Now What?

by December 15, 2011

by Ryan ZumMallen

By now, we’ve all had time to process the fact that, yes, the NBA has approved the Clippers’ trade for Chris Paul. Yes, the Hornets ended up getting the best deal after all. And yes, the “other” L.A. team has the Lakers shook for the first time since the days of Elton Brand and Sam Cassell.

The Clippers made a power move, plain and simple, in an effort to steal the attention of Los Angeles fans (and in the process, pull the rug out from underneath their Staples Center roommates). This may seem like a very un-Clipper thing to do, but the truth is that they’ve made plenty of attempts at legitimacy in recent years.

Names like Zach Randolph, Baron Davis, Al Thornton, Marcus Camby and Drew Gooden have all passed in and out of Clipperland since 2008. Those were mostly futile, rushed attempts to inject talent into a bad team. By contrast, the Paul trade is far and away the smartest move the Clippers have made in years, and instantly places them in the Western Conference playoff picture. But they also paid dearly for the privilege.

Plainly speaking, the Hornets made out. A franchise in full rebuilding mode with just six players on the roster acquired an expiring contract in Chris Kaman, a promising young forward in Al-Farouq Aminu, a budding superstar in Eric Gordon and an unprotected first round draft pick in a loaded 2012 class. Not a bad way to make a fresh start.

And it does leave the Clippers in a precarious position. Yes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will terrorize the rims with Paul at the helm. But then who comes off the bench? Just days ago, they renounced the rights to post players Ike Diogu, Jamario Moon and Craig Smith. Elton Brand ain’t walking through that tunnel. Shoot, neither is Loy Vaught.

And yes, even with losing Gordon to the trade, the Clippers boast a formidable backcourt. They were able to keep point guard Eric Bledsoe and added Caron Butler. But that also leaves Chauncey Billups (acquired after being amnestied by the Knicks, which means the Clippers can’t move him) and Mo Williams (still with two years and $17 million owed). Acquiring Paul will allow them to share minutes at off-guard, but it’s no stretch to declare a backcourt logjam.

Even worse, the trade is a short-term move that seems not to take the long-term into account. At all.

Paul agreed to sign on through 2013, but then the Clippers will be in the exact same situation that the Hornets found themselves in over the past two weeks. Add to that the fact that Griffin’s contract is up at the same time.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling is notoriously thrifty when it comes to contracts, but he’s opened his wallet in the past and could be prepared to do so again—especially when we’re talking about two superstars. But he’ll be limited by the three-year, $24 million deal he just gave Butler and the four-year, $43 million deal he just gave Jordan. Before we even begin to think about filling out a roster, it’s clear that a max deal for Paul and a mega-deal for Griffin may be completely unfeasible. Sterling may be willing to pay, but he definitely won’t be willing to pay a luxury tax that in 2013 will increase exponentially under the new CBA.

That means the Clippers will probably ditch Billups and/or Williams, and still potentially lose Paul or Griffin. Lose Paul, and you traded away five major assets for two seasons with Paul, and nothing in return. Lose Griffin and you’re, well, the Clippers.

But we could be witnessing magic in those two years. The idea of a Paul-to-Griffin alley-oop conveyor belt has already left most NBA fans (sans Laker Nation) drooling onto their laptops. But Jordan may benefit most of all. Last season he led the League in dunks per 100 possessions, and playing with Paul has done wonders for other players: In three seasons playing with Paul, for instance, Tyson Chandler scored 18.9 percent above his career ppg average.

Considering how Paul can bring out the best in young, talented players like Griffin and Jordan, any concerns about the trade can pretty much be tossed out the window (if we’re going to worry about Paul’s knee, we should also acknowledge that Gordon played an average of just 59 games in the last two seasons). Paul simply makes the game easier for his teammates, and it could be enough to keep the team together through a cash-strapped free agent season in two years.

How many times do they beat the Lakers during that span? How deep can they venture into the Playoffs in two attempts? If Paul almost single-handedly snapped every one of the Lakers’ kneecaps by himself in last year’s series, what happens when you team him with two leaping bigs, an all-around scorer and two (streaky, but lethal) shooters? And if they are able to accomplish something special, is it enough to keep the team together when contracts are up?

The sky is now the limit for the Clippers, which is a position that they’re not familiar with. So is fan expectation. Los Angeles is not a city known for its patience (multi-game ticket packages sold out within minutes after the trade was finalized) and fans will want to see results. Like, now.

Still, for all the excitement, there’s still that lurking feeling that hey, these are the Clippers. It wasn’t that long ago that Baron Davis came to town with a parade.

Ryan ZumMallen is a sportswriter for the Long Beach Gazettes. You can find him at @ryanzummallen.