Paul to the Clippers, Howard to nowhere: What now for the Lakers?

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
5:49
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
For Lakers fans, the focus on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard over the last few weeks has grown into something close to obsession.

In that context, Wednesday was not a good day.

The morning began with news the Orlando Magic were talking seriously with the New Jersey Nets to send Howard up the coast. Then, word spread the Magic simply weren't talking. At least not right now, and not until offers improve substantially and/or they're fully convinced Howard can't be persuaded to stay. If that wasn't disappointing enough, a day after snagging Chauncey Billups essentially for nothing, the Clippers went ahead and pulled off the Chris Paul deal. Suddenly the team with the buzz, the great young stars, the exciting brand of basketball, and high-end upside wears red, white and blue.

Strange days indeed.

Monday morning in the wake of CP3-to-LAC 1.0, I prepped a post praising the Clippers for pulling off not just a quality trade on the floor -- Paul running pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin is enough to make any hoops fan salivate -- but one giving them legitimacy they've never had. A genuine superstar said he was willing to go there, and give them two years. Seems silly to a Lakers fan, but it's monumental for the Clippers as an organization. I wrote how the Lakers (who, by the way, should have Paul on their roster right now), needed to remain patient, and not overreact to a moment that will surely upset their front office and fan base alike.

That post never saw daylight, but turned into this one. The message was the same. The Lakers can't freak out. They have to count to 10 and understand that fundamentally, nothing about what happens to them going forward changes. Once the league decided (a) Paul wasn't going to be a Laker, and (b) it wanted a package of prospects and picks the Lakers simply couldn't compete with (not without help, at least), CP3 wasn't coming here.

Which leaves Howard.

He's off the market today. Probably tomorrow, too, and I'm even willing to push it into next week. But at some point, Howard will return. Otis Smith will start taking phone calls, this assuming he really ever stops.

The problem for the Lakers is one of timing, because fundamentally, that obsession with Howard/Paul is based on two basic fears surrounding the team. First, that it's not good enough to win a title this season, squandering one of Kobe's last years as a truly elite player. Second, that the Lakers don't have another superstar in the fold to take over for Kobe when that day comes, ensuring a seamless, star-to-star transfer of power. Kobe runs his flag down the pole, the other guy runs his up. Easy peasy.

Except it's very difficult to do both of those things at the same time. Rebuilding, which is really what we're talking about here, is never a fully painless process in the NBA.

Think of a Venn diagram in which one circle is "Improving Now" and the other is "Securing the Future." The overlap between the two, that sweet spot where the colors change and all good things happen, isn't very big. Even the original deal for Paul, sending out Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol and bringing back CP3 and the same $8.9 million trade exception they eventually got from Dallas, didn't make the Lakers better right away. They would have had massive holes to fill in the frontcourt, and no clear path to Howard save everyone assuming it had to be the next move.

Maybe it was. We'll never know.

If the Lakers were to move Gasol and Andrew Bynum for Howard, another popular sports talk hypothetical, it would again secure them the superstar for the future, but would they be better right now? Particularly now that Odom is gone? On the flip side, they could go and use the trade exceptions gained from shipping Odom to Dallas and Sasha Vujacic last season to New Jersey and find useful players to plug into the rotation. Another forward, a solid option at the 2 behind Kobe, and perhaps another high-end guy.

$8.9 million can still buy something good.

All stuff for the "Improving Now" circle, but use those chips to bolster the present and there isn't much left to snag Howard, or any other superstar. Not for the time being, at least. You can see the bind they're in. It's the cost of winning championships in this league. The Lakers have for years traded the future for the present, and the rewards for fans have been rich.

Eventually, though, that gets tougher to do. We all knew this day was coming. The Lakers can still field a championship-caliber roster this season, if they fill their holes. Bryant, Gasol and Bynum still form a formidable big three. In some ways, then, today's news could prove beneficial. If the superstars aren't available, it's easier to make moves designed for this season, and maybe next.

Or maybe the Lakers hold tight, banking on Howard, Deron Williams, or another superstar around whom they can anchor the franchise down the road.

Doing both at the same time? Good luck with that.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0