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Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Can the Clippers keep Paul happy?

By Arash Markazi

Heading into the Los Angeles Clippers’ season opener on Oct. 31, we will tackle some of the pressing questions facing the team this season. Today, we ask how far the Clippers have to go to convince Chris Paul to stay with the team long-term.

Don’t ask Chris Paul about his plans next season. Well, you can, but you won’t get much of an answer. And when he does finally have an answer to the question of where he will play basketball for the foreseeable future, expect a short press release instead of a big press conference.

The question, of course, is will that press release come from the Clippers or from some other team, and does the answer to that question largely depend on how well the Clippers do this season?

The Clippers offered Paul a three-year, $60 million extension this offseason, but he turned it down, not surprisingly. Even the Clippers didn’t expect Paul to accept the offer. After this season, Paul can sign a five-year, $108 million extension with the Clippers or choose to take less money and play elsewhere.

If this were the old days of the Clippers, when their roster was nothing more than a revolving door for journeymen and future stars biding their time until they could showcase their skills elsewhere, Paul's decision would be all too predictable. The Clippers, however, have undergone a massive culture change since Paul was traded to the team last year.

Suddenly, the Clippers are a destination franchise. Players like Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill have chosen to end their careers and chase one last title with the Clippers. Players like Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler have chosen to sign with the Clippers when they could have gone elsewhere for similar deals. And Blake Griffin, who would be on top of every team’s wish list as a free agent, signed a five-year extension with the Clippers that kicks in next season and could be worth up to $95 million.

Which is to say, perhaps Paul’s future with the Clippers isn’t necessarily tied to a specific win total this season or to a particular playoff round in the postseason. Paul wants to win a championship, and a second-round exit wouldn’t be an ideal finish. Would it be enough to drive him off?

The Clippers, on paper, may be the deepest team in the league, but they are also likely no better than the fourth- or fifth-best team, behind the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Most would probably consider them a long shot to make it to the conference finals. Either way, it seems unlikely to me that Paul would tie his future to the team reaching a certain round.

It’s not like he would be leaving the Clippers to join the Heat, Thunder, Lakers or Spurs, anyway. He’d probably be taking a step back in terms of supporting cast and city size, not to mention taking less money, if he were to leave Los Angeles.

Paul knows the Clippers are headed in the right direction and he knows he is the one guiding the team. He was essentially an assistant general manager this offseason, convincing Billups to re-sign and recruiting players like Hill, Crawford, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins to sign with the Clippers. He is also close with Gerald Madkins, who joined the Clippers as the director of basketball operations this season after spending the last two seasons as the vice president of player personnel for the New Orleans Hornets.

This is Paul’s team, on and off the court, and he will no doubt play a role in determining whether Vinny Del Negro and Gary Sacks are the right long-term choices as head coach and vice president of basketball operations before committing to the team long-term himself.

Yes, a long playoff run for the Clippers would make his decision all the easier, but as long as Paul has reason to believe he has input and reason to believe the ship is headed in the right direction -- a second straight trip to the postseason, a club that competes against the league's best -- I expect him to stay.