The best move for Los Angeles Clippers' point guard Chris Paul's future would be to come back to New Orleans this summer. With new ownership and a young core, the Pelicans are in a better situation than they were when Paul left two years ago.
Paul tried his best to turn "Lob City" into a NBA champion the past two seasons. In the end, the All-Star guard didn't get any further in the playoffs with the Clippers than he had in six seasons with the then Hornets.
The Clippers never got past the Western Conference Semifinals (which they did in 2012 and were immediately swept by the San Antonio Spurs) during the Chris Paul era.
During the 2007-08 season, Paul led the Hornets to a 56-win season. They made it to the Western Conference semis as well that year and were also eliminated by the Spurs. The franchise hasn't been that far since.
Now, the pending free agent enters the offseason facing the toughest question of his NBA career. Does he try to give it a go again with Blake Griffin in L.A. or does he take his talents elsewhere?
After the Clippers were eliminated by the Grizzlies in the first round, Paul's quotes after the game left room for pessimism over a potential return to Hollywood.
"This right here is unacceptable," Paul said. "We lost in the first round to a good Memphis team, but a team we were capable of beating...This is unreal. We only played two weeks longer than everyone else that didn't make the playoffs. That sucks. This stings."
The reasons to stay in Los Angeles are pretty obvious. They can offer the most money (up to $108 million over five years). They are a large market, which means there are plenty of marketing opportunities available. The Clippers are also a veteran team built to compete immediately.
However, if Paul is planning on competing for championships past this season, there are a number of reasons why going back to the team that drafted him makes the most sense.
New Pelicans owner Tom Benson may not have much experience with winning in the NBA, but he has accomplished plenty as the owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The Saints are a former Super Bowl champion, and Benson's aggressiveness is a welcomed change from former owner George Shinn.
New Orleans wasted no time re-making the team in Benson's first year. From a salary standpoint, last summer's deal to rid the team of Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza's bad contracts (at the time, they were owed roughly $43 million combined for the next two seasons) was a masterstroke.
The team also managed to steal an adequate starting center in Robin Lopez in a trade last summer as well. The biggest move came on draft day, when they were able to land No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis to be the franchise's cornerstone big man.
The front office isn't without its misses. The decision to match Phoenix's four-year, $58 million offer to Eric Gordon hasn't gotten off to the best of starts. Also, Austin Rivers, the team's selection at No. 10 overall last June, disappointed in his debut season.
Still, the team is in good shape, cap-wise. With just under $35 million committed for next season, the Pelicans are in a position to make some big moves in free agency. They also possess a high lottery pick in this year's draft.
The Clippers have $45 million committed for next season but also have to make decisions on key free agents, such as forwards Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom. Veteran guard Chauncey Billups is a free agent as well.
Plus, if we're comparing owners, it is safe to say Tom Benson has never generated the kind of negative publicity that Clippers' owner Donald Sterling has. In 2006, the Clippers owner was sued for housing discrimination.
This past December, he was also ordered by a Los Angeles jury to pay approximately $17 million to a former tenant, who sued for breach of contract and emotional distress after losing some of her possessions in a fire.
There's also Sterling's past reputation for being a bit of a cheapskate. Former center Chris Kaman had this to say about his former owner in an interview with SLAM:
"While I was there my first few four to six years, he was tight with everything," said Kaman. "He didn't want to spend the money."
In Sterling's defense, he has gotten better about opening up the checkbook as of late. Kaman would go on to admit as much in the aforementioned interview. He gave Griffin a $95 million extension last summer and has signed the likes of Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan to big contracts.
Regardless, when picking owners, I think Benson gets the edge over Sterling.
This isn't the same New Orleans team that Paul departed in 2011. The Pelicans have a strong, young core in Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson.
Davis didn't live up to all of the hype in his first season, but still played well enough to finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting. The Kentucky big man finished strong, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds a game in April, before having his season cut short by a knee injury.
Gordon has struggled to stay healthy, missing 97 games in the past two seasons. However, he also managed to lead the team in scoring in both of those seasons. When his mind is right and he's on the court, the former Indiana Hoosier is New Orleans' best player.
As for Anderson, he contributed 16.2 points and 6.4 boards a night as the team's top reserve. The big man also converted 38 percent of his attempts from behind the arc and nailed 213 three-pointers (second-best in the NBA behind Golden State's Steph Curry).
Of the trio, Anderson is the elder statesman and he's a mere 25 years old. Davis just turned 20 in March, and Gordon is only 24. As for the rest of the team, Jason Smith (27) is the oldest of the guys under contract for next season.
By comparison, the Clippers have two young big men in Jordan and Griffin, who are both 24. Backup point guard Eric Bledsoe is 23 years old.
Beyond that, the rest of the roster is a little long in the tooth. Caron Butler and Jamal Crawford are 33 years old, as are Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes (if they return next season). Chauncey Billups, if re-signed, will be 37 in September.
This might be a roster that could compete for a title next season, but can they maintain that elite status down the road without making drastic changes? Do they have more potential than the Pelicans, who will add another piece in this year's draft, going forward?
I'm going to say "No" on both counts.
The Indiana Pacers would be an interesting team for Paul (if he' interested). They have a rising star in the reigning Most Improved Player Paul George. They have a solid big man in Roy Hibbert. There's also small forward Danny Granger, who is coming off a knee injury.
Plus, they play in the much-weaker Eastern Conference. If they can fit Paul under the cap (nearly $49 million committed for next season), the Pacers could be an intriguing title contender for years to come.
A Chance To Improve His Legacy
Chris Paul turning the lowly Clippers into one of the NBA's elite teams for the past two seasons was a nice story. Inevitably, it didn't have a happy ending. You can make the case that the Clippers' first round exit was the biggest disappointment of this year's playoffs.
In Los Angeles, Paul is a star among many other stars. He will never be bigger than Kobe Bryant. He may not even be a bigger star than his own teammate, Blake Griffin. He's simply a mercenary trying to bring a title to a city filled with champions.
By returning to New Orleans, Paul would be coming back home to the team that helped make him a household name. He would be making a statement that he wants his legacy to be more about winning and less about bright lights and endorsement deals.
If you think Paul can't turn around this Pelicans franchise, remember that the Clippers were a 30-win team prior to his arrival in 2011. The year before that, they won 29 games.
New Orleans' record last season? 27-55 and that's with its best player missing 40 games and breaking in a 19-year old rookie.
In the 2011-12 season, the team finished 21-45 in the first year of the post-Paul era. That was with Eric Gordon playing all of nine games and Jarrett Jack becoming the team's second-best scorer. Chris Kaman was their best big man and he averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
Anthony Davis' numbers last season? 13.5 points and a team-best 8.2 rebounds per night. He also contributed, on average, a steal and a block per game.
A starting five of Robin Lopez, Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Chris Paul and whomever the team adds at small forward via the draft is a pretty imposing lineup. When you add a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Ryan Anderson, you have the makings of a potential contender.
Unless the Clippers can make some substantial moves (via an Eric Bledsoe trade or moving another big chip), they will bring back roughly the same cast of characters from this season. That would be like trying to re-make Gigli, but keeping Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck as the leads.
Long term, there isn't much to like about the Clippers' future. DeAndre Jordan's contract (due $21 million over the next two seasons after averaging 8.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season) makes Eric Gordon's deal ($43 million left over three years, after leading the team in scoring twice) look a lot better.
The Pelicans at least have a shot at moving Gordon in a trade. Can the Clippers say the same about Jordan and, even if they could, what value would they get?
The reasons why New Orleans needs Chris Paul are simple. They are a talented ship without a captain. They need a leader in the locker room. as well as on the court.
They also need a good defensive guard that can stop the ball and put a clamp on a Western Conference filled with excellent point men. He's a five-time steals champion and member of the All-Defensive team.
As for why Chris Paul should choose New Orleans, it is all about the big picture. He and Eric Gordon would make a fine guard tandem and he'd have a big man in Anthony Davis, whose ceiling might be higher than Blake Griffin's.
Ryan Anderson is a fine reserve. Austin Rivers will only get better (mainly because he can't get much worse). Robin Lopez and Jason Smith are decent centers, and Darius Miller has shown flashes of being a second-round steal.
Plus, if the team can get its hands on Georgetown's Otto Porter or Indiana's Victor Oladipo, it would give them a well-rounded group to surround Paul for the next few years.
Re-signing with the Clippers isn't a bad idea, but it is very short-sighted. The same can be said of trying to form a new "dream team" in Atlanta or Dallas.
New Orleans was Chris Paul's house for the first six years of his career. It is time for him to go back to where it all started.