Los Angeles will once again be the center of the NBA free-agent universe this summer, though, by the sound of all the speculation surrounding the City of Angels, you'd think Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers were the only ones with crucial choices on their respective agendas.
Living in the Lakers' shadow is nothing new for the Los Angeles Clippers. They've played the part of "Second Fiddle" to the Purple and Gold since moving north from San Diego in 1984—at the height of "Showtime," no less.
For once, though, the Clips' relative anonymity appears to be a net positive for the reigning Pacific Division champions. You might've forgotten that Chris Paul (i.e. the best point guard on planet Earth at the moment) is scheduled to join Dwight on the open market this coming July.
And you'd hardly be at fault for forgetting. There's been far less chatter about Paul's future than about Howard's to this point.
As LA basketball maven and current HoopsHype columnist Mark Heisler recently noted, the relative calm and quiet surrounding CP3's impending decision has plenty to do with the fact that Chris has little (if any) intention of ditching the Clips. He allegedly enjoys living in LA (tough to imagine...or not) and lent a (heavy) helping hand to the effort to revamp the roster that took place this past summer.
Oh, and LA can offer Chris more money ($108 million) over more years (five) than any other team out there. Snagging an extra year might not mean as much to a guy like Dwight Howard, who will always have value because of his size and strength.
But if you're Chris Paul, an undersized point guard with a history of knee injuries, it's imperative that you maximize your earnings now and secure the future of your career while you can.
It's no wonder, then, that vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks is "very confident" about the Clips' prospects of keeping CP3 for the foreseeable future (via Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
A lot of that information we'll keep private, because that's an internal thing, but I feel very confident. I think he's an integral part of this. We feel like we had a great partnership for the last couple of years and we want to continue it obviously. These are decisions that have to be made and some of them will be taken care of at the appropriate time. We can't talk to him until July 1, so we'll go ahead and do that. We'll move forward when it's appropriate.
By the same token, Sacks and the Clippers are well-aware that Paul could call it a day in LA and take his talents elsewhere:
The No. 1 priority for us right now has to be re-signing our star player, Chris Paul. That's our goal, that's what we want to do. We want to put ourselves in a position to do that. We feel this organization is in a position to move forward with that goal in mind. It's always difficult, it's never easy, but we feel confident we can be successful.
The tempered confidence here from Sacks certainly makes sense. After all, these are still the Clippers we're talking about, a team whose history is more star-crossed than Orion's Belt. They spent a No. 1 pick on Michael Olowokandi, that once dreamt of a future built around the likes of Lamar Odom, Elton Brand and Darius Miles in the early 2000s. It appeared to be on the verge of something special when Baron Davis came to town in 2008, only to see Brand flee for more money with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Which is to say, the higher the stakes, the harder the Clips tend to fall.
To be sure, there are plenty of non-superstition-related factors at play that could deter Chris Paul from sticking around. For one, there's the coaching situation, on which the organization has yet to comment meaningfully either way. Vinny Del Negro isn't under contract for 2013-14 and doesn't figure to be (at least not in LA) after failing to lead the Clips past the first round.
Assuming that's the case, the team figures to involve Paul prominently in the upcoming search. Said Sacks:
We want to have feedback from our players to hear what they have to say. Whatever we do, we do as an organization. Of course you're going to listen to your star players. You're going to listen to all your employees when you're making these decisions but I don't think that's unusual.
However, the disparate timing between when the Clippers might otherwise look for a new coach (i.e. now) and when they can re-sign Paul in July could hinder their ability to involve their superstar guard in the process.
Not to mention the spendthrift nature of notorious Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He's long been known around the Association for skimping and scrimping wherever and whenever possible, particularly when it comes to coaches. He has a history of firing coaches and stiffing them of their guaranteed pay (see: Dunleavy, Mike) and happened upon Del Negro as his team's coach in part because Vinny was still owed money from his previous deal with the Chicago Bulls and thus, would take less to coach in LA.
As such, any tightening of Sterling's purse strings in the coaching search could pare down the list of quality candidates considerably and, in turn, hinder any attempt to retain Paul. The Clippers owner, though, has already proven himself ready, willing and able to pay his players, as evidenced by the mega-millions with which he recently lavished Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Ponying up for Chris Paul, then, wouldn't be much of a surprise.
Along those same lines, there's also the not-so-small matter of the apparent rift between Paul and LA's frontcourt tandem of Griffin and Jordan, which Los Angeles Times columnist TJ Simers scribbled about back in early April.
In essence, the 28-year-old CP3 is keen to win now—in the prime of his career and with his injury history in mind—by playing a more deliberate style, putting in a ton of work, and driving his teammates to do the same. Apparently, Blake and DJ (both 24) seem more interested in pushing the pace, throwing down highlight-worthy dunks and generally enjoying the experience of being young, famous and fabulously loaded in one of the nation's biggest cities.
The right coach would probably be able to quash any friction or controversy between these two sides in an instant, but...well, there's only so much one can ask of Vinny Del Negro.
How big of a part all of this Hollywood-esque drama played in the Clippers' first-round collapse is anybody's guess, though the fact that LA was bounced so decisively after putting together the best season in franchise history has to give Chris some pause.
These Clippers won as many games (56) as did the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets, which, up until this year, had ranked as the best NBA squad with which Paul had yet played.
That team also set a franchise record for wins and won its first division title, but even those Hornets—with David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic—couldn't quite crack the Western Conference Finals. Though they came darn close, pushing the San Antonio Spurs to seven games.
The Clippers' current roster will certainly need some more help to get to that point. For one, the team could use another big man who can play both ends of the floor, as well as a perimeter scorer who can ease the considerable burden that Chris has already borne.
To that end, ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith recently posited that the Clippers might consider a blockbuster trade that would send Griffin, Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and (ostensibly) head coach Doc Rivers (h/t Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk).
Where will Chris Paul be next season?
It's a ludicrous proposition, to say the least. There's no way the Clippers are parting with a superstar seat-filler like Griffin, even less so for a pair of old, beat-up near-retirees in Pierce and Garnett.
And realistically, the Clips don't need to go to such extremes to convince CP3 that he should stay. As much as he might want to play with the Truth and the Big Ticket, Paul probably understands just as well that replacing the Clippers' current core with those two wouldn't make the team a more viable contender now and certainly not in the future. If anything, such a swap would (or, at least, should) be a deterrent to CP3's return.
Furthermore, the rest of the NBA isn't exactly flush with suitors who sport both the cap space to sign Paul and the requisite roster to make a run at a title. The Atlanta Hawks have been bandied about as a possibility, what with their new-found financial flexibility in the post-Joe Johnson era. But the Hawks might not have quite as much money to throw around if Josh Smith comes back, and even if they do, could Chris really consider Atlanta's roster to be more championship-ready than LA's?
The same could be said of the Dallas Mavericks, who've been rolling over their roster in anticipation of a free-agent coup for what feels like eons now. The Mavs probably can't afford the full cost that a max contract for Paul would incur—not without some salary cap trickeration, anyway—and wouldn't have much of a roster to offer him outside of Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, both of whom are well into their 30s.
Beyond those two teams, it's tough to find any organization that combines a ready-made roster, a hole at point guard, gobs of cap space and a name that doesn't start with a "C" and rhyme with "Flippers."
So, yes, the Clippers should feel good about their chances of keeping Chris Paul around for the next five years or so.
And no, they shouldn't be upset that their situation isn't making headlines at the moment. When it comes to CP3, no news is good news until he's allowed to put pen to paper.