When Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak fielded the inevitable question about trading for Dwight Howard last week, his intentionally vague response said everything about why the topic was being discussed in the first place.
"You're trying to get me to talk about one player that might be young?" Kupchak told reporters at the team's practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. "I understand a lot of our players' names have been out there [in the media] and maybe that's the one name you're referring to."
He knew the identity of the player, of course, because only one player of any relevance on his roster qualifies as young: 24-year-old center Andrew Bynum. That fact alone is why it's worth watching the Lakers in the weeks leading up to the season's Dec. 25 tipoff.
The Lakers are an old team with some new opportunities before them, chances to land Howard or -- as the most recent rumblings go this week -- Hornets point guard Chris Paul. Numerous front-office sources told SI.com that the Paul-to-the-Lakers chatter grew louder this week, and the common belief is that it would take Bynum to get that deal done (as opposed to 31-year-old forward Pau Gasol). Yahoo! Sports reported on Monday that the Lakers and Hornets have, in fact, spoken recently about Paul, and the talks will heat up over the next couple of weeks: ESPN.com reported Monday night that the Hornets may try to deal the potential 2012 free agent before the start of the season.
The Warriors, Clippers and Celtics are also known to have serious interest in Paul, and ESPN.com reported Monday that Atlanta, Houston and Dallas do as well. A source with knowledge of the Rockets' thinking confirmed to SI.com that Houston would even be willing to trade for Paul without an extension or assurance of his long-term plans.
But a strong argument can be made as to why it makes sense for the Lakers to add Paul or Howard, and former longtime Los Angeles Times NBA writer Mark Heisler even opined recently about the possibility of adding both. While the Lakers have shown time and time again how they can win without the often-injured Bynum, the notion of having a premier point guard to pair with Kobe Bryant during his twilight years is a new and possibly dynamic frontier. Derek Fisher wasn't on the league's short list of elite floor generals even in his prime, and he's certainly not now that he's 37 years old. That reality inspired Lakers legend Magic Johnson to call for change after his old team's playoff failure in 2011, when he tweeted that they should "blow it up" but was subsequently rebuffed by Kupchak.
Should Paul question the long-term viability of teaming up with an older group, he'd need only to be briefed on the Lakers' television contract with Time Warner to get a sense of their place in the market going forward. While the deal has been consistently reported as $3 billion over 20 years, SI.com reported numerous times, starting in April, that it was potentially worth $5 billion over 25 years. The Orange County Register recently confirmed that report. By comparison, the Lakers' $200 million annual deal would be more than 20 times that of the league's lowest (Charlotte's deal, according to industry sources, is worth $9 million annually).
Despite Bynum's having everything to do with the Lakers' classless fall to the Mavericks in a Western Conference semifinals sweep last postseason, Kupchak said he believes in the ability of his core to contend for a title. To review, it was Bynum's elbow on Mavericks guard J.J. Barea that resulted in the five-game suspension he is about to serve. Which team he'll be serving it for, however, remains to be seen.
Wilson Chandler's phone was supposed to be ringing off the hook from teams who wanted to secure his long-term hoops future. Instead, he waits half a world away for his time to come while free agency unfolds.
The Nuggets' small forward was the first of four current NBA players to sign deals with the Chinese Basketball Association during the lockout that didn't include out clauses; fellow free agents J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin (both of whom played with Denver last season) and Aaron Brooks (Suns) were the others. And while things are going well for Chandler -- who is second in the league in scoring behind Smith while playing for Zhejiang Guangsha -- his agent told SI.com on Saturday that it remains to be seen whether Chandler can find his way out.
"Things get tricky," his agent, Chris Luchey, said. "You never know. As of right now, our intentions are to come back to the NBA in February or March [when the CBA season ends]. But it's basketball and things are always changing. I'll just say it like that. Things are always changing.
"We haven't even inquired about the possibility of being let go. We've just been following the procedure, just following our daily duty -- playing, practicing, getting ready for the next one. We haven't asked for a release. We haven't inquired about it. We haven't made any suggestions, any of that. We've just been playing."
It helps that the organization handles its affairs better than most. For all the horror stories of international teams not paying on time or treating their players poorly, Luchey said Zhejiang Guangsha officials have been top-notch and that Chandler has enjoyed his experience. The team, which is coached by former Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, was 4-2 through Sunday and will play into March if it makes the playoffs.
After tying his career high with 15.3 points per game in 2010-11, Chandler -- who landed with Denver as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade and is a restricted free agent until next July -- would have no shortage of options. Even with his unique situation and no apparent need to discuss his NBA options, Luchey said he has been in contact with Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri and a "handful" of other teams since executives were allowed to speak with agents last Wednesday.
"We've been in contact with Masai," Luchey said. "He called the first day they were able to communicate. They have a strong interest in keeping him on long term. They're the first team that we've been communicating with, the team that we've had consistent dialogue with since we've been able to communicate."
Whenever Chandler returns, he will have to decide whether to sign with a team for the rest of the season (although the Nuggets could still match all offers) or try for a long-term deal. Until then, he's resigned to the fact that he knew this was a possibility when he signed the CBA deal.
"We talked about that for 10 days straight" before he signed in late August, Luchey said. "What if the lockout ends? He consistently kept saying, 'Then we're there. It's not about when the lockout ends. It's about what I want to do today.' Obviously there's a yearning to get back home, an anticipation of 'Man, I can't wait to get back. ... I can't wait to get back to the NBA.' He's enjoying this, but he can't wait to get back to playing against guys he played against all his life."
• With training camp just three days away, the slowest of free agency periods continues. While teams and players can't come to oral or written agreements until Friday, Monday marked the first day in which team officials could speak with the players themselves -- not just their agents.
• Of all the free-agency conversations to eavesdrop on, I'd pick the ones between Shane Battier, Grant Hill and their respective suitors. Both players are as bright as they come in the league, and you can bet they had plenty of sharp and pressing questions as they talked to team officials Monday.
Both small forwards are well-respected veterans with plenty left to offer, and sources close to both players say they have yet to make up their minds. While Hill has said the chances are good that he'll return to Phoenix, he has narrowed his list to the Suns, Knicks, Bulls and Spurs, with the Warriors, Celtics and Clippers trailing. The Knicks would seem unlikely, however, as sources have said New York is offering only one-year deals in order to preserve salary-cap space for next summer when Paul, Howard and Nets point guard Deron Williams might be available as free agents.
Battier's list still includes the Heat, Spurs, Pacers, Raptors, Grizzlies, Celtics and his former Memphis team. The Thunder have also had discussions with either Battier or his camp. The team-to-player conversations might matter more with players like these than with so many others, as a clear understanding of roles, goals and, of course, financial incentive will come into play.
• Jamal Crawford spent much of last season frustrated that Hawks officials weren't more eager to offer an extension and make him part of their future. He's feeling the love now, though.
A source close to the 11-year veteran guard said he was contacted on Monday by the Pacers, Hawks, Nets, Timberwolves, Suns, Bulls and Magic. The Bulls and Magic are believed to be interested in getting him via a sign-and-trade since they are over the salary cap and would be able to offer only the mid-level exception (a four-year deal starting at $5 million). When asked on Sunday who was leading the pack for Crawford's services, the source named, in order, the Hornets, Suns, Bulls, Hawks, Nets and Pacers.
• The Kings have more money to spend than the rest, an estimated $17 million required by opening night to reach the league's new minimum payroll. Among their likely additions, restricted free agent Marcus Thornton remains a priority to re-sign. According to a source close to the shooting guard, however, his former team, the Hornets, is among a group of "four or five" interested clubs.
The Kings are also interested in re-signing unrestricted free-agent center Samuel Dalembert, but they're simultaneously pursuing longtime Rockets big man Chuck Hayes, who averaged career highs of 7.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists last season. As first reported by Yahoo! Sports,there is mutual interest between Hayes, an unrestricted free agent, and the Kings.
• With Nene, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol and Dalembert leading the free-agent class of big men, it was somewhat surprising that there wasn't more movement on that front as of Monday evening. One agent, however, surmised that many of the teams pursuing those bigs are the same ones interested in trading for Howard, and that his uncertain future might be causing the delay.
While Houston and Golden State appear to be among the more aggressive suitors in the big-man market, the Rockets seem to be homing in on Nene while the Warriors prefer Chandler. However, their respective salary-cap situations would require some roster shifting to make those deals work.
As previously reported by SI.com, Nene, Chandler and Gasol all set their early asking prices in the neighborhood of maximum-contract territory, starting at $14.8 million for Gasol, $17.7 million for Nene and $20.7 million for Chandler. The Nets top the list of conflicted suitors considering their well-chronicled pursuit of Howard, while the Pacers (who are pursuing forward David West and Gasol) and the Trail Blazers are looking for bigs as well.
Of the big men and their previous teams, Memphis appears most likely to retain its player (Gasol) and Dalembert could still return to Sacramento, but it seems unlikely that Nene will return to Denver or Chandler will go back to Dallas. A source confirmed a Houston Chronicle report that Rockets officials traveled to Denver on Monday to meet with Nene.