Are Chris Paul, Dwight Howard in race to L.A.?

When Dell Demps was hired as the New Orleans Hornets general manager, his plane landed at the city's airport in the summer of 2010, and he stepped into the terminal with his bags, folders and the thrill of running his own franchise. He walked into the gate area, peered toward a television and squinted his eyes to read the bottom scroll on the screen. Chris Paul(notes) wants a trade, it read.

“Welcome to New Orleans,” Demps would tell himself.

For everything he's done to try to make Paul want to stay with the Hornets, Demps has always understood it was the most improbable resolution. The Hornets had no owner, no second star and no leverage to push back the momentum of other superstar players fleeing small markets for the bright lights, big city. The owners have made it more costly in the new collective bargaining talks for stars to leave, but the NBA can’t stop the magnetic pull to the metropolises, and never will.

So Demps made the call on Wednesday to Paul’s agent, and there was no surprise: He was told that Paul wouldn’t be signing a new contract with the Hornets, that New York was his preferred destination and that ultimately a trade benefitted everyone. Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith is still awaiting confirmation from Dwight Howard(notes) that this will be Howard's exit strategy, too. Demps never had a chance with Paul. The Hornets have payroll constraints, an archaic arena and literally no ownership. Smith had every chance: a committed owner, a league-high payroll and a sparking new arena.

In a lot of ways, the Hornets and Orlando Magic are in a race to make a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for Paul and Howard. They’re running so many scenarios across the big boards in their offices, but make no mistake: Los Angeles is the port that can entice Paul and Howard to sign extensions, with the one player – young center Andrew Bynum(notes) – as a centerpiece that can justify the trade.

[ Video: Are Chris Paul and Dwight Howard on the move? ]

The Lakers and Hornets talked several days ago, league sources told Yahoo! Sports, but it was one of those circuitous conversations that left the sides unclear what it would take to get a deal done, and the talk ended with no formal offers. The Lakers and Hornets expect to speak again this week, sources said. The prospect of Pau Gasol(notes) as the primary player going to the Hornets won’t be acceptable, sources said. The Lakers will ultimately be willing to let New Orleans pick its player in the deal – Bynum or Gasol – but New Orleans is determined to get quality, and quantity, in a deal.

Bynum has privately been heard to say this offseason that he wants his own team, and the chances of him getting that – in New Orleans or Orlando – have never been higher. Years ago, Kobe Bryant(notes) wanted Bynum moved for Jason Kidd(notes), but Bryant’s been insistent all summer that he still believes in this core, isn’t interested in wholesale change.

Bryant isn’t anti-Dwight Howard, but he could see like everyone else: The Lakers need speed, athleticism and younger legs on the perimeter. Los Angeles could do little to stop Paul in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and that’ll only became a deeper issue this season and beyond. Nevertheless, through trades they’ve made and not made, through the hiring of their new coach, the Lakers have made it clear they don’t go to Bryant for his blessing.

In a shortened season, significant change can be risky, but it’s hard to believe these Lakers don’t need some boldness to become champions again. The Lakers could still revisit Lamar Odom(notes) for Andre Iguodala(notes), which would give them a superior athletic wing presence to make defending easier for Bryant and Ron Artest(notes).

For now, it is Paul on the market. Howard’s on deck. The New Jersey Nets will have a package of Brook Lopez(notes) and picks available for the Magic, enticing Howard with Deron Williams(notes) and a new Brooklyn arena to call his own. What’s more, the Chicago Bulls are still a sleeper for Howard, several league executives believe. “Chicago may tell Orlando to take any two players – or three – besides [Derrick] Rose,” one GM said. Howard isn’t keen on the cold weather, but the Bulls would have the best point guard-center combination since Magic and Kareem.

The Bulls have Omar Asik developing fast as a potential replacement for Joakim Noah(notes) should the Bulls include Noah in a package. Noah would have to be a part of it, but would a combination of Noah and Luol Deng(notes) or Carlos Boozer(notes) – bringing back Howard and one of those bad Orlando contracts – be enough? The Magic need a force to replace Howard, an anchor.

[ Related: Lakers consider signing Jason Kapono ]

The NBA and Players Association still haven’t signed the new labor agreement, and the league has still reset to where it was before the lockout. Another year, another hostage standoff. Feel free to gripe over the small markets losing star players, but the NBA has no one to blame but itself for Paul wanting to leave. He’s been immersed in that community, and desperately wanted it to work there. He’s a small-town North Carolina kid, but he’s been honest about it. New Orleans will make the deal that the Cleveland Cavaliers never had the notice to make for themselves.

During LeBron James'(notes) last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs had incredible fear he would leave as a free agent. They had no choice but to privately discuss the possibility of getting an unprecedented package for trading him. Yet, it didn’t take long to internally decide that even if he did plan to leave, Cavs officials didn't want to be remembered as the management team who traded LeBron James away.

Even if the Cavs had painfully accurate information on his plans to exit, they still couldn’t do it. After all, James could’ve simply said, “Hey, I was never going to leave. They traded me.” And he would’ve been out of harm’s way forever in Cleveland. Carmelo Anthony(notes) made the Denver Nuggets' life miserable after his trade demand, because his bad practice and shooting habits became worse a year ago. That was a long four months in Denver, and the Nuggets couldn’t wait until he walked out the door to the Knicks.

With Paul, that won’t happen in New Orleans. The Hornets don’t want a long soap-opera season, and that’s why Demps won’t waste time trying to sell Paul on staying until the trade deadline. Paul will probably let Demps know his intentions face-to-face, possibly as soon as Monday, and the GM will be right back on the phone searching out a deal. It probably won’t be long until Howard makes himself completely clear too: Get me out, send me West.

In the end, the Magic and Hornets will be searching for teams that can satisfy Paul’s and Howard’s desire for a championship contender, and that list is painfully short when you consider those with the players and assets to fulfill the return on the trade. It won’t be New York, but 3,000 miles away, in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are forever searching for a twentysomething star to be the next in line, where the race to trade Chris Paul and Dwight Howard for a package centered around Andrew Bynum has all but officially started.

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