Chris Paul/Dwight Howard Make Atlanta the East's #3 Team

With Paul's 17.3 nERD Score gone, the Clippers would be left crippled.

My favorite sports story of the day has to be the supposedly earth-shattering news that Chris Paul and Dwight Howard may be looking to team up somewhere next season. "These guys text occassionally! They must be looking to form a new Big Three, even though Paul has indicated he doesn't want to leave L.A. and Houston seems tailor-made to Howard!"

But let's indulge the reports for a second. What if, as has been heavily rumored, Paul and Howard actually did team up to go to the Atlanta Hawks? It would rob the Hawks of pretty much their entire cap space, but a core four of Paul, Howard, Al Horford, and John Jenkins isn't half bad. Then, they could take the Miami model and surround their stars with cap-friendly veterans (even though the idea of Atlanta and making cap-friendly decisions still makes me chuckle after Josh Smith).

Obviously, the current season is still going on, so we don't have next year's projections ready quite yet. But I was thinking: if you put CP3 and DH12 on this year's Atlanta team, how would their projected wins have changed?

I had numberFire Chief Analyst Keith Goldner run the numbers, and I only gave him four rules:

1. Paul and Howard are on the Hawks.
2. Since Lakers are over cap even without Dwight and the Clippers are close without Paul, nobody replaces them on the roster.
3. Devin Harris and Zaza Pachulia are gone from the Hawks, as both are current expiring contracts and Paul and Howard take their jobs, respectively.
4. Josh Smith is also gone from the Hawks, since his contract would need to be cleared to make way for the newcomers.

Even with just those four roster moves, an entirely new Eastern Conference emerges. In this new world, the Hawks would have finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference thanks to their superstars.

The New Adjusted Projections

Atlanta Hawks: +8.6 Wins

Chris Paul finished the season with a 17.3 nERD Score, the third-highest of any NBA player behind two guys named LeBron and Durant. That means that if the Clippers simply trotted out CP3 and four league-average starters, the team would be expected to finished 17.3 games over .500, or just shy of 50 wins. Meanwhile, Devin Harris finished with a 0.7 nERD score. Anybody see where the Hawks would want Paul on their side instead?

While Dwight Howard was not nearly as efficient as Paul, finishing with a 3.9 nERD score, both players would represent monumental increases in the quality of play for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks finished this season with only two players adding over one win for the team themselves: Horford (6.3 nERD) and Kyle Korver (5.3 nERD).

That's how, with Paul and Howard in the fold, the Hawks would be expected to gain 8.6 wins based off of each player's efficiency. This would put Atlanta at a projected 52.6-29.4 record given their 44-38, sixth-place finish. The Knicks finished second in the East with a 54-28 record this season, while the Pacers finished third with a 49-32 record, meaning the Hawks would have overtaken the Pacers for that third place slot.

And perhaps the most entertaining part? Josh Smith finished the year with a -3.0 nERD score, meaning that his 97 offensive rating (0.97 points per possession) was so completely inefficient that the Hawks would gain 1.5 wins just by having him off the team. Even without placing Paul and Howard on the squad as a salary replacement, the Hawks would become a better team by letting his contract expire.

Los Angeles Clippers: -6.1 Wins

Now this isn't quite fair: without Paul on the books, the Clippers would be able to sign somebody to a five-million contract this season to help mitigate his loss. (Possibly Devin Harris if the Hawks released him for Paul in this strange hypothetical world?) But even so, nobody you could possibly sign would make up even close to six wins. There were four players in the NBA this season with the required nERD score above 12 needed for a six win improvement: LeBron, Durant, Paul himself, and Harden.

That's why the Clippers would go down quickly without CP3 in the fold. Sure, Eric Bledsoe wouldn't be a terrible replacement, especially with his similar 3.7 percent steal rate that sat third in the NBA behind Paul and Rubio. But there would be a monumental drop off in overall offensive efficiency, as Paul's 127 offensive rating sat second-best in the NBA behind Tyson Chandler while Bledsoe's 102 offensive rating was below average. Bledsoe's nERD score on the season was a barely-above-average 0.7.

Even with six wins taken away, the Clippers would have still be in the West's 4/5 matchup, just with the Grizzlies holding home court instead of the L.A. side. The projected 50-32 record also would have still been the eighth-best in the NBA, passed only by Memphis and the now-bolstered Atlanta squad. However, the Clippers' future prospects would not be nearly as bright, especially with Golden State, Houston, and that other team who plays in Staples looking longingly at their position.

Los Angeles Lakers: -1.4 Wins

Want an indicator of how far Dwight Howard's star has fallen? Based on projected wins if Howard wasn't on the team, the Lakers would barely feel a dent if he were gone. Their 43.6 projected wins and dropping to the eight seed might have actually been a good thing, seeing how strongly San Antonio has played the rest of the playoffs. Howard just isn't the same player he once was.

His 9.1 percent offensive rebound rate was the lowest of his career. His 19.4 percent total rebound rate was the second-lowest of his career and a 1.5 percent decrease from the season before. His 4.5 percent block rate was solid, but nowhere near the dominate 8.1 percent rate he posted in '09-10 with Orlando. And his free throw shooting somehow got worse, all the way down to .444.

That's how, in spite of his supposed star power, Howard was only the 41st-most efficient player in the NBA last season with that nERD score at 3.9. The Big Two in Atlanta wouldn't be Paul and Howard; it would be Paul and Horford. For the Lakers, both Antawn Jamison (2.1 nERD) and Jordan Hill (1.0 nERD) were moderately efficient this past season, and with the versatility of Pau Gasol, L.A. could conceivably plug one into the starting lineup and not lose too much firepower.