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Saturday, December 17, 2011
Chris Paul deal: Instructively infuriating

By Michael Wilbon
ESPN.com

Not everybody everywhere is enamored with Clipper-mania after Chris Paul's arrival in Los Angeles.

They aren't enamored in Houston, where the Rockets thought the initial Paul deal, the one David Stern vetoed, was going to land them Pau Gasol and Nene, two players who could have pushed them into the top half of the Western Conference.

They aren't in Boston, where the Celtics thought they had David West in a deal that was contingent on CP3 going to the Lakers.

Chris Paul
Among the new Clippers' early challenges: How to incorporate two playmakers, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, into one team.

And they aren't in the other half of the Staples Center, where the Lakers, denied Paul's talent and youth, seem older and more vulnerable than, well, ever.

The NBA, by strong-arming the Clippers into giving New Orleans more than the Lakers offered, certainly made the league-operated Hornets attractive to potential buyers. With Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Lamar Odom in the New Orleans lineup (which the original, vetoed trade would have accomplished), the Hornets might have made the playoffs this season in what looks to be a soft Western Conference, but they wouldn't have been as attractive for the long run, which is to say, to a buyer. Long-term, it's more appealing to have young talent like Eric Gordon and draft picks such as the unprotected first-rounder from the T-wolves (a remnant from the 2005 Marko Jaric-Sam Cassell trade) that Stern insisted be included in any deal extracting CP3 from the Hornets.

Give the NBA this: While it trampled the Rockets and Lakers, it very likely demonstrated how a small-market team can go about the business of rebuilding and contending. Of course, as one GM told me Thursday, if the principal hadn't been glowering from the back of the classroom, the Clippers wouldn't have included both Gordon and the T-wolves' pick in the deal.

Nevertheless, Stern got to make his point that, yes, it can be done.

Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Wizards, is further along that rebuilding road in Washington with a similar approach. The Wizards still have a couple of onerous contracts, belonging to Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche. But gradually, Leonsis has been waving bye-bye to high-priced veterans (Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler) and stockpiling young draft picks, players such as John Wall last year and Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack in the most recent draft. Leonsis said Thursday that when he purchased majority ownership in the team in 2010, "I didn't see hope. I didn't see a way to salvage upside from that team. We kept making trades to get draft picks and young players. ... We'll wake up one day with a whole class [of young, talented players]. We could end up [in] two, three years with a great team ... that we can keep together."

Ted Leonsis
With the Wizards, Ted Leonsis is already using something similar to the rebuilding template the league imposed on the Hornets.

Later, Leonsis explained that this approach "is more in your control" than frantically trading away players in order to go after a big free agent or two. As another GM told me this week, "It's the only way now to build, unless you own a team in New York, California or South Florida."

This, more or less, was the thinking behind Stern saying "no" on behalf of the Hornets to a three-way deal with the Lakers and Rockets that was heavy on 30ish players with big contracts and light on draft picks and youngsters. The NBA didn't want to have a prospective owner looking at the Hornets and think in advance, as Leonsis did, that there was no hope. When Leonsis took over after Abe Pollin's death, he was already a minority owner with right of first refusal to buy the team. The Hornets have no such suitor.

Leonsis was speaking of his own situation when he added, "My biggest issue [during the lockout] was about competitiveness. I want to be able to build a team and keep it together. When you build through the draft, you have a little bit more luxury of time."

He might as well have been speaking of the Hornets, or giving voice to a philosophy shared by the commissioner's office.

Of course, none of this addresses the issue that still burns the Lakers and Rockets: the league's unarguable conflict of interest position. Nothing justifies that, nothing excuses usually brilliant men from not anticipating just such a disaster. Phil Jackson, while with the Lakers a year ago, looked into his crystal ball and predicted exactly such a scenario ... and was fined by the league office for it, an act that looks impossibly arrogant in retrospect. (It's doubtful that any apologies are forthcoming.)

The Rockets' GM, Daryl Morey, said he hadn't even heard from Stern, and told reporters, "On the advice of counsel, I can't talk about it," referring to the trade veto that took his team in a direction it had no intention of traveling.

Anyway, it's impossible to predict whether more owners/executives are going to go about team-building the way Leonsis is with the Wizards or the league is with the Hornets.

Lamar Odom
What a whirlwind. Lamar Odom was a Laker, was going to be a Hornet and wound up being a Maverick.

And after the initial euphoria in the parts of Los Angeles that root for Paul's new team, there's also the matter of whether this will even work for the Clippers -- only the worst franchise in professional sports in America over the last 30-plus years.

Among the concerns: Can Paul and Chauncey Billups play together effectively? Billups has been a playmaker most of his career, the guy with the ball in his hands 70 percent of the time. But Paul has been that player for every possession of his career. Can either defend against taller, more athletic shooting guards? Can Butler, a fine player when healthy, be that for the first time in several seasons?

There's so much that has to come together in a short time. The Heat, a much more talented team than the new Clippers, found that out the hard way. If it took the better part of a full season for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to learn how to play together, why wouldn't Paul and Billups, who do essentially the same thing on the court, have similar trials?

What the Clippers did wisely, at least in theory, is surround Blake Griffin, who has yet to participate in a playoff game, with three players who have plenty of postseason experience.

Still, if we're ranking teams in the Western Conference, I'll take the Mavericks, Thunder, Lakers and Grizzlies over the Clippers for sure right now.

But what's just as certain is that for the first time in the history of basketball in Los Angeles, the Clippers begin the season with expectations nearly as great as those awaiting the Lakers. That alone makes the Paul trade the No. 1 development of the post-lockout period.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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