The Face and Fate of the Clippers

Captain on deck

Chris Paul is now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers were, when the hubbub surrounding Paul’s insistence to be moved, the most unlikely of bedfellows because, well, they are the Clippers. Since moving to Los Angeles, some old sages may tell you that the team was once in San Diego, Donald Sterling’s bastard child has only made the playoffs four times and only once have they advanced beyond the first round. However, now they have Paul. He is a master on the court, finding teammates and creating for himself when the opportunity arises to carry his team. Teamed with Blake Griffin, a player who excites by carving out his domain above and literally through the rim, the Clippers, at least for now, are exciting again. Dare say, they are once again relevant.

What will come of the two years that Paul has signed on in Clipperland? Surely, the team’s fanbase will expand beyond Billy Crystal and Frankie Muniz. Bill Simmons gave up on the NBA during the lockout so he will no longer be a mainstay at their home games in the Staples Center. The spotlight will be on the Clippers to perform, fair-weather fans demand it.

Aside from Paul, the team added Caron Butler, the able swingman, who spent much of last season with the champion Dallas Mavericks on the bench due to injury. They matched Golden State’s offer sheet for DeAndre Jordan, who they are likely overpaying but he does have an upside. Plus, he is good friends with Griffin so that chemistry should translate to the potency of the frontcourt. Then there is Chauncey Billups. The Clippers picked him up off waivers after the New York Knicks used their amnesty clause to release him.

To get Paul, one of the best players in the league, they were forced to trade away assets that they were counting on for their future like Eric Gordon (if a team owned by Sterling ever has a future). No matter what side of the trade one may fall on, what is done, is done. Now the Clippers have two years to make it work and the Hornets have forever to rebuild.

The Clippers were Blake’s team. He was the only player that mattered to casual observers. With Paul in town, whose team is it now? Will there be an identity crisis or can the two coexist much like the players that have joined together in New York and Miami. Those relationships, however, are far from equally divided. Not one of these players needs to be the face of the franchise. Both can fill that role for the fans. Yet, on the floor one must take the lead. The likely choice is for it to be Paul as he facilitates the offense. Griffin is the highlight reel who will be on the receiving end of Paul’s decisions. In the fastbreak, which should happen frequently this season, this will be more than apparent. What Vinny Del Negro does in the halfcourt will determine the fate of the Clippers, and likely his job. 

Del Negro will likely give Paul free rein in halfcourt sets, allowing him to masterfully probe the defense, zipping through and around screens and picks, all the while Griffin lurks in  the post, or the charity stripe waiting to strike as his defender focuses on Paul for a moment too long. If Paul penetrates and the defense collapses, he has scorers in Butler and Billups to pass to. If he shoots in the lane and misses, Griffin and Jordan will be there to clean it up. In this scenario, the offense is Paul and because of this the Clippers’ offense will be dramatically improved.

As Rob Mahoney points out, the addition of Paul should be extremely beneficial to Jordan. Much of his scoring comes by means of assists or put backs because he does not have the ability to create scoring opportunities for himself. The Clippers signed Jordan to a new contract worth $43 million over four years. It is a hefty price for a player who has yet to come into his own but Paul should help that. 

Paul’s facilitation will make all of his teammates better by default. This returns to the question: Who is the face of the Clippers? It has to be Paul. He is already a well entrenched figure in households across the country. The argument can be made that Griffin, too, has attained such status. However, his meteoric leap (pun intended) to fame was more about the sheer thrill of his athleticism rather than his tactical vision. Griffin did not make the players around him better. Yes, he has a knack for being able to distribute the ball, a talent many big men do not have, but what makes him special is the ferocity in which he plays the game. Paul is calculating, he has the ability to create angles on the floor with his passes and movements that defenses have no method of anticipating. That is what makes him a great player and what makes players around him better and his leadership will be vital to the development of the entire team, not just the players.  

For the two years that Paul is under contract with the Clippers, he will be the face of a once faceless organization. Griffin will take his place beside Paul due to his ascendancy last season but this is Paul’s team. It will not be a time-share.

It is a rare occurrence that the Clippers have so much buzz going into the season. They will be a better team. Perhaps better than they have ever been. However, that is looking too far ahead. With Paul on board the team is set to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Yet, something feels off. Paul is great. Griffin is astounding. It is the notion that the two are the heralded saviors of a perpetually inept organization with a questionable owner. The Clippers are on the precipice of something good, something wonderful. Only they can screw it up. Let us hope, for the sake of all invested in this team for the coming season, Sterling aside, history does not record yet another blunder for Los Angeles’ second team.  

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