Panic button, meet the Los Angeles Clippers.
As the NBA continues to inch its way toward free agency, the Donald Sterling-owned Clippers have a dilemma-turned-possible disaster on their hands. Chris Paul hits the open market soon and was initially considered a lock to re-sign in Tinseltown.
Then the Clippers happened.
A first-round playoff collapse was more than enough to put Paul's future with the team in doubt. Reported conflicts between Paul and youngsters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan weren't helping things either. Not so subtly blaming him for Vinny Del Negro's essential firing made things even worse, but the prevailing belief was that he would always re-sign.
Los Angeles can offer him another year and tens of millions of dollars more than any other team in the league, he has complete control over the franchise and there's not a market that surpasses the allure of playing in Hollywood (save for maybe New York).
Still, the Clippers may have mucked this up.
They couldn't come to an agreement with the Boston Celtics on a deal that would have netted them Doc Rivers as their next head coach and ensured Paul's return. Failure to land Rivers reportedly left Paul unhappy (again), according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, and may prove to be the driving force behind a departure most predicted would never happen.
Per Woj once again, that has drove the Clippers to up the ante on their offer to included a first-round pick, and they may now be close to reaching an agreement that lands Rivers in Los Angeles.
For the record, this isn't about Sterling's reluctance to line the pockets of a coach, a personnel decision he has routinely skimped on. Nor is it about any concern he has over the primary hope being that the Clippers can acquire Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce later on. I too could understand his trepidation there.
Though Paul clearly believes otherwise, Rivers' acquisition, along with the best-case scenario of bringing in Garnett and Pierce as well, isn't enough to field a dominant aggregate.
Finishing in the top four of the Western Conference would be a more than realistic goal, but that's not a roster that would get past the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs (seriously). Budding young factions like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors also present some problems, as could a healthy, Dwight Howard-led Los Angeles Lakers outfit.
The Clippers' title window would also be of some concern. Garnett and Pierce don't have another five years left in them—more like two. That two seasons' worth of maybe/maybe not improvement would be enough for Paul to attach himself to a franchise notorious for making bad decisions for another five years is difficult to comprehend.
Remember when the Clippers extended Paul a contract extension for three years worth approximately $60 million? We wrote it off as just business. The Clippers had to offer it, on the off chance Paul accepted.
Don't believe for a minute that the penny-pinching Sterling wasn't lurking in the shadows, frantically breathing in a hopeful stupor that Paul would have signed it. Not only would it have kept Paul with the Clippers for three more years, but it would have saved more than $40 million in contractual obligations.
Early termination options often change the structure of five-year (once six-year) deals (see the Miami Heat), but those opt-outs are normally in the hands of the player. Knowing that he had control over every last cent of that additional $40-plus million would have left Sterling salivating at the mouth.
Of course, that's conjecture—just not farfetched vitriol.
This is what people see when they look at the Clippers: Self-limiting screwups. That is, until they acquired Paul to pair with Griffin. Then they had (finally) done something right.
Following the best regular-season finish in franchise history, these were no longer the same old Clippers. Even after their first-round letdown, hope wasn't waning. It was mounting.
Back to the point: Rivers would have been enough to keep Paul in Los Angeles.
Other transactions could have eventually been in the works that would have adjusted Los Angeles' ceiling, like that of Howard. But that wouldn't have come until later. Given what we know, we have to assume that Rivers alone (and the pursuits of Garnett and Pierce) would have prevented Paul from leaving.
That may no longer be the case.
For the Clippers, keeping Paul is all that mattered. They gave him this type of control, willingly put him in a position of absolute power. He was, and still is, their future.
Never mind if his vision of being led by Rivers and executing a series of other overrated moves wouldn't put the Clippers in a position to dethrone the Spurs or Thunder or Heat. His will needed to be done.
Now it hasn't been, not in a timely fashion anyway..
Leading into free agency, Paul may have to settle for playing under an old friend in Byron Scott. Or he may have Rivers, and quite possibly Garnett and/or Pierce.
In theory, any of that could be enough if only for all the reasons we listed previously (money, market, money, control, money). Or perhaps not.
Paul now also has the knowledge that the Clippers needed to be backed into a corner before they were unconditionally willing to satisfy him. Five more years (or even one or two) playing under that type of regime isn't bound to instill much confidence in his or the organization's future. It might still drive him to leave.
Clad with their second straight title, the Heat's most recent championship campaign will influence the way Paul and other superstars look at free agency.
Over the past three years, Miami has been the standard which all contenders are measured against and now has two titles to show for it. The message has been sent: Superteams yield championships.
Los Angeles isn't a superteam as currently constructed. Not like the Heat. It wouldn't have been with Rivers and Garnett either. The difference was that version of the Clippers—the Rivers-coached one—would have ensured Paul's return.
These Clippers have done nothing, or, at the very most, not enough, to appease their most important player. They were given an inherent edge. Incumbent teams always have the advantage. All the Clippers had to do was maintain it by keeping their point guard happy.
Paul isn't happy as Donald "Duck-Any-And-All-Expenses" Sterling, and the Clippers have managed to turn what was a relatively easy task into a potential blunder of all blunders. And those asking themselves "why on earth would Paul leave?" are now posing the wrong question.
Why should he stay? That's the question that should have never been needed to be addressed. Yet somehow it's the only one a disgruntled and exasperated Paul can really ask himself right now.
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