The movie business is tough. There is a higher likelihood that you will be struck by lightning this year, than that your original concept (i.e. not a remakes, toy, theme-park ride, adaptation, cereal spokes-vampire, etc.) will become a box-office smash. Everything has to go right – even the things that seem like they’re going wrong. Back to the Future had to shut down production for weeks after Eric Stoltz and director Bob Zemekis clashed over Stoltz’ humorless take on Marty McFly. Producers of Beverly Hills Cop reluctantly cast Eddie Murphy as Axl Foley after Sly Stallone walked away from the project over money.
Creating a successful sequel? Exponentially harder. More likely are the chances that you are standing on the beach, struck by lightning, set aflame, and run screaming into the ocean, where you are promptly devoured by a great white shark. Everyone involved in the first movie wants more: more lines, more money, more credit. Instead of spending years alone in your basement developing and perfecting a script by yourself, you suddenly find that you have 25 new editors – executives, agents, actors and marketing specialists, each pulling you in a different, Happy Meal-tie-in-friendly direction. Why? Because an original franchise like a Star Wars or an Indiana Jones is like a license to print money.
Last year’s Clippers team was a lot like one of those surprise hits. The team came together so fast there was no time to do anything but roll with it and save the analysis for a later date. At times, as Chris Paul led a hastily assembled squad to the franchise’s best season, it felt as though there were more personnel additions (Chauncey, Caron, Reggie, K-Mart, Solomon Jones, Bobby Simmons, Swaggy-P) than off-days.
In the midst of all those ebullient Staples Center sell-outs, a consensus began to emerge among those who follow and cover the Clippers that Chris Paul would almost definitely sign a long term contract to stay in LA. I’m not sure why everyone thinks this is such a sure thing, but I am sure that it is the story of this season for the Clips. If Chris Paul re-signs, then this season is a success, period, full stop, even if the team tanks and misses the playoffs. But if Paul leaves, only a Finals appearance keeps ’12-13 from feeling like a tremendous disappointment. In other words – are we just watching a sequel or the beginning of a lucrative franchise? This time next year, will Clippers fans feel more like George Lucas or the hack that had to beg Eugene Levy’s agent for a cameo in straight to DVD classic American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile?
Here are just a few of the storylines that might affect or be affected by Chris Paul’s decision.
1. The jury is still out on Neil Olshey and the Gary Del Sacksner
It’s hard to find anyone who would argue that Olshey was wrong to trade for Chris Paul. Yes, the Clippers appeared to give up an awful lot given the Hornets’ apparent lack of leverage, but a) when you’re the laughingstock of the league you have to overpay for premium talent and b) the price was artificially inflated by Stern’s veto of the Lakers deal. And you know what? For once, the conventional wisdom is right. You can’t put a price on what Paul did for the Clippers last season, not only playing at a crunch-time dominating, MVP-level, but legitimizing a team that has always languished in the long shadow of the Lakers. Also, he made Ralph happier than anyone this side of Sweet Jo.
But, as invaluable as Paul’s addition was to the team and to the “brand,” it doesn’t earn Olshey a free pass on all his other moves. Or, should I say, Chris Paul’s other moves. It’s been reported or implied that Paul told Olshey how much DeAndre Jordan reminded him of Tyson Chandler, and advocated signing both Chauncey Billups and Caron Bulter. From all accounts, Paul (and his representation) have been active behind the scenes this season as well, pushing for Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill. I’m not saying that any of these moves are individually bad, but in aggregate they have quickly transformed a young core (Bledsoe, Griffin, Aminu, Jordan, Gordon) following the under-23 model into a creaky veteran squad. And don’t tell me that Paul’s recruiting somehow proves that he plans to re-sign in L.A. People in Cleveland said the same thing about LeBron. Stars recruit because they can. And they recruit veterans because those are the guys who they admired when they first entered the league. If Chris Paul doesn’t stay, he will leave behind a roster with very little youthful upside outside of Blake and Bledsoe.
2. Blake Griffin
The single most important factor in Chris Paul’s decision. To paraphrase Charlie Widdoes, playing basketball with your friends is great; playing basketball with elite players is better. Which is not to underrate chemistry. Paul and Griffin have developed a nice off-court thing, tweaking each other over Twitter, and cracking each other up in this bit from All-Star weekend. (Two asides on this: 1. Trust me, the wit and comfort displayed here are rare NBA commodities – watch the painful Kobe/Bynum version of the same Password game. Actually watch Kobe and any of his teammates, ever. 2. Do these clips make DeAndre cry?)
But at the end of the day, Chris Paul won’t re-sign with the Clippers if he doesn’t think he and Blake Griffin can form the nucleus of a championship team. That makes this an incredibly important season for Blake. I’ve already written ad-naseum about Blake’s paradoxical sophomore season, so permit me to self-plagiarize: It’s ironic, but no one factor contributed more to the (unequivocally bogus) perception that Blake had a “disappointing” sophomore season than Chris Paul’s arrival. As a rookie, Griffin had the league’s most enjoyable mandate: be spectacular. He dunked on people and we applauded. He brought life to a moribund franchise, played hard every night, became to YouTube what Tila Tequila was to MySpace.
Then Chris Paul came to town, along with raised expectations and a ticking clock. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to be a thrilling sideshow on a perennial loser. Suddenly, Griffin had to be the second best player on a championship contender. Instead of talking about Blake’s incremental progress (an increasingly complex post-game, passing out of double teams, mid-range jumper), the conversation became about all the ways David West was a better fit with Chris Paul. It was, frankly, stupid, but I expect it to only become louder this season. It’s a shame Blake’s torn meniscus kept him from playing in London, where he would have both had an opportunity to win a gold medal with Paul (a pretty unique bonding experience) and play a month of hardnosed D under Tyson Chandler’s tutelage. In a recent interview, Blake claims to have completely revamped his shot during the offseason, which hopefully improves his dreadful performance from the line. But if his FT% stays mired in the 50s, and he continues to take every other defensive possession off, or if, God forbid, he suffers an injury of any real seriousness, I would start to become pretty, pretty worried about –
3. Mark “the Shark” Cuban
Look, accept the following right now: Chris Paul is gonna take the meetings. Everyone takes the meetings. Don’t get me wrong. Paul is about a million times savvier than Dwight Howard or his buddy Carmelo, so he won’t say anything about “exploring his options,” or whatever, but that doesn’t mean he won’t.
Think about it this way. You’re 27 and already at the tops of your professional field, sports writing say. Your contract is up. You’re happy with your current employer, making good coin. But here’s the thing. The six other biggest media companies in the world are calling you. Each one wants to send a private plane, jet you and yours to one of America’s finest cities. Once you’re there, you’ll not only be wined, dined and luxuriously accommodated, you will have executives presenting you with plans to remake their company in your image. Want to redesign the New York Times sports section? Help Google compete with Yahoo sports? YOU CAN DO THAT NOW. Who says no to that? NO. ONE. At least not yet, and it would stun me if a guy as savvy as Paul were the first. [Thanks to KA for this analogy]
That said, taking meetings doesn’t mean he’s leaving. There are very few teams that clearly offer a more attractive situation than the Clippers, both in terms of location and personnel. There’s been some speculation that Paul might want to play with Carmelo in New York – he was a groomsman at Anthony’s wedding and toasted to a “future Big 3” – but that was when one could include Amar’e in a Big 3 scenario with a straight face.
The meeting that I think should scare Clippers fans most is the one with Mark Cuban. And not because Dirk’s game is such a great fit for Paul’s (although, you know, it is). Here’s what I imagine Cuban will say – “Chris, you love winning, and I love winning. We run the most sophisticated team in the league. You will always play on a good team. We hired Wayne Winston before analytics was cool; the Clippers are one of three teams not represented at last year’s Sloan Conference; Donald Sterling thinks David Berri is actually a berry. You’re worried about marketing yourself in Dallas? Fuhgettabout it. There are no LA and New York and Dallas markets anymore, there is only one, global market. And guess what? We’ve analyzed that too. You want to sell shoes in China? We can do that. You are too good to play for a dinosaur like Donald Sterling. Oh, and by the way, I will use the Shark Tank platform to turn little Chris’ “Blake Face” into the next great clothing icon .” OK, so that last part is a little far fetched… but the rest of it? I don’t know.
4. Coach Vinny and GM Vinny
Check out any Clipperblog Live from the playoffs to see and hear a rant about how badly Vinny was outcoached in both series, how few plays he ran, how few adjustments he made. For now, just trust me – the guy did not acquit himself well. When Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are asked privately by their friends if they believe Vinny Del Negro can lead them to a championship what do you think they say? We can only guess, right?
Well, kind of. I thought the most interesting quote of the entire offseason was buried in a recent LA Times article about Blake’s recovery. Blake: “With the moves that the front office made – and now with Gary Sacks, who hopefully steps into that GM role – that made it easy for me… I think Gary has a great relationship with the players and the players like him. If he is finally named GM, I think that’s just the icing on the cake of having a franchise that is complete.” [Emphasis mine]
I mean – that’s almost coming out and saying it, right? If hiring Sacks would make a franchise complete then clearly Blake is implying that right now the franchise is incomplete. Time and time again, Donald Sterling has perplexingly proven that his preferred modus operandi is to let the market set prices, never offering a contract before he absolutely has to (or, in the case of Olshey, until after he had to). Be very worried if the Clippers continue to operate without a GM. Again, imagine what Mark Cuban would say about it. Something like, “Really, Chris? You want to tie your future to the team WITHOUT A GM???” would probably be pretty effective.
5. But really, just kidding
And all of that being said, I think it’s still way better than 50/50 that Paul re-signs in LA. His new shoes include the LA skyline, he bought a house, he’ll have his pick of several elite schools for his kids, the weather is great and, of course, the Clippers can pay him the most money. Just know that his re-signing is far from a sure thing, and if the Clippers go all “Clippers” in any of the ways detailed above, the idea of Paul leaving becomes that much more likely.