There is something both terrifying and exhilarating about rooting for a team that gives its star player the power to make personnel decisions.
On the one hand, your team has a star player. In the case of Chris Paul, the Clippers have one of those top-tier stars that virtually guarantees playoffs and the possibility of more. On the other, history shows that most players, stars or not, aren’t nearly as good at team building as they are at playing basketball.
But so it goes for most organizations fortunate enough to employ such a difference maker. Unless you are the Spurs, with Tim Duncan — who has been marching in lockstep with his front office ever since the time he and Pop fed each other grapes on the beaches of St. Croix — you’re likely to find yourself at the mercy of your franchise player. With a few exceptions, teams have generally decided that ceding personnel decisions to stars is just the cost of doing business.
And, make no mistake, that’s what the Clippers have done with Paul.
For a while there, we were running with the whole “Vinny Del Negro is the loudest voice in the room” thing, but in retrospect, that just wasn’t true. Perhaps in trying to make sense of the front office chaos of the early offseason, we had managed to overlook Paul, whose influence predates even his official acquisition — going back to the time when Neil Olshey asked him who he wanted to play small forward. As Tom Ziller wrote this past weekend, you might as well call him the G.M.
Of the nine players on the current roster that have signed or re-signed since the lockout, it’s no secret that half were hand-selected by Paul (let’s let his former teammate, Willie Green, be the fraction of a player).
His whims have netted contracts for: Caron Butler (three years and $24 million), Jamal Crawford (at least two years of the mid-level exception), Chauncey Billups ($4 million this season) and Matt Barnes ($1.2 million and a guaranteed roster spot). It can be assumed that both Lamar Odom (owed $8.2 million) and Grant Hill (two years, $4 million) would have been targets with or without Paul, although in Hill’s case, his presence almost certainly played a role. (We have no indication of his feelings on the two backup centers, nor do we care. Although everyone loves Ronny Turiaf.)
Like anyone who wants to get things done, Paul has not settled for merely making his wishes known. He’s been an active recruiter, which goes a long way when vets like Hill are deciding where to spend the last few years of their distinguished careers. For Crawford and Billups, in whom no other teams showed serious interest, the decision probably has more to do with which team offers the most money, but even that comes back to Paul when he makes public that he wants them around.
His efforts are not always successful, as was the case with J.R. Smith and Ray Allen, but, for better or for worse, some of the more impactful decisions over the past year have been made at his behest. Presumably all have come with his stamp of approval.
How should we feel about this? The short answer is probably: “uneasy.”
Even if we agree that the primary goal of this season — technically more important even than playoff success, although the two are inextricably linked — is to get Paul to sign long term, the recent past suggests that things don’t end well for teams that so unabashedly hand over roster-building responsibilities to players.
In Cleveland, LeBron James got credit for his part in assembling a subpar, expensive supporting cast that remained on the books long after he bolted for Miami as a free agent. Similarly, the Magic made a series of questionable moves in an effort to appease Dwight Howard, but he didn’t even make it to the end of his contract, and now they are stuck with the likes of Jameer Nelson, Hedo Tukoglu, and Glen Davis.
In each of these stars, a G.M. is fortunate to have someone who gives them a legitimate chance to land true impact free agents, should they become available. But there aren’t many of those guys, and they don’t hit the market very often. We know that many of the worst contracts in basketball go to players whose reputations exceed their ability, and that’s when de facto player-G.M.s tend reveal their shortcomings in talent evaluation and the salary cap. (It’s no coincidence that many of the actual G.M.s who give out these contracts are former players, too).
Both the Cavs and the Magic went to the NBA Finals under the leadership of James and Howard. They went to only one apiece, however — and won only one game between them — and as we look back at the early careers of the two best players of their generation, that should go down as a pretty colossal misuse of resources.
Not that the Clippers are doomed to this fate. Howard’s Magic had Stan Van Gundy as coach and a system that really worked and LeBron had, well, LeBron. But while Paul may not be quite as dominant as James or Howard, neither of them ever had a teammate near the caliber of Blake Griffin. On paper, you could easily make an argument that, by assembling such depth this offseason, the Clippers (with Paul’s guidance) have put together a roster is as strong as either of those.
But that’s not really the goal, as we all know. What matters is keeping CP3 in red, white and blue, and to that end, things are still on the up and up. Even if his cronies don’t make the impact that he expects, it should still be a year of playing basketball with his friends. And it’s only one year, after all.
Unlike Howard or James — who each spent more than a half-decade watching their hand-picked, overpriced stiffs come up lame when they needed them most — there’s a decent chance that Paul and his guys go into next summer with the collective desire to give it another go.
Would you rather that a capable G.M. were handling the personnel decisions? Sure. It’s not an ideal situation by any means, but considering the leverage that superstars have in today’s NBA, that’s really all you can hope for.
Just ask folks in Cleveland.