We could be on the brink of a basketball revolution.
When was the last time the Clippers trumped the Lakers for a coveted veteran? No Google needed for the answer: never. If the Clippers pair Chris Paul with Blake Griffin and keep DeAndre Jordan to go with Eric Gordon and Caron Butler, they'll become the superior basketball team in Staples Center. That's not just a basketball transaction; that's regime change. The Lakers would have to get Dwight Howard not only to go after the Mavericks, Thunder and Heat, but to stay a step ahead of the Clippers. It would be like the United States falling behind Latvia in the arms race.
If the Clippers get Paul, the game done changed. You'd have a strong argument that they had the best point guard and best American-born power forward (in deference to Dirk Nowitzki) in the league. The Clippers go from perpetual punch line to legitimate force.
As one member of the organization said, "This is the closest we've been to making The Leap."
That's why the Clippers have to do this even if there are no promises that Paul would stay beyond his current contract, which expires in 2013. It's possible that Griffin could become a free agent the next year, so why think about anything beyond that? They have to do it even though Paul has meniscus damage in his left knee similar to the injury that led Brandon Roy to retire. Roy still had enough left to put on that memorable fourth quarter in the playoffs against Dallas, just as Paul had two of the best games of any player in the league during the first round against the Lakers.
The Clippers are used to getting played, used for leverage or teased, never more than when they thought Kobe Bryant would join them as a free agent in 2004, only to be crestfallen when he stayed in the Lakers' locker room. They set their sights on LeBron James in 2010 and were even granted an audience with the King, but it was really just a courtesy. You'll recall that ESPN didn't even bother to post a reporter outside Clippers headquarters during "The Decision." It would have been as pointless as a live shot from Herman Cain's office on the night of the Iowa caucuses.
One reason the Lakers and Clippers have retained their places in the NBA hierarchy is because the Clippers never pull off the bold moves. Whenever they've had a chance to spend money, draft or make a trade for a player who was a potential game-changer -- but not as surefire as Kobe or LeBron -- they've whiffed. They chose the college experience of Chris Wilcox over the straight-from-high-school potential of Amare Stoudemire in the 2002 draft. They passed on a chance to trade with the Hornets for an earlier version of Baron Davis, the one who wound up with the Warriors and led Golden State's 2007 playoff run.
At one point it looked like you could add Paul to the list of the Clippers' missed opportunities. One league source said the Clippers could have had Paul last week if they had included Gordon and/or the Minnesota pick in their offer. A Clippers source disputed that notion, saying that if the team gave up what the Hornets were demanding at the time there wouldn't be enough talent left on the Clippers to entice Paul to stay long-term.
They stood pat, and the Lakers swooped in with the three-team trade with the Rockets and Hornets. You know, the one you heard about so much that you learned it just as sure as you've learned to pronounce Krzyzewski: Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets and Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to the Hornets.
With the NBA intent on finding a new owner in New Orleans you can't just think of the Hornets as a team -- you have to think about them as property. In the real estate business it's not about what you like, it's about what the next buyer will like.
I spoke with sources on two different teams -- one with a vested interest in Paul's destination, one without -- and they both questioned how appealing a potential new owner would find the Hornets' roster in the wake of the proposed trade with the Lakers and Rockets. Collectively, the players are accomplished, but Scola is a 31-year-old who has four years and $32 million left on his contract. Odom is 32, and Martin has only two years left on his contract. Dragic has been a backup point guard his entire career. The draft pick coming the Hornets' way would likely be lower than the Minnesota draft pick that the Clippers could offer.
In the proposed trade with the Clippers that ESPN.com is reporting, the Hornets would get Chris Kaman (whose $12 million contract expires this season), Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and that Minnesota pick. Since we don't know exactly where Minnesota's spot will be, and we don't know how good that player will be, you can't say that this deal is any better than the Lakers/Rockets offer. Younger and cheaper, yes, but not better.
It still looks like the Lakers were the victims of pettiness and jealousy from the smaller markets. David Stern had to beg the owners to approve the new labor agreement that none of them really liked, and now he's beholden to the guys who paid a lot of money for franchises that aren't appreciating at the rate the business moguls are used to seeing. Using his position as de facto owner of the Hornets to kill the Paul-to-the-Lakers deal could have been a way to return favors.
None of that is the Clippers' problem. It's their opportunity. The good NBA teams capitalize on the misfortunes of the rest, and that's what the Clippers would be doing: moving from a tent in the park to finding out what life is like as a member of the 1 percent.