As speculation continues to swirl over the likely destinations of superstar free-agents-to-be Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, there have been quiet yet persistent murmurings indicating that the Chicago Bulls could in fact be a sleeper candidate to land Howard. As Bulls fans, we've been through this before. To loyal followers of the team, the names "Pau Gasol", "Kevin Garnett", and "Kobe Bryant" are likely to elicit a string of expletives followed by key phrases such as "overvaluing your own players" and "conspiracy".
But, as I see it, this time it's different. Dwight Howard is definitively the best center in the NBA, and will be for all of or close to the remainder of Derrick Rose's prime. This is not a "one last shot at a ring" Kevin Garnett or a Pau Gasol who proved that he is incapable of anchoring a championship-caliber team on his own. This is a shot to lock down, arguably, the best player in the NBA at the two most important positions on the court, in Rose and Howard. Even Jerry Reinsdorf can't deny the revenues and championships that such a pairing would bring.
Furthermore, the Magic can't afford to wait three years and make a deal with an old buddy (ahem! Danny Ainge), and the Bulls can offer one of - if not the best - packages of players while holding onto reigning MVP, Derrick Rose.
Looking at the other contenders for Dwight, only one team appears to be able to match the Bulls' offer. The Lakers' trio of old/injured/crazy big men can't possibly constitue the type of long-term building blocks the Magic are looking for. Indeed only their LA counterparts, the Clippers, can offer anything close to the likely Bulls package, which would center around Noah, Taj, and Deng, accompanied by some combination of the Bobcats' pick, Mirotic, and our slew of bench mob role players.
The Clippers' best offer would likely consist of Eric Gordon, a sign-and-traded DeAndre Jordan, Chris Kamen's expiring contract, rights to the Timberwolves' 2012 first rounder, and possibly additional pieces like Aminu or Bledsoe.
So whose offer is better? To start comparing these packages, let's frame our analysis using the ESPN player rankings that were released during the lockout.
Gordon ranked #39, Jordan ranked #114, and Kamen (although basically just included for his expiring) ranked 88.
Noah ranked #29, Deng #46, and Taj #103
Noah vs. Gordon
Despite ranking 10 places behind Noah, Gordon is younger and still on his rookie contract (though there is also the risk of him not re-signing, as this is his last guaranteed year). Forgetting the contract situation and importance of position, I'd say that Gordon might actually be viewed as the better long-term play, given that Gordon is still improving rapidly and is younger. However, as a restricted free agent after this year, he may not be likely to re-sign with a rebuilding Magic team, and after losing Howard, Noah's value as a long-term replacement center on a long-term deal is huge. But let's be generous and call this one a push.
Taj vs. Jordan
The next logical comparison is Taj vs. Jordan. Taj ranks 11 places higher than his counterpart, but, again, he is older and has a much lower ceiling. According to this scenario, Jordan would be locked in on a four year deal via sign-and-trade, whereas Taj has only one more year after this season on his rookie deal before becoming a RFA. There is also the fact that Jordan, as a RFA now, might not agree to this sign-and-trade, and even if he did, he's likely to come at a hefty price (Simmons thinks he'll go for over $10mm per year!). Compare this to Taj's $1-2mm for the next two years, and all of a sudden Taj is looking pretty decent. I'll call this one in Jordan's favor, but not by much.
Deng vs. Kamen's Contract
Finally, we get to the "old" men, Kamen and Deng. Deng is undoubtedly younger, more talented, and (dare i say) less injury prone, but Kamen's real value here is his expiring deal. Deng on the other hand is owed a hefty salary for the next 4 seasons. Deng is definitely the better player, but he's never going to be more than a fringe all-star and is not the guy that puts you over the top. So even as a top-50 player in the NBA, for a rebuilding team, he may not be the right play. So let's call this one slightly in favor of Kamen.
The Draft Picks
Looking at the draft picks, both the T-Wolves pick and the Bobcats pick are likely to be top-10 if not top-5. However, the Magic can use the T-Wolves pick in 2012 rather than 3 or 4 years down the line. Additionally, this draft is supposed to be a strong one. There's no denying that the Clippers' pick is more valuable than the Bulls' for a team that will want to quickly jumpstart the rebuilding process.
The Big Picture
While player by player comparison is informative, it does not accurately reflect the bigger picture of fit, flexibility, and value. The Clippers may come out slightly ahead in the one-on-one analysis, but looking at the packages in the aggregate, the Bulls' appear to jump into the lead.
Noah IS a long-term solution at center and is locked up for a long time. With him and Nelson, the Magic fill the two most important positions in their starting lineup. This is not to say that Jordan isn't also a long-term solution at the center, but Noah is clearly better and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, there is significant uncertainty with regard to Jordan's likelihood to actually agree to a sign-and-trade to a Dwight-less Orlando. Gordon is definitely a talent, and on his way to becoming a superstar. This certainly bears consideration, but unless he improves to a top-ten talent, he's not going to win you games on his own. Furthermore, he may be reluctant to re-sign at the end of the season when he becomes a RFA, and may instead opt to take the qualifying offer and leave for greener pastures after next season. Taj provides the Clippers with significant flexibility, as he is equally adept and happy coming off the bench as he is starting. But his contract situation situation is also somewhat tenuous. Kamen is nothing but salary relief. Deng is what he is, and is right on that borderline between young building block and overpaid underachiever.
The Road Ahead
Looking at the next few seasons, the Magic would undoubtedly be a better team with the Bulls' package. Even with a starting lineup of Nelson, Redick, Deng, Taj, and Noah, the Magic will likely win somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s and would be a lock for the playoffs. With Nelson, Redick, fill-in-the-blank, Bass, and Jordan, the playoffs are much less certain. However, if the T-Wolves pick turns into an impact player, they may quickly climb back into contention.
Deng is Key
In the end, from the perspective of the Magic, the vital cog in comparing these trade packages is Luol Deng. If the Magic like him, and view him as a piece they can build around, then the Bulls win this battle hands down. On the other hand, if they view him as an overpaid luxury better suited for a championship contendor, then the Clippers are sure to prevail.
Dwight Howard's Take
Another important piece of this puzzle is what Dwight Howard is likely to think of the post-trade destinations. Both teams play in major markets, and each would have a young superstar remaining in Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin. However, Assuming Jordan and Gordon are included in the Clippers deal, they wouldn't have any depth outside of Blake, Dwight, and a rapidly diminishing Mo Williams. This is most certainly not enough to beat the Heat. On the other hand, the Bulls retain an all-star level contributor in Carlos Boozer (at least until he's eventually amnestied), and an army of young role players in the form of our "bench mob". Plus, let's not even get started on Thibs versus Vinny. I have to imagine that even the bright lights and balmy beaches of LA wouldn't be enough to prevent Dwight from viewing Chicago as his number one destination. Then again, many of us said the same about Lebron in the leadup to "The Decision". Given that Dwight's acquiescence is required for a sign-and-trade, this is an important consideration.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that the Magic are unlikely to trade Howard early in the season, and the Bulls are likely to be a cohesive, dominant team by the trade deadline. Will the risk-averse Bulls management blow up a successful team mid-season to acquire the league's best center? I'm a huge fan of Noah, Deng, and Taj, and won't be overly disappointed if they decide to sit this one out, but there is no denying that Dwight, no matter the price, transforms the Bulls into a perennial contendor for years to come.