A Different Hollywood Ending: Chris Paul Joins the Clippers, Not the LakersThe L.A. Clippers made a major bid for citywide supremacy--if not more--by obtaining Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. Unless the Lakers counter with some deals of their own the 2009/2010 NBA champions may become the second best team that calls Staples Center home. Blake Griffin seems poised to become one of the NBA's 10 best players and if Paul--the runner-up in 2008 MVP voting--returns to form then the Clippers will have a deadly inside-outside duo. Meanwhile, the Hornets sidestepped the nightmare scenario of losing Paul for nothing after this season and acquired young, relatively inexpensive talent that can either form the foundation for a rebuilding process or else be packaged to acquire other assets.
However, while the potential upside for the Clippers is very obvious, few people seem to appreciate that there is some risk involved. Eric Gordon, the soon to be 23 year old third year guard who the Clippers shipped to the Hornets in this transaction, arguably was just as good a player as Paul was last season (Gordon averaged roughly six more ppg than Paul, while Paul averaged roughly five more apg than Gordon--though apg numbers in general and Paul's numbers in particular must be taken with a grain of salt) and it is far from clear how much Paul's balky right knee will affect the rest of his career: for most of last season it did not seem like Paul had his former explosiveness and there is some question about how much cartilage is left in his surgically repaired knee. I am not convinced that a handful of good playoff games against the ancient, nearly immobile Derek Fisher prove that Paul completely returned to elite status (and, even against Fisher, Paul faded by the end of the series). Penny Hardaway looked poised to be a perennial All-NBA player until knee woes derailed his career and a knee problem just ended Brandon Roy's career at age 27. Paul is much smaller than both of those guys and thus quickness is an essential part of his game; not only must he be quick to be effective but he must put a lot of stress on his knees on a nightly basis just to play his normal game, while bigger guards like Hardaway and Roy could at least spend some time on the block and/or find other ways to get by at times without having to simply blow by people.
It is certainly possible that the Griffin-Paul tandem will turn the Clippers into perennial contenders for the next several years--but it is also possible that Gordon will emerge as an All-Star while Paul sits on the bench in street clothes and Griffin throws down monster dunks for a .500 team. We all understand why the Clippers made the trade and it is good for the league that Donald Sterling is trying to win as opposed to just being satisfied with making money but if we learned anything from last season it should be that there is no such thing as a sure thing no matter what a team looks like on paper or on a spreadsheet.
Lakers' fans will undoubtedly be furious at this turn of events, because on the surface it looks like Commissioner David Stern--by vetoing the deal that would have shipped Paul to the Lakers and then approving the deal that sent Paul to the Clippers--intentionally damaged their team. The Lakers now not only do not have Paul but, seemingly as a direct result of the fallout from that failed trade, they also lost the services of Lamar Odom after the Lakers subsequently shipped the now-disgruntled sixth man to the Dallas Mavericks. It is clear that as long as the league owns the Hornets there will be an appearance of a conflict of interest and thus the NBA should find a new owner for the team as soon as possible. That said, Lakers' fans should realistically look at their team: the Mavericks did not just beat the Lakers in last year's playoffs, they humiliated the Lakers and thus vividly demonstrated that the Lakers are now at a crossroads. Kobe Bryant is still a great player but it is doubtful that he can just score 40 ppg for a month to carry his team the way he did in his prime; in order to contend for at least one more ring during Bryant's career while also preparing for his inevitable decline and retirement, the Lakers must get younger and more athletic. Frankly, I don't think that acquiring Paul for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom would have made the Lakers any better and I also think that the loss of Odom can be overcome if the Lakers ultimately use their remaining assets to bring in Dwight Howard. The Lakers' championship window with the previous roster closed last season with Phil Jackson's retirement/Pau Gasol's playoff disappearing act, so the Lakers' only realistic hope to win the 2012 title hinges on pairing Bryant with Dwight Howard. Otherwise, the Lakers have to get younger in a hurry and hope for the best. The Lakers open the season with back to back to back games and without the services of Andrew Bynum, who will miss the first five games of the season as a result of his cheap shot against J.J.Barea in game four versus Dallas; I think that the Lakers should seriously consider sitting out Bryant for the second game to preserve his knee for the stretch run, though I doubt that Coach Mike Brown will try this or that Bryant would accept this if Brown mentioned it.
It may superficially seem like the lockout was pointless because as soon as it ended Dwight Howard and Chris Paul tried to maneuver their way out of small markets to seek their fortunes in big markets but that is a shortsighted view; the owners locked out the players to fix the NBA's broken business model and that meant making two major adjustments: changing the BRI split and creating a system that strongly encouraged elite players to remain with the teams that originally drafted them. We all know that the owners won the battle over BRI but the owners also made major system changes, many of which seem to be not fully appreciated yet by the general public. The so-called Derrick Rose rule will make it very expensive for future young stars to spurn their original teams, while the escalating luxury tax will make it very expensive for teams to stockpile max contract players. If the NBA owners had sought to put in provisions to specifically restrict Howard and Paul then (1) the lockout could have lasted for years and (2) the players would have had very good grounds to sue (and win); Howard and Paul are entitled to become free agents under the terms of their contracts and thus they have the leverage to force their way out of Orlando and New Orleans respectively--but they will likely be the last elite players able to do so (at least without sacrificing tens of millions of dollars while also costing their new teams hefty luxury tax assessments).
posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM