Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Chris Paul trade is all about Blake Griffin
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- Blake Griffin walked off the bus with his head on a swivel and his cellphone glued to his ear. Like the rest of his Clippers teammates, he'd spent most of Wednesday afternoon on a bus touring Los Angeles, performing community service projects. But in the past few minutes, he'd gotten word the Clippers had pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade for All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
He looked a little stunned as he walked down the steps of the bus, which had been prophetically dubbed the "Big Things Are Coming" caravan.
I caught his eye from across the way, and he smiled broadly, then ran over and joked, "No, I have no comment on this. I have no comment on this. Wow."
With Chris Paul, the Clippers have the pieces in place to lift Blake Griffin to new heights.
And why should he? There was no need to speak.
The Clippers had said everything that needed to be said by making this staggering trade happen.
There might not have been a red carpet rolled out for Griffin in front of the training facility as he arrived Wednesday night, but the team had sent a loud signal to its budding young star that the keys to this franchise, and maybe even the city, were officially his now.
"To be honest with you, I think all this has to do with Blake Griffin," veteran center Chris Kaman told me as he walked out of the facility as a Clipper for the last time.
"I think the team is pretty much set up for [Griffin] now. The 4 and 5 [positions] are done, locked in. Caron Butler is a great 3-man. He's got Chauncey [Billups] and Randy Foye coming in at the 2-spot. Now Chris Paul, All-Star point guard. What else can you ask for?"
What's amazing is that all this happened before Griffin had to ask for anything.
The Clippers still had two years before he could leave as a free agent in the summer of 2014. But clearly they'd seen everything they needed to simply by watching the dramatic, franchise-crushing sagas New Orleans, Denver, Cleveland and Orlando have had to endure the past few seasons as Paul, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwight Howard have attempted to take control of their basketball futures.
No, this was a brilliant pre-emptive strike. A bold move by the Clippers to give Griffin what he needs to win before he ever had to ask for it.
And make no mistake, if the Clippers weren't aggressive about this, it would have gone there.
This past April, after he was a unanimous choice as the NBA's rookie of the year, I asked Griffin what was important for him going forward in his career. His response said everything.
"I like the way things have gone, but things have to keep going in that direction; they have to keep escalating," Griffin said. "You can't just make one or two changes and then just kind of let things go. It's a two-sided relationship. You've got to put in as much as we put in. As long as that's happening, this is a great place to be."
On Wednesday night, the Clippers responded to that message.
The cost was steep. Shooting guard Eric Gordon is a budding young star who averaged 22.3 points a game last season. Kaman is a former All-Star with great hands and an underrated post game. The player the Hornets will get in next year's draft with Minnesota's unprotected first-round pick might be better than any of the players in this deal.
But the cost of not making this move might have been greater. Paul isn't just a good point guard; he's probably the best true point guard of his generation.
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As good a player as Gordon is, he became expendable once the Clippers claimed veteran guard Chauncey Billups off waivers Monday afternoon, after the New York Knicks had used the amnesty provision of the league's new labor deal to wipe his $14.2 million contract from their books.
Billups played shooting guard for Team USA at the 2010 world championships while Derrick Rose ran the point.
It was assumed at the time that the Clippers had picked up Billups because a deal for Paul had fallen apart earlier in the day. Then I remembered general manager Neil Olshey pointing out that the team now has Billups' "Bird rights" and commenting that "this is not just a one-year rental."
It seemed odd at the time. It makes perfect sense now.
The Clippers had seen all this coming years ago when Griffin first dominated the Las Vegas summer league like no one else ever had.
In the summer of 2010, Clippers president Andy Roeser and Olshey walked quietly into the IMG office building in downtown Cleveland to meet with James and his representatives.
They arrived alone, carrying a simple presentation. The media horde assembled outside and downstairs in the lobby barely took notice. Most of the stories written about that day merely noted that the Miami Heat's presentation from earlier in the day had kept the Clippers waiting.
James took the meeting mostly as a favor to Olshey, whom he'd known since high school, back when the talented young GM was known as a workout guy and talent evaluator for agent Arn Tellem. Olshey was a friend on his way up, but as general manager of the Clippers, he was still trying to sell a Chevrolet to a guy who was in the market only for a Ferrari.
The Clippers' presentation was confident, short and direct:
"The main crux of the thing was: We don't need a presentation," Olshey told me once. "We're telling you that Blake is better than any power forward you're going to recruit to play with."
Olshey and Roeser knew it was a losing presentation. James knew it was a losing one. Griffin might be great one day, but he had played in only six preseason NBA games to that point.
"It was tough to sell to a guy who was going to put his career and his legacy on the line," Olshey admitted.
On Tuesday afternoon, I asked him how much things had changed for the Clippers after Griffin's breakout rookie season.
"We knew that everything we were saying in that meeting was true, and we couldn't prove it," Olshey said. "But by the All-Star Game, I think it was evident everything we said was true."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.