We're still a little over two weeks away from the start of NBA free agency, but the stove's already begun to heat up when it comes to the eventual destinations of the two most coveted players on the market this summer, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
Like All-NBA pals LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh before them, the two friends and All-Stars have chatted in the past about joining forces upon hitting free agency, but for a variety of reasons — Howard didn't want to join Paul's New Orleans Hornets, Paul didn't want to come to Howard's Orlando Magic, Howard wouldn't commit to eventually joining Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks and Paul balked at going to Texas without assurances of Howard's eventual presence, etc. — the link-up never took place. Now, with both players facing unrestricted free agency come July 1, they've apparently resumed the Marvel Team-Up discussion.
ESPN.com's Chris Broussard cites sources who say Howard and Paul "have been in consistent contact recently about the possibility of becoming teammates next season," exchanging text messages about the prospect of joining forces as free agents:
"They would love to play together if somebody can make it happen," one of the sources said.
The Atlanta Hawks could make it happen. Atlanta, which is Howard's hometown, has the cap room to sign both players to maximum-salaried contracts.
Let's stop there: This isn't true. It could be, given some elbow grease and wrangling, but strictly speaking, it isn't. Grab your calculators, kids — we're about to get nerdy, with some help from salary cap wizards Larry Coon and Mark Deeks.
While the Hawks would clearly love to have both Howard and Paul on board and have only $22.5 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, cap holds for the team's potential free agents — including Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson and a host of others — gobble up large chunks of that room. So what appears to be about $36 million in salary cap space is actually quite a bit less.
Smith's nine-year veteran maximum cap hold would disappear upon signing with another team. But in order for Atlanta to get far enough under the cap to be able to make the two prospective max offers, they'd have to renounce their rights to all of those pending free agents (including restricted free agent Teague) and waive the non-guaranteed contracts of DeShawn Stevenson, Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott ... and that still wouldn't be quite enough.
Atlanta would also have to carve out more room in some combination of moves with their remaining existing non-Al Horford assets — rehabilitating guard Lou Williams, who's set to make $5.23 million next year; rising sophomore guard John Jenkins, owed $1.26 million for '13-'14 on his rookie deal; their two first-round picks in the 2013 NBA draft — to get far enough under the cap to offer max-level deals to Howard, a nine-year veteran whose full max would pay him just over $20.5 million next year, and Paul, an eight-year vet whose full max will start at $18.7 million.
In sum: In order for Atlanta to actually realize its maximum possible cap room, Ferry would have to get rid of everyone on the Hawks roster except Horford plus what ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton projects would be Jenkins and one of their two first-rounders.
From there, he'd have to convince Howard to get past "not [being] particularly fond of the idea of returning to" his hometown of Atlanta and convince Paul to get past the Hawks choosing Marvin Williams over him in the 2005 draft (which is something Hawks fans, understandably, have not gotten over themselves). But that's language arts rather than math — just in terms of number-crunching, there are a quite a few hoops to jump through before CP3 and Dwight wind up wearing Hawks uniforms.
And, as Pelton notes, Atlanta's "far and away the most realistic situation" for the pairing ... even if it's not where the dynamic theoretical duo would like to team up, if they had their druthers. More from Broussard:
The preference for both players would be to play together for the Clippers, according to the sources. Because the Clippers don't have enough cap room to sign Howard as a free agent, it would take a sign-and-trade deal with the Lakers to make it happen.
And that's unlikely to happen because the Lakers, with $79.6 million in salary already committed for next season without a new deal for Howard, are over what's referred to in the collective bargaining agreement as "the apron" — the mark $4 million above the luxury tax line. One of the restrictions put in place for free-spending teams that go above "the apron" is that they can't take receive a player in a sign-and-trade unless the deal winds up bringing their cap number down below the apron, which, with the luxury tax line projected to fall at $71.6 million next year, would slot in at $75.6 million.
So in order for the Lakers to be part of such a deal, they'd have to wind ways to shed even more payroll in the process in addition to losing their starting center without being able to bring back comparably high-priced assets — while the spitballed Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe package Broussard mentions is attractive from a talent perspective, that pair's owed more than $16 million for next year, which doesn't help with apron-tanking. And they'd have to do it all for the privilege of allowing the guy they've repeatedly prioritized as the next face of the franchise to walk across the hall and play for their neighbors in their gym. That doesn't seem like it's going to happen, either.
Again, it's not impossible that Howard and Paul could wind up wearing the same uniform next season — if some executive (most likely Ferry, or perhaps Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who's apparently got a swingman who's tight with Howard) is willing to wheel, deal, slash, burn, beg, borrow and steal his way through the roster contortions necessary to create enough space to be able to offer the two All-Stars max deals, or is able to convince both of them to take less than the max to join up, then it could happen. It's just that it's much more likely that the only time they'd wear the same colors would be by making another trip to the All-Star Game to play for the West after Paul re-ups with the Clips and Dwight takes that extra $30-plus million to stay with the Lakers.
Besides, all the extra bread they'll make by staying separated can pay for, like, 100 cell contracts with unlimited text plans. Then they can talk about whatever they want, whenever they want. (Dwight only wants to talk about "Man of Steel," though.)