Commentary

Clippers, not Lakers, have a clear plan

Whichever way the Chris Paul deal turns out in L.A., the Clips are in the right spot

Updated: December 14, 2011, 1:49 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The call from New Orleans came late in the afternoon Sunday, just after Clippers general manager Neil Olshey had finished attending his wife's Christmas party. In the previous two weeks, he'd slept more than four hours in a night only a handful of times.

Most days since the NBA reopened for business, calls from West Coast executives and agents were coming in until midnight. By 5 a.m., his phone was ringing again as the East Coast woke up and started its business. The four or five hours in between were reserved for sleeping, eating, showering and shaving. Oh yes, and thinking about everything that had gone on the past 20 hours.

He was tired and sleep-deprived, but also exhilarated in a way. Adrenaline had long since taken over by the time the Hornets called with a trade package for Chris Paul that would satisfy the NBA executives who'd scuttled a deal between the Lakers and Hornets, first for the laughably vague "basketball reasons," and then supposedly because the league felt it should get younger, less expensive players and draft picks in return for Paul.

[+] EnlargeLos Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesWhen the dust settles and the season starts, the Clippers who remain on the team could contend this season, regardless of the outcome.

Olshey stared hard at the offer for a few hours. It was steep. Too steep. But it also came with the message that if he picked up the phone and said yes, the best point guard of his generation would be throwing passes to Blake Griffin soon.

He had to look a long while at it before making a decision. So he gathered team president Andy Roeser, coach Vinny Del Negro, director of player personnel Gary Sacks and director of international scouting Fabrizio Besnati, and pulled an all-nighter.

He wanted to say yes. He was close to saying yes until it became clear the league wouldn't budge off its unrealistic position of asking for every single one of the Clippers' best assets. But in the end, it wasn't that hard to say no.

"It took us three years to get in this position," Olshey said. "It took us a long time where we have enough assets, draft picks, quality young players, veterans on short, workable contracts and a superstar [Griffin].

"In the end, it wasn't one piece or another piece that killed this deal. The aggregate compensation we would've had to have put together to get a deal done just wasn't within the framework of our risk tolerance."

In other words, the Clippers have a plan.

In a quiet, sleep-deprived, vulnerable moment, Olshey nearly abandoned it to become the GM who would be forever credited with bringing Paul to one of the league's most woebegone franchises, even if it meant giving up so much that Paul and Griffin wouldn't have had much to stick around for in two years.

It was tempting, sure. But the Clippers arrived in this place by trying to resist quick-fix, expensive temptations where they could the past three seasons.

This is not to say they've done everything right. It's still hard to find a kind way of explaining the decision to trade Zach Randolph to the Memphis Grizzlies two seasons ago. That was a straight salary dump, nothing more.

But the most important thing the Clippers have done right is simply accept and embrace who they are, much like Oklahoma City and Portland have done. A team with as much baggage and bad blood as the Clippers carry with them every day can't spend its way into relevance. It has to be either smarter or luckier than other teams; it would help if it could be both.

Like the Thunder, the Clippers were going to be good only by taking great young players and creating an environment in which they'd grow together and want to stay. When they lucked into Griffin in the 2009 draft, everything else fell into place.

All the Clippers had to do was stick to the plan and resist the temptation to be something they are not until the moment they finally became palatable to a superstar such as Paul.

That moment came Sunday night and went by Monday morning. But it has not passed just yet. If anything, the Clippers are in a better negotiating position now, having walked away from the deal and claimed veteran point guard Chauncey Billups off waivers.

All this would be remarkable enough. But the fact that it is happening at the same time the Los Angeles Lakers seem as rudderless and directionless as any moment in the past decade makes it almost too staggering to believe.

Is it possible the Clippers have a sounder, more sustainable plan than the Lakers?

Do the Lakers even have a plan, other than to retool and remodel an aging team that fell well short of expectations last season?

Lakers players and coaches are still reeling from collapse of the Paul trade last week, and the surprise trade of popular forward Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

General manager Mitch Kupchak is offering conflicting statements about expecting to play his big three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum all season, and the team "pursuing big deals right now." On Tuesday night, ESPN.com's Marc Stein and ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported the Lakers had re-engaged the Hornets in talks for Paul, but the Clippers are still seen as the favorite to acquire him.

Bryant is still publicly questioning the motives and logic of the Odom trade. Co-captain Derek Fisher was profoundly disappointed.

"As a basketball player, it confuses you as to what your focus should be," Fisher said Saturday. "If your focus should be about making sacrifices, making less money, playing a lesser role to be a part of a championship team, it doesn't seem like the reward fits anymore. The reward is, when something else better comes along, you're going to be traded and pushed out."

When I asked whether he was assuming something better than an $8.9 million trade exception was coming along, Fisher said, "I would assume that the trade is not being made just for exercise purposes, but maybe I'm wrong in assuming."

Those statements came before Kupchak let it be known that Odom had asked for a trade. But the message behind them is clear. Or rather, the burning question behind them is clear.

Do the Lakers have a plan?

Even Lakers great Magic Johnson is wondering that aloud.

"For the first time, I actually don't know what's next for the Lakers," Johnson wrote on his Twitter feed. "So we all have to stay tuned. Let's give Mitch Kupchak & Jim Buss a chance as I know they have a plan."

Bryant has said he believes in Kupchak. He has defended him and will continue to for the forseeable future. But if there is a plan behind all this, he'd also like to hear it soon.

Instead, he heard this:

"I think everybody feels the urgency to condense something that's normally done over a month or two with planning that takes place for a year, into a two-week period with no planning," Kupchak said of the abbreviated offseason and training camp due to the now-concluded lockout. "I think that includes the NBA.

"It's something we've never dealt with before. The NBA is shooting from the hip."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.