The Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, for now, appear to be the leading suitors for the services of one Christopher E. Paul. Both teams find themselves in such a position due to the presence of various future assets on their rosters, headlined by the young guards Eric Gordon and Stephen Curry. It's unclear at this point whether Curry or Gordon will be included in any final trade offers (with Curry the far more likely inclusion), but it'd be instructive nonetheless to determine which player would be a better fit in New Orleans long term.
The latest from ESPN last night indicates that the Clippers' current offer includes Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Chris Kaman, with Eric Gordon left out of the deal. Multiple contradicting reports exist on the Warriors' current offer, and it's unclear whether Stephen Curry is a part of it (or indeed, what a Warriors offer without Steph Curry would even look like).
In any case, among these two perennial All-Star staples at guard for the 2010s, who should be the Hornets pick? Jump on it.
Curry the Point Guard
The biggest question about Steph Curry, ever since his arrival at the professional level, has been about his fit at the point. Curry's range and unbelievable three point shot (44% as a rookie in 2010, a feat he rather easily repeated in 2011) lent themselves to numerous proposed switches to shooting guard. But over the course of Curry's sophomore campaign, his vision and passing ability became increasingly apparent.
Of course, 2010-2011 didn't exactly permanently answer the Curry at point questions. From a statistical perspective, there perhaps wasn't much growth in Curry's assist rate (25% to 28%), relatively high turnover rate (16.5% to 16.4%), or, by definition then, assist to turnover rate. The raw skills, though, are definitely there, and it's questionable that the Warriors actually ever turned him loose and made the position entirely his, the way New Orleans would in 2011-2012. The Skills Challenge, which Curry won in 2011, can hardly be considered an authority on point guard skill, but Curry looked at home there, and as Warriors World's Ethan Sherwood Strauss pointed out to me yesterday, Curry has excelled when not paired with combo guard Monta Ellis. For example, this 2010 piece from Warriors World notes that Curry averaged 8.3 assists/game in the 17 games Monta Ellis missed during the 2010 season.
More importantly, regardless of our opinions of Curry, the Warriors have operated under the assumption that Curry is their point guard of the future, and Dell Demps would be acquiring Curry strictly as a point guard.
Gordon the Shooting Guard
Before we get into Curry vs. Gordon, let's give Gordon his due as well. Gordon was always a very promising guard, showcasing his potential in each of his first two seasons. As a rookie and sophomore, Gordon put up true shooting percentages of 59% and 57%; the question was always whether he could replicate such efficiency with an increased workload.
As he showed last year, the answer is clearly yes. After attempting 12.1 and 12.7 shots per 36 minutes in 2009 and 2010, the figure jumped to 16.2 looks per game in 2011. The efficiency didn't decline at all. Gordon actually drew more shooting fouls per 36 minutes, kept his three point shooting figures relatively intact, saw a huge increase in his midrange percentages, and remarkably, turned the ball over less frequently.
It's a reasonable bet that Gordon will be at least a top-3 shooting guard in the NBA by the 2012-2013 season, perhaps surpassed only by Miami's Dwyane Wade.
The Scarcity of Lead and Off Guards
Bill Simmons wrote on Grantland yesterday about the looming dearth of talent at the off guard position. His argument is essentially that not only will Gordon be among the best at his position in the next two to three years, the gulf between the upper tier and the next level will be gigantic, with Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, and Manu Ginobili on the decline without a ton of immediate up-and-comers to fill their vacated roles.
It's an argument I largely agree with. The pickings at shooting guard with the ability to score will indeed be slim. In relative terms, it certainly seems easier at this point to acquire an equivalently talented upper tier point guard. The counterargument, though, is this: value at shooting guard takes on many different forms. A scorer like Gordon is obviously the option most fans' (and honestly, most GM's) eyes will be immediately drawn to. But as we've seen with the emergence of a guy like Arron Afflalo, a strong perimeter defending off guard can be extremely valuable. In a given system, a 2 guard that does nothing more than space the floor and hit threes at a very high clip can be valuable. A hybrid of those two qualities would again be a strong piece. The range of potential contributing options at shooting guard is rather large, especially as we continue to better understand the defensive side of the game, and even if a guy like Eric Gordon is a clear runaway winner as a dynamic scoring option.
At the point guard position, even if the talent is more readily obvious, the flexibility in terms of the way a player can contribute simply isn't there. The maximum defensive value a point guard can have is inherently less than that of a perimeter defender assigned to the opponent's top perimeter target on each play. Unless a team is playing a highly specific system -- Derek Fisher two to three years ago comes to mind -- a lead guard that can do nothing but shoot the ball is less valuable than an off guard that can do nothing but shoot; the opportunity cost of having to set up plays and handle the ball is the ability to float to open points on the court and space the floor.
Basically, Stephen Curry opens a team up to a number of different options at shooting guard.* Eric Gordon doesn't free up nearly the same choices at point.
*Pairing Steph with a strong, physical, defensive shooting guard would probably be the best option; it would be a perfect foil to Curry's game. That paying for defense is less expensive than paying for offense is a hidden perk.
A NOLA Future
While Gordon and Curry are the same age, Gordon's actually played one more season than Curry, meaning he'll hit free agency a year sooner.
And while it's entirely cynical to think of either of these guys hitting free agency before either has, depending on who you ask, even been offered to us, it's also completely necessary.
Consider this: if the Hornets acquired Eric Gordon, he'd be a restricted free agent in 2012, or in other words, the exact same summer that Chris Paul would be a free agent. Gordon would be restricted of course, meaning that if another team offered him a huge deal and he took it, the Hornets could match.
But if the Hornets had a poor year this season, what incentive would Gordon have to stick around in New Orleans? He'd be well within his rights to opt against signing an offer sheet with another team (and having New Orleans match and retain him) and instead take the Hornets' one year qualifying offer. He'd then be an unrestricted free agent, totally free to walk away in the summer of 2013. A single season is very little time to build anything around Gordon and would put tremendous pressure on Dell Demps.
Curry, by virtue of his extra year, would at least ease some of that "win now" mentality Gordon would bring. Curry would hit restricted free agency in 2013, and in the worst case scenario, unrestricted free agency in 2014; by the 2014 offseason, the Hornets will have had three full sessions of free agency and three NBA drafts to surround Curry with talent. No matter where you stand on Curry vs. Gordon, that has to be an essential consideration in the trade calculus.
As Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton noted to me yesterday, there's really no wrong answer here. Both of these guys will be multiple-time All-Stars over the next decade. Whether either takes the next step to become a max-contract worthy superstar remains to be seen, but these are the types of players (age 22, ~19 PER, etc) that are likely to make that leap. My philosophy for building a team coupled with Curry's extra season and my slight preference for him as a player over Gordon makes me lean towards Steph.
At the end of the day, this could well be a moot point. The Clippers may have very little incentive to add Gordon to any prospective deals, and if Golden State can't figure out the Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul extension situation, they very well may pull Curry out of all proposals as well.
Who's ready for some Chauncey Billups?