One of NBA Commissioner David Stern's stated goals of the new collective bargaining agreement was an economic atmosphere where smaller markets could effectively compete for championships.
That's been an elusive goal in a league in which the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls have won 20 of the past 32 titles.
While free agent recruiting sputtered to life on Monday, the issue getting most of the attention is whether two big-time stars will leave their small-market homes -- Orlando's Dwight Howard and New Orleans' Chris Paul.
The social media chatter has Paul desiring a trade to the New York Knicks, where he could join Carmelo Anthony, who used pending free agency to force his way out of Denver last February.
Howard, meanwhile, seems anxious to travel the Shaquille O'Neal trail from Orlando to the Lakers. Hopefully, movie stardom is not one of Howard's goals, but who knows?
ESPN has breathlessly reported that the Lakers plan to do all they can to acquire both Howard and Paul to join Kobe Bryant and form a West Coast version of Miami's Power Trio.
Needless to say, early returns on Stern's vision of 30 equally competitive teams are not so good.
Both Howard and Paul can become free agents next summer and leave for bigger cities while their ex-teams would get nothing in return. So it makes sense for the Magic and Hornets to explore trades now.
The chances of the Lakers landing both players are slim. They can offer young center Andrew Bynum as the centerpiece in a Howard trade, but Orlando would surely want more than an injury-prone 24-year-old player.
The aging Lakers roster has limited tradable assets. Maybe they could grab Howard with Bynum and Lamar Odom. Then they could offer Pau Gasol for Paul, but he may have slipped below brother Marc (a restricted free agent in Memphis) on the family value scale.
New Jersey is said to be offering center Brook Lopez and a pair of first-round draft picks for Howard, which is worth considering. Maybe the Nets could toss in a signed-and-traded Kris Humphries, giving Orlando a choice of Kardashian husbands.
If Howard is on the trading block, the Bulls will certainly be a bidder. Using the reasonable theory that a Derrick Rose-Howard combo would contend for NBA titles through the end of the decade, the Bulls can offer pretty much any combination that doesn't include Rose.
Would Orlando prefer Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to what it could get from the Lakers or Nets? From the Bulls' perspective, it would depend on how many bad contracts the Magic tries to throw into the deal.
The Bulls are planning to mount a championship chase with essentially the same roster as last year, hoping for the addition of a scoring-minded shooting guard. But a phone call from Orlando GM Otis Smith would shake things up drastically. For now, the Magic is trying to assess Howard's feelings.
Paul's chances of landing in New York appear slim, since the Knicks gutted the roster to acquire Anthony and have little to offer in a trade. Ronny Turiaf and Renaldo Balkman, anyone?
The perfect Paul trade would be to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook. The Thunder seem committed to keeping Westbrook, but shouldn't Kevin Durant be paired with a passing point guard instead of Westbrook, who dominated the ball for entire quarters during last year's playoffs?
Westbrook would get his own team to lead, Paul would enjoy playing with Durant, and the NBA gets a small-market title contender in Oklahoma City. Everyone wins.
There aren't any true prizes in free agency this year, which is one reason why there has been so much focus on Howard and Paul. The best players on the open market are Denver's Nene and championship ring-wearing Tyson Chandler. Denver, Indiana, New Jersey and Sacramento have the most money to spend.
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