Then, as the floor general of a New Orleans Hornets team that had compiled the second-best record in the conference, 56-26, Paul and his squad were locked in a tight Game 7 of a Western Conference Semifinals series against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.
A fourth-quarter Hornets rally had trimmed a 17-point Spurs lead to five when Paul missed a contested layup with 46 seconds remaining. In his worst dreams, Paul may still hear the collective groan that rose from the sellout crowd at New Orleans Arena when his shot fell short.
Paul made it to a second Western Conference Semifinals Game 7 in 2015, but there was no final-minute tension in that one. The Houston Rockets scored a 113-100 win, their third straight double-digit victory after the Clippers had taken a 3-1 series lead.
That one he likely put behind him immediately.
Paul now ranks as one of the best players in league history never to advance past the second round of the playoffs, a fact that informs recent speculation that he will exercise the Early Termination Option in his contract with the Clippers and become a free agent on July 1. He has played more postseason games (76) without advancing past the second round than any other NBA player ever.
That sort of record doesn’t resonate; it rankles.
Specifically, Paul’s frustration after being ousted in either the first or second round in each of his six seasons in Los Angeles appears to be a major factor in a recent report by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein that Paul will give the Spurs "serious consideration in free agency this summer in the event he decides to leave the L.A. Clippers, according to league sources."
It makes perfect sense for Paul, still in his prime at age 32, to opt out of the final year of his current Clippers contract, at roughly $24.3 million. Since he qualifies as a maximum-value player, a new deal would allow the Clippers to re-sign him for five years and about $205 million, depending on where the salary cap lands this summer.
His leaving the Clippers for another team is another matter entirely. Speculation that the mutual admiration between Paul and the Spurs puts San Antonio in prime position for another offseason coup does not pass the smell test.
Start with the fact that choosing any team other than the Clippers would cost him roughly $53 million, the difference between the five-year, $205 million deal the Clippers can offer and the four-year, $152 million contract another team can give.
There aren't enough State Farm insurance TV spots over the rest of Paul’s lifetime to make up that difference.
Even if Paul were to decide that $152 million is plenty to put him on Gregg Popovich’s roster alongside Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the chances that he signs with the Spurs are next to nil as long as Pau Gasol opts in to the second year of his Spurs contract, at $16.2 million, for the 2017-18 season. If so, the Spurs will have $56.6 million already committed to just three players: $16.2 million to Gasol, $21.5 million to LaMarcus Aldridge and $18.9 million to Kawhi Leonard.
Now consider Gasol’s decision. About to turn 37, he is coming off the least productive season of his career, 12.4 points per game, and a less productive playoff run, an average of 7.7 points in 16 postseason games. Giving up a guaranteed $16.2 million to hit free agency would be economic lunacy.
Then Tony Parker, a veteran currently rehabbing after surgery on a ruptured left quadriceps tendon, is due the final $15.5 million season of his contract.
The Spurs could clear space to sign Paul, but the roster changes would be Draconian. Changes would likely include waiving Parker and stretching the final season of his 2017-18 salary, renouncing the rights to free-agents Jonathan Simmons, Patty Mills and Dewayne Dedmon and finding a way to trade veteran defensive ace Danny Green while bringing back considerably less than the $10 million he is to make next season.
As if that weren’t enough, it would probably mean bidding adios to Manu Ginobili, even if he decides he has enough left in his 40-year-old body to sign for another season.
The Spurs don’t do Draconian, especially when it involves franchise icons like Parker and Ginobili. Stein reported that his source believes the Spurs are all but guaranteed a face-to-face meeting with Paul, should he become a free agent, but Western Conference basketball management types aren’t losing sleep over the prospect of another conference superteam, this time based in San Antonio.
"I think all that talk is nothing more than leverage," one Western Conference basketball executive said Thursday. "Chris is just trying to make sure he can leverage Doc (Rivers).
"If you’re the Clippers, don’t you have some reservations about giving him that big commitment? I know I would. So, if you’re Chris, you’ve got to create some interest out there in the league that then puts pressure on your own people to give you what you want."
The Clippers clearly understand the stakes, as their reported pursuit of NBA legend Jerry West for a front-office job indicates. With or without West, they should be favored to retain Paul.
The Spurs still believe they had a legitimate shot at extending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals had Leonard not suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter of Game 1, when they led the Warriors by 23 points. Their collapse after watching Leonard limp off the court was disheartening, but their 113-111 loss was the closest score of Golden State’s 16-1 trot to another championship.
Why blow up a roster that seemed capable of giving one of the best teams in NBA history a more competitive series than this season’s Eastern Conference champs?
The Spurs have a long history of staying the course.
Don’t expect that to change this summer.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.