There’s a fascinating symmetry to the Dwight Howard - LeBron James - Dwyane Wade - Chris Paul (arguably the four most valuable players of the past five years) axis, the first generation to start the phenomenon in earnest. Due to the nature of their respective first extensions, James and Wade entered free agency together, and Paul and Howard were on schedule to do the same this summer. But while James and Wade upgraded their supporting casts, it’s tough to make the case that either Howard or, strangely, Paul have done anything of the sort.
The concept of title “contention” is difficult to quantify, let alone accurately assess through the eye test. Competition ebbs and flows, league trends emphasize specific skills over others, and overall quality of basketball is far from constant. Nonetheless, efficiency differential (the difference between a team’s points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) is a relatively clean method of separating the elite from the rest. Over the last ten years, the average NBA finalist has had an efficiency differential a shade over +6. It’s hardly a stringent requirement, and indeed, two winners from the past decade – the 2012 Dallas Mavericks and 2006 Miami Heat – fell short of the mark. But the +6 efficiency differential plateau is empirically a strong indicator of title contention, and this is where it gets interesting for the pair of duos in James/Wade and Howard/Paul.
Wade went from post Shaquille O'Neal chaos to perennial title contention alongside LeBron. James himself went from contending in Cleveland to contending, in a very disparate, far less risky manner, in Miami. The color blue represents offensive efficiency differential here (difference from team efficiency to league efficiency), red represents defensive efficiency, and green represents the total.
(I've had problems posting pictures from photobucket and imageshack in the past so I'm just going to post the link to it here).
Teaming up was a no-brainer for Wade. The intermediate years between the Shaq and LeBron eras of Miami basketball seem a distant memory at this stage, but the Heat were truly a dismal team. There’s little question that in the Western Conference, Wade’s Heat would have missed the playoffs every year from 2006 to 2010. And this is neither here nor there, but it should at least make us question why so many hold Kevin Love to the “he’s not a superstar till he carries a team to the playoffs” line of logic when a player of Dwyane Wade’s caliber only accomplished it due to a massive assist from the frailty of his competition.
LeBron’s team efficiency differentials tell quite a different tale.
They don’t necessarily suggest that moving to Miami was the wrong move; differentials, in themselves, don’t account for integral aspects like the diversification of attacking and defensive prowess. They do suggest, however, that LeBron’s Cavaliers were legitimate title contenders towards the end of his tenure. Were they overly reliant on a single player? Absolutely. But that single player was the best of this generation.
A confluence of factors ultimately prevented Cleveland from winning a title, but by no means did James leave behind a closed championship window. With the Boston Celtics’ decline and Orlando Magic in relative disarray, it’s a little bemusing to consider that 2012 could well have been the Cavaliers' clearest shot at a title. It didn’t happen, but James has the opportunity to win it now, alongside Wade and Chris Bosh.
The back end of the foursome – Paul and Howard – has fared quite a bit differently.
For all of Orlando’s missteps in recent years, it’s easy to see why Howard might still associate the Magic with success; Orlando contended for the majority of his tenure. Stan Van Gundy’s offensive and defensive systems were always far more reflective than supplemental of Howard’s talents on each end, but regardless, they were highly successful.
Surrounding Howard with elite shooters was never as proactive as, say, the Cavaliers’ repeated efforts to trade for complementary talents like Amar’e Stoudemire, but in some sense, it never mattered. The issue now is one of player decline and talent misevaluation; the latter precludes remediary steps addressed at the former, and so Orlando’s title contention has ground to a halt. Howard perhaps opted for an extra year in Orlando because, for many years, the Magic legitimately contended for titles in a way that neither the Wade Heat nor the Paul Hornets came close to, but the future looks dire without a massive free agent signing next summer.
That, naturally, brings us to Chris Paul.
The Hornets’ 2008 run to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals was supposed to be Paul’s grand first act on the national postseason stage, establishing the David West - Chris Paul - Tyson Chandler trio as a western power for years to come. Instead, it’s been the pinnacle of Paul’s career to this point. Injuries, bad luck, and mismanagement in New Orleans primarily drove the subsequent downward trajectory, but, most importantly, the bright lights and hype of Lob City and Blake Griffin haven’t changed that.
As it currently stands, the Clippers are a closer approximation of the tragically flawed 2011 or 2009 Hornets than the successful 2008 iteration, which wasn’t a legitimate title contender in the first place. The 2012 Clippers are certainly the best offensive group Paul’s ever been a part of, but their repeated and often farcical defensive failures have been their undoing. Teams don’t learn to play defense overnight, and the issues here are systemic. Chris Paul is on no more of a contender now than he was a year ago, and less a coaching swap or personnel overhaul during the summer, that won’t necessarily change next season either. Paul has his big market and fellow star running mate, but, frustratingly for the neutral basketball fan, serious title contention will ostensibly elude him for yet another season.
Orlando has minimal room to maneuver this summer, its management firmly handcuffed, the key lost somewhere in the mountains of money still owed to Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Glen Davis. The immediate future is perhaps slightly less gloomy for the Clippers, still awash in the new car smell associated with the acquisition of the league’s best lead guard. But if it isn’t already, it will become clear soon enough: the Clippers’ lack of defense is absolutely crippling.
By diverging from one other prior to the first summer they could have joined forces, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, in some strange twist of fate, may just have aligned themselves more closely for 2013.