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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Leverage, Chris Paul and the Clippers

By Kevin Arnovitz


Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Assembling a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo isn't easy.

After wrapping up a call with Chauncey Billups on Monday night, Clippers general manager Neil Olshey got a chance to slip out of the team’s training facility and head home for the first time in a couple of days. At his Monday afternoon media availability, Olshey was sporting stubble and the white Clippers polo shirt he'd been wearing during the all-nighter he pulled on Sunday night in the Chris Paul talks.

While all eyes were on the state of negotiations on Monday, the Clippers filled out the league's automated amnesty form and filled in $2,000,032 in the amount field for the rights to Billups. (Why 32? That's Blake Griffin's jersey number.) While the Clippers haggled with the NBA over a deal for Paul, they cleverly exploited one of the league's newest instruments -- the amnesty bidding process -- to give themselves a little more leverage in negotiations.

The addition of Billups gives the Clippers insurance at the point guard position, where they currently employ Mo Williams (young backup Bledsoe is recovering from surgery). And if somehow a deal for Paul came together, then they could slide Billups over to the off-guard slot where he'd spot up for kickouts -- or just use him off the bench as a microwave.

Leverage has been a funny thing in the Paul negotiations. For a while, we thought Paul had all the leverage. He's the guy who can opt out of his contract in 29 weeks. When he named the Lakers as his preferred destination, that seemed to give Mitch Kupchak the upper hand. Once the league rejected the proposal submitted by the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets, the Clippers stepped in to fill the vacuum. The Hornets wanted youth, valuable picks and expiring deals, and the Clippers had all the above -- along with a promise from Paul that he'd opt in for 2012-13. Now the Clippers had leverage. Where else could the Hornets and/or the NBA possibly find that kind of package? The league wouldn't consider allowing Paul to walk for nothing, would it?

Even with a dwindling field of trading partners, the Hornets demanded all five of the Clippers' prime trading chips -- Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman (whose deal expires at the end of the season), Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft pick. The Clippers rebuffed that offer, knowing they won't be outbid for Paul.

In the meantime, nobody was crying at the Clippers' facility at Tuesday's media day. Gordon has never been uber-gregarious, but he pleasantly brushed off questions about having his name batted around in trade talk. Bledsoe and Aminu followed suit. With Billups on the way and a team they feel is playoff ready, the Clippers will continue to listen but, with a little more leverage, are well aware that if the offer was there yesterday, then it will be there tomorrow.

But leverage is designed to get the opposing party to come back with a more lenient offer, and there's little evidence the Hornets have any intention of settling for anything less than the moon, even if Paul opts out of his contract on June 30, 2012. The Clippers are unlikely to lose Paul before the trading deadline to another NBA team, but they could place second to None of the Above.

So if you're the Clippers, why not roll the dice, even if it means parting with all five trade assets?

Kaman isn't coming back anyway. Aminu has some redeeming qualities as a player, but doesn't project to be an elite forward. Bledsoe is a lightning-quick point guard with potential, but he's no Chris Paul.

You can even make an argument for trading both of the Clippers' most prized possessions. The Minnesota pick should be high, but the draft produces few guarantees. If the Timberwolves pick becomes a very decent, but unexceptional, player, do you want to be the team that passed on Paul to preserve the rights to a Jeff Green, Tyrus Thomas or Mike Conley Jr.?

As for Gordon, he might be unaffordable after a Paul acquisition. The Clippers will owe $38.5 million to Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Mo Williams and Ryan Gomes in 2012-13. Paul will require a max contract. Considering the swaths of cap space around the league, it's a fair bet Gordon will too if he has another standout season. And that's before you extend Blake Griffin -- which is really the whole point of all this if you're the Clippers.

Two seasons worth of Chris Paul could be the salve that cures a generation of affliction for the Clippers. Pairing Paul with Griffin for a preseason slate might be enough to talk the pair into setting up shop for the long term -- but the risks are enormous. Getting Chris Paul and keeping Chris Paul are two entirely different tasks.

No matter how loudly Paul shouts he wants to be a Clipper for life -- and he hasn't made any promise of the kind -- what if the knee acts up? Or what if the Clippers sniff a couple of Western Conference semifinals but, with seriously depleted depth, never play past Memorial Day? What if either (or both) Griffin or Paul decides he'd prefer to play elsewhere in 2013-14? Olshey would have to play the role of Dell Demps, trying to extract as much for his superstars as possible with a gun pointed to his head and an irascible owner.  When the circus was over, the Clippers would be without Paul, Griffin, Gordon, Bledsoe and Aminu. You can almost hear the barbs, "Leave it to the Clippers to burn through a decade of assets, two superstars and somehow be left with nothing!"

The most important calculus through which the Clippers are factoring their decisions is the probability that Griffin will sign an extension with the team. The NBA's competitive landscape is governed by superstars. The Clippers have one in hand, and keeping him is essential. The $43 million they've committed to Jordan -- Griffin's best friend on the team -- might well be worth every penny if it's a decisive factor in keeping Griffin in a Clippers uniform. The Butler acquisition wasn't a good value play, but spending big money for an upgrade at the team's weakest position sent a signal Griffin's way.

Backing up the truck for Chris Paul might be the Clippers' ultimate statement that they're serious about retaining Griffin for a lifetime. If Griffin wanted Paul above everything else -- so much so that No. 32 would sign a long-term extension tomorrow if Paul arrived on the first flight -- one suspects the Clippers might do it.

But right now, the Clippers have made it clear that nobody is forcing their hand. They won't be rushed by the Hornets' hefty demands or peculiar process. The Clippers have waited a lifetime and they're prepared to wait a little longer.