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Clippers at a critical, early crossroads

11/27/2012
Chris Paul was left frustrated after the Clippers' loss to the Hornets on Monday. Sam Forencich/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul wanted to choose his words carefully as he described the embarrassment he felt after losing to the New Orleans Hornets 105-98 on Monday night.

Paul was drafted by New Orleans in 2005 and spent his first six seasons in the NBA with the Hornets. He still considers it a home away from home and continues to do charitable work there with children in his after-school program. He didn't want to disrespect the team and the city while explaining the Clippers' worst loss of the season.

"We lost to a very ... let me choose my words ... not a very talented team but well coached," Paul said. "I watch them play every game that they play. One thing about [coach] Monty [Williams] is they're going to play hard. If you watch their games, they been to a couple of overtimes and they've only been in a couple of blowouts, which were against Denver and Oklahoma City. They're going to play hard. ... With those guys playing like that and us waiting until the fourth quarter to turn it on, it's going to be tough."

Paul has been in Los Angeles for about a year now, but he will still cite Williams' words of wisdom postgame when talking to reporters and to teammates when giving them advice. He still keeps in touch with his former coach on a regular basis. He can run down the Hornets' 4-9 record almost as well as he could the Clippers' 8-6 record. It's not that Paul hasn't closed the chapter on his time in New Orleans, but he is still close with many within the organization.

Some might take Paul's coaching comment as a jab at Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, but it's not. It's simply Paul giving credit to a coach he considers a friend and one of the best motivators he has ever played for. Paul enjoys playing for Del Negro, and even if he didn't, he would never announce it or passively insinuate it through the media. We're talking about a player who quietly orchestrated his exit from New Orleans without ever once demanding a trade publicly.

This is, however, a critical time for Paul and Del Negro and their relationship. Both are in the final year of their contracts with the team, and the Clippers are seemingly making every decision now to ensure Paul is as comfortable and as happy as possible.

The Clippers hired former Hornets vice president of player personnel Gerald Madkins as the team's director of basketball operations when the position opened after Gary Sacks replaced Neil Olshey as the general manager. They signed Willie Green, who was Paul's teammate in New Orleans, when they discovered Chauncey Billups would not be back until December at the earliest. And they recently hired New Orleans' director of communications, Denis Rogers, when their longtime director, Rob Raichlen, left the team after 20 years.

If Williams had not signed a four-year contract extension with New Orleans in August, there would probably be some rumblings that he could be the next Hornet to relocate to Los Angeles. As it is, Del Negro will need to win over Paul and win games this season to get a similar contract extension from the Clippers this offseason.

Before he can do that, he must find a way to get the Clippers to play better defensively. Their past two opponents have scored at least 104 points and shot better than 50 percent from the field.

"Our defense is just terrible, it's horrible, it's almost embarrassing," Paul said. "The fact that teams feel like that they can come down and score on us every night, we can't play like that. You're not going to win consistently. We got to take more pride in it, whether it's home or on the road. Guys can't look into our eyes and feel like they can get by us. That starts with all of us. We have to play with a sense of urgency and understand that when you're not a great team in this league, teams come into your city and it's whatever, but we have a target on our backs. We have to play like that."

Del Negro, normally reserved and full of clich├ęs after games, ripped into his team when he addressed them postgame and when talking to reporters after the game.

"That was an embarrassing game for us," Del Negro said. "We got nothing from our bigs, we got nothing from our bench, we got nothing from anybody. They set the tone. They went where they wanted when they wanted. They got to the line, we settled for jump shots and we didn't attack them like we should have. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you. You get what you deserve."

It might be early in the season, but how the Clippers respond to their current four-game losing streak in their next two home games, against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings, could have long-term repercussions for a team currently at a critical crossroads with its star player and its head coach.