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Essay: The Superstar Swap

A couple weeks ago, at this time, everyone was crying about BRI splits and mid-level exception particulars. Once that ended, and an agreement was made, floodgates were opened, allowing unexpected rumors involving high profile players switching cities to smack us all in the face. The most prominent and reputable rumor so far has Rajon Rondo headed to New Orleans in exchange for Chris Paul. The deal would create ripples throughout the league for obvious reasons, but before it was even made a reality, an obscene number of questions were spawned: Who is the better point guard? Who is the better player? Whose fan base would be happier if it happened? Which team would be more improved? Which GM would come to regret it more? Who would win the deal?

This all appears for naught now, as Paul appears to have his sites set on New York, and would reportedly (I’m beginning to hate this word) refuse to resign in Boston after this season.

What happens if Chris Paul goes to the Celtics? For starters, the way defenses have long challenged a sometimes stagnant Boston offense would no longer work. The basic strategy employed by teams with the proper personnel was to sag off of Rondo, pack the paint, and force him to shoot. Chris Paul’s shot isn’t like Rondo’s in that once the ball is released, people expect it to go in.

It got me thinking about what would happen if some of the league’s great players happened to trade places. Would there be a clear winner or clear loser in each instance? Superstars like these are usually acquired in one of two ways: the draft and free agency. For several key reasons, superstars are rarely, if ever, traded for one another.The primary one being no GM wants to be known as the person who traded Future Hall of Fame member X, no matter what they’re getting in return. (In the case of Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks chose to place all their eggs in one man’s basket, and throw half their roster on a plane to Denver. It’s a prayer that could either end in a championship or a disheveled front office, axed head coach, and all-time fed up fan base.) Superstars are so rare in this league that once a GM has one, he’s probably already begun building around that player’s strengths. A great example here is the Orlando Magic. They acquired three-point shooters, a couple guys who could beat their man off the dribble, and didn’t worry about defense (knowing good ol’ Dwight would act as their very own Beware of Dog sign hanging from the rim). That was their model to win basketball games, and if they dealt him for an elite shooting guard, the kingdom would crumble.

Here are six very intriguing, straight up trades that will probably never happen, but would stop beating hearts if they did. In these hypothetical situations, we’re strictly talking about a one year swap. Pretend these deals were made in a lockout free offseason, obliging the players with plenty of time to blend beside their new teammates with a full, intensive training camp. To halt any confusion regarding what would happen after that one season we’re also looking at this under the assumption that after this year, an ACTUAL nuclear winter captures the NBA and there are no professional basketball games for the next five seasons.

Rajon Rondo vs. Russell Westbrook

2010-11 relevant stats (rebounds, assists, steals, and points are per game):

Rondo – 68 starts, 6.6 WS, 17.1 PER, 49.5 TS%, 23.3 3P%, 56.8 FT%, 4.4 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 10.6 points.

Westbrook – 82 starts, 9.4 WS, 23.6 PER, 53.8 TS%, 33 3P%, 84.2 FT%, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 21.9 points.

Oklahoma City’s Viewpoint

By acquiring Rajon Rondo, the Oklahoma City Thunder would be doing two significant things that could take their hopeful championship aspirations to an even greater level. The first would be accentuating the game’s best scorer, Kevin Durant, with a true point guard who has little to no interest in scoring the basketball himself. Rondo has as immense an ego as anyone in the league, but he puts it on display in his own mercurial ways, and placing the ball in the basket—the most red-blooded thing basketball players do—isn’t one of them. All of a sudden the gigantic elephant in Oklahoma City’s locker room, aka Russell Westbrook, would be elsewhere. There’d be no more worrying about Durant’s shot attempts and Westbrook’s horrendous decision making that seems to grow in detriment the further the Thunder advance.

The second, and much less general development this trade would create, is the reuniting of Rondo with Kendrick Perkins.The positive affects of this will be more visceral than visible; both guys will undoubtedly be happier on the same team. To be honest, it’d be nice to see.

As far as defense, Rondo brings slight improvement to a young, athletic team that’s hungry to embody the tough principles Boston had these last few years. Not only is he an athletic marvel who rises above the world’s best athletes every night, but his photographic memory comes in handy when opposing point guards call their plays and Rondo knows what they are before they’re executed.

The one negative thing this trade could do to the Thunder is make their offense predictable. Apart from Durant and James Harden (who should be in the starting lineup by now), the team has no scorers capable of creating on their own. Technically Rondo can do this, but he isn’t as consistent as Westbrook. When the league’s elite defenses begin to focus 90% of their resources to stopping Durant, Oklahoma City could falter in dramatic fashion.

Boston’s Viewpoint

Some view Rondo as the most important player on the Celtics, and in many ways this is true. He quarterbacks one of the league’s best defenses, sets up the likes of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and whoever is playing center with unstoppable penetration and the best court vision in basketball, and is arguably the team’s toughest player—on a group whose captain was once nearly stabbed to death and didn’t skip a professional beat. Inserting Russell Westbrook on this team is a crapshoot. Would he be able to keep all the veterans happy, as they watch him ignore the open man and wildly drive through the teeth of a defense? Would the defense drop off?

But if Westbrook somehow manages to shape his athleticism into Boston’s structured offense (or, more likely, Doc Rivers redraws the team’s offensive tactics to suit Westbrook), and their offense ceases its periodic motionless, then things could be enormously successful.

Happier Fan Base: Oklahoma City

Both players are great, but both have glaring weaknesses (Westbrook is an irrational, slightly deranged decision maker while Rondo is petrified of the free-throw line). In the end, Rondo’s ability to make Kevin Durant an even greater player will get the Thunder even closer to raising the championship trophy. In that, Oklahoma City’s fans will be more than grateful.

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