It’s been almost a week since the trade and, please excuse my whatever-you-want-to-call-it, I’m just not sold.
Chris Paul is a Clipper, but I still haven’t been able to find the place where I can accept the cost it took to make that so. There may be plenty of reasons to support the move by Neil Olshey to “push the chips in,” but from where I sit, something just doesn’t feel right.
Maybe it’s because I grew up going to the Sports Arena and, having waited patiently for all these years, wanted to see this team reach its full potential. Maybe it’s because I was sold by the front office on following a model set by Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder, only to see Presti rebuff any offer for his second-best player while Olshey handed over his. Or maybe it was just the way Eric Gordon heard that he had been traded.
Overnight, and long before the “last minute” the Clippers have voluntarily gone from young to old and from deep to thin. They took an “Under-23” lineup of blue-chippers, brimming with potential, and turned it into one most unbalanced rosters in the league. And, somehow, they managed to trade away Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman and become even more susceptible to injury, only with much, much more at stake thanks to heightened expectations and increased financial commitment to guys like Paul and Caron Butler.
They now have under contract for this year and next one of the best point guards in the league. As it turns out, in Gordon, Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota’s unprotected first round draft pick, they have surrendered the most desirable trade package in the entire NBA. Was it worth it?
The past is the past
D.J. wrote about the danger of undervaluing Paul, and it really is unfortunate if anyone fails to understand the greatness that has been his first six years in the league. But lost in all of this seems to be the reality that neither Paul’s previous success nor the Clippers past failures should have anything to do with this deal.
Precisely none of Paul’s enormous value produced to this point will do anything to benefit the Clippers going forward. Not one of those historically great seasons or unforgettable playoff performances will do anything to tilt the odds in their favor when the games really start to count this spring.
Conversely, the fact that Donald Sterling’s team has been putrid throughout a majority of its existence appears to have entered the equation, and that seems like a mistake in logic, as well. You heard references during Paul’s introductory press conference to this being a turning point in franchise history — that the time to “go for it” is now. I couldn’t help but ask: says who?
Are we supposed to accept that the Clippers’ history — spanning different eras, with different players, under various leadership on the court and in the front office — should add urgency to make a deal of this magnitude?
We know what it took to get Paul. How we determine the trade’s success or failure now depends only on the value that he provides on the court. After reading John Hollinger’s player profile, you have to wonder if his best days are behind him:
On the court, Paul got everything he could out of his balky knees, clearly managing his energy at times and yet still leading the league in steals. He ran out of gas down the stretch of some games and definitely did at the end of the season — he scored just five and then a shocking zero in a pair of crucial late-season games against Memphis for seeding, and after the break his shooting percentages tanked. Paul also shot the ball dramatically less overall, and would go long stretches where he rarely attacked.
Patience is for the Prestis
The Clippers had nothing but time. But rather than use it, they gave up all their assets before the season’s opening tip. Before the Hornets even began to sweat.
You’d have to fight pretty hard to argue that the Clippers, as constituted before the trade, weren’t a playoff team. They had added a viable, if not ideal, small forward in Butler and a starting point guard for nothing in Billups. Add those veteran contributions to a rotation filled with upside and likely to improve on last year’s strong finish, and we were probably looking at a jump from 32 wins last year to whatever it takes to make the playoffs in a 66-game season this year.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that they get swept out in the first round. If they had done nothing between now and then (let Kaman’s contract run out, stand pat with their depth in the backcourt), would they really be in such a bad position next summer? Eric Gordon (had he chosen not to sign an extension) would be a restricted free agent, putting the Clips in a position to match any offer he chose to sign. Blake Griffin (coming off of another All-Star season, but this one full of winning) would be eligible for his newly-permitted, “Derrick Rose Rule” maximum extension, still a year himself from even restricted free agency.
Who knows, at that point maybe Paul becomes a free agent — we know, after all, that David Stern wasn’t going to allow the Hornets to take an inferior offer to what the Clippers ultimately surrendered. Maybe the Nets are unable to keep Deron Williams, and he’d have another year of highlights from the Clippers’ frontcourt to entice him to come to L.A.
Maybe those two find homes elsewhere and Billups moves on and Eric Bledsoe isn’t ready to run the team, so the team finds itself still in search of a point guard. Even in this “worst case scenario,” don’t we think that some combination of the Minnesota pick, Aminu and a healthy Bledsoe would have plenty of value in accomplishing that?
You hear people make comparisons to the other teams that sat in situations similar to the Clippers prior to the trade.
The Blazers were the first. “They sat there too long, and look what happened to them!” No, they didn’t manage to turn Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez into Chris Paul, but those guys aren’t Eric Gordon, either. And that really misses the point – what happened to them was two star players undone by catastrophic knee problems.
And guess what? The player for whom the Clippers gutted their roster and mortgaged their future comes with only one meniscus. Despite what our memories tell us from watching him nearly lead his team to victory over the Lakers in the playoffs last year, Paul, who is 6-feet tall and 26 years old, has seen his explosiveness wane and his production dip in each of the past three seasons.
The Bulls were another one. Some have equated the Clippers’ position to Chicago’s in 2007, when Kobe Bryant was unhappy with his situation in L.A., and word was that the Bulls could have had him for a package of their best young players, including Luol Deng. They made Deng untouchable and ultimately the deal fell through, now they are where they are. And what, exactly, is the problem?
The other, of course, is the Thunder. Like the Clippers, Oklahoma City landed itself a superstar in the draft and had success adding more pieces throughout the years. Presti’s approach has been measured and painfully patient. He has allowed his team to grow organically, and he finds himself not only with an exceptionally talented roster, but one that benefits from all the auxiliary rewards that seem to come along with such a process.
When the Thunder do something, they do it together. When given a day off from practice, every single player on the team shows up anyway. When the two stars struggle to coexist on the court in the playoffs, in front of a national audience, the organization responds by putting Russell Westbrook completely off-limits in trade talks, even for players the caliber of Chris Paul.
The team clearly responds to these methods, as does the fan base that has watched an incredibly likable young core grow in front of its eyes. Presti has tinkered, but the trademark of the team that many favor to win the Western Conference has been patience above all else, faith in a process that clearly takes time.
Not every team is entitled to taking this path because not every team has Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin to go with neatly manicured salary cap sheets. The Clippers still have their cornerstone, but you can no longer say they have a desirable cap situation, and they certainly don’t have their version of Russell Westbrook (Gordon). They are also without their most appealing assets (Kaman’s expiring deal, Aminu, the pick) that could have easily turned into championship-level support like James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
The standard is the standard
In his evaluation of the trade, Hollinger wrote that “had the Clips been able to insert Eric Bledsoe in Gordon’s place, they might very well have won the Western Conference this season. Now they won’t, although they’ll still be very good — a solid playoff team.”
That’s not good enough. To make this trade worth it, Chris Paul needs to take this team deep in the playoffs. This year, next year, and beyond. Otherwise, what was the point? Are we to believe that, considering the rapidly changing power structure in the Western Conference, the Clippers with Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan, loads of assets and cap flexibility wouldn’t have been a perennial contender for at least the next half-decade had they not made the deal?
I love “Lob City.” By all means, everyone should go out and buy the shirt. Say it loud and say it proud, because we all saw how happy Blake Griffin was to hear that Chris Paul would be his new point guard. Just to be clear, though: Blake and DeAndre finished second and third in the league in dunks last year, with Baron Davis, Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe offering the lobs.
If we know anything from history, it’s that players don’t always make the best general managers. You saw what happened in Cleveland when they made moves geared towards making LeBron James happy: Lebron still left and the Cavs were left with bloated contracts for undeserving players.
At the risk of speaking for too many people, I think the goal is to see Blake Griffin win as many championships in a Clippers uniform as possible. To get him to decide to stick around long enough to make that happen, and for it to actually happen, the front office needs to be less concerned with trying to please him and more focused on assembling and cultivating a sustained winner. Re-signing his pal DeAndre seemed like a step towards both. The wisdom behind this deal – while it could end up with Paul staying healthy and spending the rest of his career contending for championships with the Clippers – isn’t so certain.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, “the standard is the standard” when it comes to setting expectations for the players he puts on the field. If he is forced to play a rookie in the place of an All-Pro, he maintains that the standard is the standard, because that is the message he needs his team to believe, and because he has no choice.
Neil Olshey, on the other hand, has supreme control over the composition of his roster. Vinny Del Negro may or may not be capable of leading a team to a championship, but with this trade, that is no longer our primary focus. From now on, it’s Olshey and only Olshey on whom the performance of this team ultimately reflects.
This is the man who traded Baron Davis, along with the lottery ticket that turned into the first pick in the draft to Cleveland, in part because of the assumed value it would have towards keeping Gordon happy and convincing him to stick around for the long term. I supported that deal at the time and when it turned into Kyrie Irving because I believed in the process and could accept the unfortunate outcome. Now, in light of the news that teams were aware of the likelihood of the new CBA including an amnesty provision, you have to question what changed in Olshey’s mind as it relates to Gordon.
On its face, this is the kind of deal that the Celtics or Lakers (whose windows are closing), Nets or Knicks (who have one or two impact players and little else) should be making. The Clippers emerged from the lockout as perhaps the team best set up for success over the next decade if a few things went their way – certainly the best among those not already established as contenders. Some steady improvement and you might have seen their core of Griffin, Gordon and Jordan locked up long-term, with the flexibility to augment that group with players that would be eager to join up. The biggest question mark would have been the ability of their coach to guide them, but that, of course, is the easiest place to make a change.
Now, it’s a roster filled with defensive liabilities, square pegs in round holes on the wings, and absolutely no depth in the frontcourt. And to many fans, including this one, the Thunderian vibe that made the situation so special has disappeared faster than an Eric Gordon explosion to the rim.
As Mark Haubner of The Painted Area said the other day on twitter, the Clippers made a move that in one day made them the most watchable team in the league, but at the same time prevented them from becoming a true contender. While it may very well work out for them, it looks from here like a lot of risk to assume when you don’t have to.