(right) and Dwight Howard
are the two biggest names in the 2013 free-agent class. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
He forced his way out of a small market to head to Los Angeles, leaving his old team with no choice but to rebuild from the ground up. Everyone seems to agree that he got his coach dismissed and that he's made his voice known in player personnel decisions. He's got a smile as wide as the Pacific, but has been known to pout and often addresses referees like they are butlers who served his dinner cold. He hasn't firmly committed to his team even though the organization's entire summer plans -- heck, the franchise's next half-decade, or more -- hinge on his return as a free agent. His team bombed out of the playoffs early, again, leaving him ringless for another summer. He even managed to get ejected from the last game of the season, one last fruitless act of frustration at the end of a year that, ultimately, ended in disappointment.
Oh, you thought I was talking about Dwight Howard? No, no, I was talking about Chris Paul, Teflon point guard, the man whose last few years mirror Howard's in so many ways while their images and likeability only continue to diverge. How is it that two stars -- regarded for years as arguably the best at their respective positions -- now find themselves on polar opposite sides of public perception?
Maybe Howard needs a fake TV twin -- Donald Howard, maybe -- to make him appear more charming and accessible? Maybe Howard needs to start bringing family members with him to postgame press conferences? Maybe he should add some alley-oop passing practice to his summer workout routine?
It's hard not to be annoyingly facetious this week, as the Howard-related rumors come down for the third straight year. Never has a man with no knowledge of his own thinking produced so many sources who have knowledge of his thinking. We all try to keep up -- it's the Lakers, or the Rockets, or the Mavericks, or the Hawks, or the Warriors, or the ... go ahead and blink, I see your eyes glazing over already.
Here we are, yet again, wondering what Howard will do -- and, in some quarters, vilifying him for his continued indecision -- while Paul still hasn't given the "I'm coming back, 100 percent" public declaration with a little more than a month left until free agency opens. The man with hands and feet so quick he can crossover to the hoop or take off in transition in a split-second has made it this far without catching any truly meaningful flak for Del Negro's departure, the Clippers' step back in the postseason, or the uncertainty of his future.
He's fully entitled to do his due diligence -- and to milk the saga for increased exposure, if he so desires -- but we do need to acknowledge the bulletproof rep he's fashioned over these last few years. Did Paul even get mentioned in the same breath as Deron Williams this week? Is anyone waiting on pins and needles or churning out rumors by the bucketful in advance of his free-agency announcement? Has anyone written the "Is Chris Paul a winner?" column yet? After all, in eight years, he has zero rings and only two playoff-series victories, right?
Dwight Howard has reportedly expressed interested in signing with the Rockets
this offseason. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
The biggest difference between Howard and Paul, without question, is the perception of their credibility. Howard's went out the door when he took his angst public in Orlando, it got kicked down the road when Van Gundy pulled back the curtain and it fled town when reports and rumors gobbled up his season with the Lakers. He played through pain and led the league in rebounding, and it didn't much matter. Until he finally signs a long-term contract, he seemingly can't be trusted.
Paul's credibility, on the other hand, remains nearly spotless, to the point that we seem to have collectively assumed that he will simply re-sign with the Clippers because it's a very, very good situation and he seems smart enough to realize that the grass in his yard is quite green, and could easily get even greener over the next few years. The average observer can climb inside Paul's head and see a laundry list of criteria -- great market, very good roster, lots of influence on important decisions, tons of extra money if he re-signs with the Clippers for five years, etc. -- that will compel him to make the right call. Try to climb inside Howard's head and you'll get lost in a corn maze composed entirely of empty Skittles wrappers.
To keep that credibility, Paul has been much more discreet and savvy than Howard, no doubt. He might strategically whine about foul calls but he hasn't made a spectacle of himself off the court. He's led on the court and in the locker room, and his teammates tend to gush about his impact, whereas Howard's have often sounded confused, or maybe even slightly put off, by his personality and, in the case of some of his former teammates, disgusted and insulted by his statements.
This isn't just a persona thing. Paul has caught some breaks, too. His trade from the Hornets to the Clippers was legitimately shocking, with reports that the NBA league office, which technically owned the pre-Pelicans at the time, first nixed a trade that would have sent him to the Lakers. When the dust settled, David Stern was the enemy, Paul's new teammates had already made "Lob City" into a perfect million-dollar catchphrase and he was greeted with open arms as the savior with the skill and personality to turn a downtrodden franchise on its head (which he has). There was barely any time to mourn for the years of lottery appearances facing Hornets fans with all this fresh, new excitement surrounding the Clippers. The timing was crucial too: getting it done right after the lockout was the perfect time to flip the page, as Paul avoided months of agonizing questions about his future during the season.
Chris Paul led the Clippers to the best season in franchise history in 2012-13. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Other circumstances have fallen into place as well. He came into an organization where expectations had been rock-bottom forever. Blake Griffin is a legitimate star player without the accompanying ego that might make him revolt when Paul wants to drive the cart. The Clippers took some risks last summer -- signing Jamal Crawford after a down year and Matt Barnes after some legal trouble -- that paid off nicely. The "culture" of the Clippers powered the club to some new heights -- a perfect month in December, the first division title in franchise history -- and the core pieces, once Paul does commit, are locked into fairly synchronized timelines deal-wise.
Pondering the treatment of Howard relative to Paul leads to what feels like an inevitable conclusion: It's too late for D12. Even if Howard declares his allegiance to the Lakers for the next five years tomorrow, there will be many who see it as too little, too late. It's even possible that winning a title wouldn't totally erase all the negativity surrounding him, as LeBron James' Decision took less than an hour, while Howard's Indecision is running on three years now. He might still be able to salvage this mess through dominant play and rings, but it's hard to bet on a full repair. And if he leaves Los Angeles to go ring-chasing elsewhere? Forget about it. The character-torching will begin anew.
Which only serves to make Paul's positioning that much more impressive. He's set up for another round of savior talk once he re-ups. Whoever the Clippers hire to replace Del Negro will surely get the "Chris Paul stamp of approval." Paul will probably share in the credit for any upcoming signings in free agency, just as he did last year. This is all starting to feel a lot like that commercial Paul stars in, where he disappears in a cloud of smoke as defenders try in vain to locate him. He's running public relations circles around all of us and, what's more, it's not even upsetting to admit that. It's hard to begin to feel duped because the depth of his popularity and credibility are so magnetic. How does one get angry if Paul still remains, somehow, so appealing?
Johnson said recently that the Clippers are the new "Showtime," which of course makes Paul the heir apparent to Magic himself. When you think about it, only a true magician could leave an audience so happily befuddled when an amateur like Howard draws boos and tomatoes while performing a similar act.