Clippers take calculated risk for Paul
If L.A. doesn't want this to be only a two-year deal, it needs immediate success
In the end, the Los Angeles Clippers knew caution was the biggest risk of all. A deal for Chris Paul had to get done, even if it meant parting with their prolific young shooting guard, a coveted draft pick, an All-Star center and a second-year lottery selection.
If the events of the past two years have taught us anything, it's that superstars rule the NBA universe. They can deliver championships, carry a brand and set the agenda for the league. If you don't have one, you're just pretending.
To rake in Paul, the Clippers called the Hornets/NBA's bluff by corralling Chauncey Billups on Monday. In doing so, they created the leverage to push the league off its demand of all five of their primary assets and preserved lightning-quick second-year point guard Eric Bledsoe. It was the kind of maneuver typically practiced by the league's savviest deal-makers. For Clippers general manager Neil Olshey, it's a potential career-maker.
The Clippers still gave up a lot, but that's what a transcendent talent costs. There isn't a point guard in the league who plays with greater purpose than Paul. He commands supreme authority over whatever is happening on the court.
When a basketball game is being played inside your television, Paul's hands are on the controller.
Eric Gordon promises to have an outstanding career. Harrison Barnes, projected as the top wing in a deep draft class (and a potential choice with that Minnesota pick), has intriguing potential as a scorer and defender. But neither can have Paul's impact on the Clippers.
Young power forwards don't prosper in a vacuum. They need to be nurtured by point guards who teach them the game's rhythm and deliver them the ball where they can wreak the most havoc. Blake Griffin was just handed the planet's most knowledgeable on-court tour guide to NBA basketball. Watching him learn under Paul's tutelage is going to be a blast.
The work of acquiring the services of both Paul and Griffin, masterfully executed, is now over for the Clippers. A franchise that's taken multiple detours since its arrival in Los Angeles deserves a heap of praise. Now the work of retaining them begins.
The Clippers didn't ship out four prime assets for an 18-month novelty act. The collective bargaining agreement gives the Clippers important financial advantages in locking up Paul and Griffin long term -- they can offer richer and lengthier contracts than any other team -- but doing so is anything but an automatic proposition.
The Clippers still battle against history, even in their home arena. Over the past decade, the organization's image has improved measurably around the league. Players and their agents are well aware of ownership's abysmal reputation, but there are younger players in the NBA for whom the Clippers are indistinguishable from 20 other franchises. For the Clippers, that represents real progress -- but players with the skill and appeal of Paul and Griffin want something greater.
To guarantee the longevity of the Paul-Griffin era, the Clippers must erase decades of malaise in two seasons. They'll need to win lots of games and play into late May. The Clippers can't afford to be a cult classic but commercial failure. Artistry in basketball acrobatics will delight legions of League Pass subscribers, but Paul can take his act anywhere. The nastiest competitor in the NBA is playing to win. If Paul decides he can't do it with the Clippers, his representatives -- every bit as ruthless as their client is at his craft -- will have no compunction about letting the team know that he'd like to be employed elsewhere on opening night 2013.
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Likewise, Griffin can have a max offer waiting from just about any team in the league that same summer. He's taken to Los Angeles and fully embraced all ambassadorial duties associated with being the face of the Clippers. He hasn't known anything else. If Griffin can win big as a Clipper with Paul running point, it's hard to imagine his leaving. If the team doesn't achieve its potential over the next two postseasons, it's difficult to believe he wouldn't explore all his options.
There are no mulligans at this level, not the absence of Paul's left meniscus or Griffin's left patella. DeAndre Jordan's tantalizing potential -- a curiosity at $854,000 last season -- will have to provide more than $10 million worth of swats, dunks and offensive boards. Caron Butler must be both healthy and selective. A gracefully aging Billups can work beautifully as a spot-up 2, a willing recipient of a kick-out from a lethal Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll, so long as he's game.
Expectations for success will be stifling, and the team will encounter challenges that come with uncharted territory. The Clippers must work creatively to bolster the depth they just surrendered to New Orleans, and the roster undoubtedly will require tweaks along the way. Superstars didn't become superstars by accident. They're driven by a superstar brand of stubbornness and spirit. Paul has a stratospheric basketball IQ and an unrivaled competitiveness. What if he decides he wants to play under a more seasoned and cerebral coach? Finally, management would be well advised to keep Donald Sterling locked away until the ink on Paul's and Griffin's next contracts is dry.
The whole experiment could implode, and the Clippers could be left with nothing in two years. Those who believe a supernatural power governs basketball will tell you that the Clippers are cursed. On Wednesday, the team decided that fatalism is for suckers. If you want to compete for a title, you have to take a leap.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
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