able to do this is Odom, whose ability to take fours off the dribble and either go to the rim or make a deft interior pass all but disappeared last season as he settled for alarming amounts of long jumpers. To some degree, this resulted in Kobe being heavily overworked for a good chunk of the year, and while largely caused by a lack of shooters to provide adequate spacing, resulted in the Lakers' offensive efficiency taking a large dip. Needless to say, Paul fills that role probably better than any non-Nash player in the league, from his aforementioned stellar ability to create shots for himself and make on-point passes to others.
In terms of defense, Paul is annually one of the league leaders in steals, and generally does a solid job of staying in front of his man and defending against post-ups with underrated strength for a 6'0'', 175 pound guard. About the only disadvantage is that his height makes it somewhat difficult for him to contest shots effectively, although that's a common refrain for guards of Paul's size. In other words, don't expect him to chase Ray Allen through screens.
If the trade occurs, Paul also becomes part of what is undoubtedly an effective lineup in transition, and we come to the trade particulars. For the most part, the only two possible scenarios I envision are the following:
As usual for most teams in these situations of having to trade a franchise player, the usual asking price is 1) a young talent (Bynum) 2) salary relief (taking Posey/Okafor for Vujacic's expiring) 3) draft picks (plus Ebanks or Caracter if necessary). We followed this model when we traded for Gasol, giving up 1) Javaris Crittenton 2) Kwame Brown 3) two first rounders.
In any case, the first scenario is the simplest way for this to occur, and gives us Paul along with '07-'08 Celtics defensive stalwart Posey, who is a shadow of the player that played tough defense on Kobe in the '08 Finals. The immediate problem is that we lose Bynum, a near necessity in these talks lest the Lakers quickly (and I mean, quickly) fall behind other offers, and this damages the frontcourt depth of this team, which has been one of its calling cards for the past two years. Although Bynum has been injured for both championship runs and Gasol performed most of the heavy lifting, the fact that we can "throw three seven footers out there" (with Odom's height conveniently inflated for this statement) has been this team's defining aspect outside of Kobe himself. That said, I'd still argue that the gap between the advantage we gain with Paul replacing Fisher/Blake as versus the downgrade from Bynum to ~12-15 minutes of [insert veteran center name] is significant enough to make this worthwhile.
And that brings us to the second scenario, which actually addresses more needs for both teams. NO sends us Emeka Okafor, whom they've been desperately shopping since the trade deadline due to his large contract, which extends for the next four years at ~$12 million/year with approximately $1 million/year raises. While definitely not worth the franchise player money he's making, Okafor certainly is not a bad player, simply an above average one not living up to his expectations. He's a solid defensive player who uses his bulk well to defend post-ups, clean up the glass very effectively, and can be moderately effective at pick-and-roll defense. On offense, he's a liability due to his lack of a post game, and in Charlotte, he was annually among the league leaders in getting his shot blocked, although I'd wager much of that was due to the fact that Charlotte had a painfully bad offense when Okafor was in town and used as a go-to guy. Depending on where Artest's head is screwed on for the night, he'll safely be the fourth or fifth option on the floor.
As such, Okafor fills the middle for Bynum and allows Gasol to avoid the day-to-day pounding that Bynum absorbs for him. As for New Orleans, you may question their motivation for taking Walton's contract, which was fruitlessly shopped last year by Kupchak, but the difference is in the long-term money saved by NO due to Okafor's contract coming off the books. With Vujacic's contract expiring following next season and Walton's a year before Okafor's, NO saves a lot more money over the next four years, an especially important concern given the fractured ownership situation that is currently deadlocked concerning millions in debt that the new owner would incur upon taking control of the club.
And finally, the particulars on whether this will actually happen. As with all trades that involve any of the league's top 15 players, it's not healthy to bet on them occurring, although there is a lot of things to like in the second scenario. Paul's other suitors have comparatively limited packages in comparison, as New York's assets are unavailable due to most of them being recent trades or free agent acquisitions and Orlando's package revolves around Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter. While Nelson is an appealing piece, he's slightly redundant with UCLA product Darren Collison on the roster. In my honest summation, among the three teams in question, the Lakers can provide the three required items better than any of Paul's listed teams. As for Paul's motivations about the process, which are clouded with his recent declaration of forming a big three in New York with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony as well as his signing with LeBron's marketing firm, remember that the sole authority for this decision lies with New Orleans, with whom Paul is signed for the next two years. They'll accommodate his interests to some extent, but the reality is that trading Paul means a rebuilding process for the team, and they'll take the best offer on the market, whether that sends Paul to basketball purgatory in New Jersey or the bright lights of Los Angeles.