Plenty of teams that made it past the first round of the playoffs this spring.
The situations, of course, being Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and the Clippers’ and Lakers’ waiting games, respectively.
Don’t get me wrong, having the best chance to sign Paul and Howard is hardly a bad thing for the two Los Angeles NBA franchises. It’s just … complicated, and perhaps not unequivocally good.
It certainly won’t be easy.
Remember a few weeks ago, when it was all Paul and Howard and contracts, all max money and championships and recruiting these high-priced, high-reward teammates? Remember that? It hasn’t been so long, but the talk has quieted – silenced, actually. It’s hardly a surprise, though, not after both players expressed a desire to take their time and weigh their options.
It’s funny, the way this works. The Lakers and the Clippers were in the playoffs, and thus in the spotlight, and so the talk of bringing back their big names was incessant. Talk of the future kept pace with what the teams were doing in the present, at times even overshadowing it (especially in the case of Howard and his postgame whatever with Mitch Kupchak on April 28). There were people to ask, games to analyze, ceilings to project. Now, though, there’s no one to ask, no new material to dissect, nothing to do but wait.
It’s as daunting for the teams as it is for the fans. Probably more.
Three years ago, Kobe Bryant could sign a three-year, $87 million contract extension with the Lakers, and life could go on, ho-hum. What a simple world it was. That’s never going to happen again, at least not until inflation has taken its toll, and with the current NBA collective bargaining agreement and its paralyzing luxury tax penalties, massive contracts like the ones Paul and Howard are about to sign carry a heavier weight. Sure, there’s the upside: these aren’t rookie extensions, which means these players have proven themselves time and time again as the NBA’s best. This isn’t Milwaukee weighing Brandon Jennings’ upside or Chicago doing the same for Taj Gibson, wondering if they should pay their young 20-something stars for what they’ve done or for what they perhaps can still do.
No, these are players who have reached their peaks, who are coveted and wooed, who can run teams and recruit other stars and do all the extraneous things that big money demands. Then again, though, there’s that notion of peaks, and for both the 28-year-old Paul, who already has knee problems, and the 27-year-old Howard, whose shoulder and back have brought on dips in his numbers and lengthy absences, one has to wonder where that peak lies. Are they still in that amorphous space where they hover around it for a few seasons, with injuries causing drop-offs but with large stretches of health declaring that they’re still the best? Or do peaks lie in 2010, 2011, dates that are fading farther into the past?
It may sound silly, to say these men in their late 20s might be on the downward slop, but basketball is a fickle mistress. It leaves players like Bryant, at 34, considered old, Kevin Garnett, at 36, an old man. Without question, both Howard and Paul, in the middle age of their basketball lives, will be paid more for what they’ve done that for what they realistically can do, but that’s just how these things work.
So of course there are worries in signing these men, worries teams have to swallow and accept. There’s no way to predict if either is going to be of the Garnett and Tim Duncan variety or if their careers will unfold more in the vein of Tracy McGrady, once great but whose last effective season came at age 29. It’s the same weighing of risk, the same wondering what the percentage chance of decline or bust might be that other teams face any time they sign anyone, but the bigger the money (and the expectations, for that matter), the bigger the burn when the worst happens to occur.
No player is perfect. Some teammate always dislikes him or butts heads with him. Some teammate always feels that his game doesn’t mesh well with another’s. There are differences in pace, in approach, in work ethic, in personality, and that’s not what this is about. It’s not about Howard’s 18-month Dwightmare, which he’s imposed on both Orlando and Los Angeles, or about the claims that Paul and his teammates clash over leadership styles. Those are other concerns for another time, concerns that, when things are going well, are utterly secondary to the transcendent skill sets of these two players.
This is about money, plain and simple, and about waiting, which the Clippers and Lakers will be forced to do, and which Paul and Howard have every right to demand. In the waiting come the questions, the worries about decline and the CBA and what if no one else wants to join them, what if this is the wrong guy to pin these dreams on? No question, each team knows what it wants to offer its man, where it might negotiate on certain perks and add-on clauses and where it’ll stand firm.
If they players wanted them, these deals could be agreed upon in principle tomorrow, thus silencing – at least for a while – the conjecture. They won’t be, though, and in that time, the conjecture buzzes. In that time, teams should develop contingency plans, but they’re hamstrung in even beginning to execute them.
In that time, Howard and Paul hold the power, and any doubts lose all of theirs, however realistic they might be.