The last time the Los Angeles Clippers recruited a marquee point guard to pair with an elite power forward, the walls caved in. After inking Baron Davis to an expensive, multiyear contract in July 2008, Elton Brand snuck out of Los Angeles in the middle of the night to sign a long-term deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The conditions are a lot more favorable this time around, as the Clippers make their big push for Chris Paul after a deus ex machina -- better known as David Stern -- rejected a three-way deal that would've landed the New Orleans point guard with the Lakers.
Now that the Lakers have folded their hand, the Clippers stand as the chip leader in the pursuit of Paul. Like the Lakers, the Clippers can sell Paul on the allure of Southern California, still the best platform in the league for a superstar. The celebrity culture in Los Angeles is infectious. There simply isn't a destination that offers a better quality of life and more opportunities to extend a player's personal brand.
The Clippers have been in Southern California for three decades, but have never gotten close to landing a top 5 talent like Paul. What's changed?
Geography is important, but a player as doggedly competitive as Paul isn't just looking for a desirable zip code -- he's in search of running mates who are every bit as obsessive about the hunt for a title.
Every NBA fan who has followed the rumor mill has imagined what a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin alley-oop will look like, but Griffin's appeal to Paul isn't just that he can propel himself to the rim in a nanosecond. The league has seen a slew of athletic big men who can finish with impunity. Griffin represents a special combination of energy and gravitas. For a point guard who has built his reputation on playmaking and being a killer, Paul won't find a better sidekick in the NBA than the 22-year-old Griffin.
The Paul-Griffin dynamic is a two-way street. Just as Griffin will be used to lure Paul, the Clippers want Paul as an incentive for Griffin to re-up with the Clippers as the expiration of his rookie contract approaches. Acquiring Paul signals strongly to Griffin that the worm has turned for the Clippers. With the addition of Paul, the Clippers would instantly become one of the NBA's most relevant franchises, the kind of place Griffin would want to set down roots for the prime of his career.
Paul undoubtedly appreciates all of these angles. And of course Los Angeles and Blake Griffin are major attractions, but so was the same Los Angeles, the Lakers' history and Kobe Bryant. If the Clippers want that gleaming vision of Paul and Griffin running a pick-and-roll to become a reality, they'll have to construct the right deal for Paul -- and they'll have to do it in a bizarre and testy environment.
The Clippers have been preparing for this moment for years. They've stockpiled young assets through the draft. The front office has also exercised patience with the contract of Chris Kaman. The Clippers have had opportunities to trade the big man dating back to Mike Dunleavy's tenure, but they've always sensed there would be a prime opportunity when Kaman's expiring contract could serve as an important chip in a monster deal.
That opportunity is now in front of the Clippers. But extracting Paul from New Orleans won't be easy. Before talks can get serious, the Clippers need some assurance that Paul won't just be a short-term rental. Paul has an opt-out clause that entitles him to walk at the end of the season and become an unrestricted free agent.
That presents a challenge for any team chasing Paul. He could promise that he'd sign an extension with the Clippers next summer, after opting out of his current contract. No executive wants to relive what Jim Paxson and the Cavaliers went through in 2004 when free agent Carlos Boozer bolted for Utah despite an understanding he'd re-sign with Cleveland. With Brand, the Clippers have their own sob story.
The Clippers don't need -- nor would they trust -- a vow from Paul that he'll extend when the time comes. But they do need to know Paul will be around for longer than four or five months. Paul has the capacity to opt in for 2012-13, the final year of his contract. If he did, that would assure the Clippers at least two seasons -- along with the privilege of offering Paul more years and more money for his next contract than any other team.
By virtue of rejecting the handsome proposal by the Lakers and Rockets, which would have landed the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a draft pick, the NBA has sent the signal to Paul's suitors that it will settle for nothing less than a robust package that includes both talent and youth.
So what will Chris Paul cost the Clippers?
The structure of a trade would likely start with Kaman. His expiring contract, which will pay him $12.2 million this season, would not only serve as the monetary foundation of the trade, but it's extremely valuable to the Hornets because it comes off the books at season's end. The Clippers would miss Kaman this season, but the future at the 5 for the Clippers points to DeAndre Jordan (again, assuming they match Golden State's offer).
The team also has some interesting prospects from the 2010 draft: forward Al-Farouq Aminu and All-Rookie second team point guard Eric Bledsoe. Stern stressed youth when he described what kind of deal the Hornets were looking for and the two second-year players have a combined age of 43. At least one and very possibly both would likely be part of any deal.
Giving up an All-Star center and two players with serious potential isn't easy, but for a transcendent talent like Paul, it's an easy call. The tough part comes once you get past Kaman, Bledsoe and Aminu. When you consider the collection of players the league rejected from the Lakers and Houston, that trio of Clippers almost certainly won't be enough.
Now we turn to the Clippers' most prized possessions. Shooting guard Eric Gordon is on the cusp of stardom, exactly the kind of young player a team losing the face of its franchise would covet. Gordon could step right into the Hornets' lineup and provide immediate perimeter punch. It's hard to imagine a scenario whereby the league-slash-Hornets rejected Martin, Scola, Odom and Dragic but wouldn't demand Gordon from the Clippers.
The Clippers own one other jewel: the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round pick in next June's draft. Unless Rick Adelman can realign this solar system and at least two others, that pick figures to be a lottery selection in one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory. A rebuilding Hornets organization will want to keep their balance sheet in check as they fix up their house for a pending sale, and you can't do better than dynamic young players on rookie-scale contracts -- just ask the Clippers, who have two in Griffin and Gordon.
That's the torturous decision facing the Clippers as they prepare for the most monumental negotiations in franchise history. Gordon could become a perennial All-Star. So could the player chosen with the Timberwolves' pick next June. Even if the Clippers persuade Paul to opt into the final year of his contract, there's no guarantee Paul won't leave in 18 months.
But you don't get to change the fortunes of a franchise without enormous cost and serious risk. How much can the Clippers stomach in exchange for Chris Paul?
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com.