It has been five years and change since Chris Paul came west and stood on Clippers soil. His presence in Los Angeles for the second favorite team was like an eclipse. It blocked out the sun because all the light in the room was Chris Paul. Nothing was the same for Donald Sterling’s team, nor was it the same for Chris Paul. He benefited in riches and in wins in a glamour market that attached themselves to his peculiar combination of boyishness and toughness. He was infinitely likeable in a town of plastic faces and fake hair. His addition here changed everything the Clippers had been before, all the Donald Sterling racist shade and cheap paychecks and injury tragedy that made many think the Sports Arena was built on an Indian burial ground. Sterling, who had disinterest in his own team other than schmoozing courtside with celebrities, began paying real attention now that Chris Paul was in residence.
Chris Paul gave the Clippers relevancy and stature. He didn’t care about the past, only the present, the right now, and winning his way, through leaderhsip and clutch shot making. HIs presence oozed respect, talent, commitment, willfulness and a winning culture. He was the leader from day one, coached by Vinny del Negro, and he was the leader on the last day, telling the Clippers no thank you, I am not going to come back if you can’t give me the fifth year, and oh, by the way, Austin Rivers was annoying, you wouldn’t trade for Carmelo, and Doc got on my last nerve. So bye. A few hours later, Paul stunned the NBA, not with a move to San Antonio, who can actually compete offensively and defensively with the Warriors, but a quick bolt to the Rockets and their defense-less three point shooting love fest.
On paper, why not be excited about Paul being courageous? James Harden will go back to scoring and Paul can continue to be the playmaker. The Rockets have the same offensive weapons they had last year, minus Lou Williams, who did nothing for them in the playoffs. But the truth is, everyone is going to have to adjust. Harden won’t have the ball in his hands like he had this year. Paul has more weapons than he ever had but a system that doesn’t legitimize his endless dribbling. He is going to have to give the ball up quicker and sooner and play at a faster pace. He will probably score more. Sharing the offense will save him from having to do everything. Since the Rockets gave up Patrick Beverly, they traded defense, and the Rockets need a lot more on the perimeter. Everyone is going to have to give up something.
But the Clippers are the story of this early offseason that isn’t even official yet. All season, they were a preferred talking point, both creating and drowning out noise simultaneously. Could they keep their Big Three. Doc was desperate to hold on.
Without warning, the Clippers lost their best player. They lost their leader and face of the franchise. They lost their competitor. They lost their critic. They lost their clutch player. They lost their toughest player. They lost their only perimeter defender. Nothing good is happening in Los Angeles anymore now that Chris Paul is gone, despite the inclusion of Jerry West into the organization to advise the helpless.
The Clippers are rebuilding. But they won’t call it that. They will desperately hang on to the last of the tribe, the always injured Blake Griffin. It is their last Hail Mary pass while standing on the 30 yard line with the wind in their face and their fans headed for the exits.
The Clippers can keep Blake Griffin, offer him a max deal, then sign a free agent point guard and go younger. But gone are the days in which they are a third or fourth seed in the West. They will struggle to make the playoffs and perhaps, if Griffin bolts too, they are a lottery team.
Los Angeles is hosting the All-Star game and it may be the first All-Star game in history without a participant from the host city. The Lakers are expected to go through rebuilding changes but the Clippers? It’s going to be tough in Staples Center this season.
Doc Rivers has done this before though. A long time ago, he took a team no one thought much of and they had a 41-41 record and he was Coach of the Year. But so much has changed since then, not to mention the Western Conference is tougher than it has ever been with Paul in Houston and Jimmy Butler in Minneapolis. You cannot get worse. You cannot lose your best player and pulse of your team. You cannot absorb a sucker punch, a blow to the face that leaves you reeling.
Chris hung a right cross to the Clippers jaw. They are bleeding in the heart but are not down for the count. Blake Griffin stands between them and futility and being the Clippers again, that thing you laugh at while on your way to Melrose to eat and shop.
A rich owner, a billionaire, couldn’t keep Paul in L.A., an indictment on the fragile NBA system. Stars don’t think twice about leaving. They bear up even as tragic fans are moaning.
A year in Houston is the Chris Paul test case before joining LeBron James in 2018. Good or unfair, the NBA is a players recruiting players league. The union president just washed his hands of L.A. for less money in the short term. It wasn’t about winning. It was a get out of jail free card. Chris Paul wasn’t happy.
If there is any irony at all it is that Donald Sterling is a hazy figure and the Clippers still got stabbed in the heart. And by their savior no less. The one they stole from the Lakers. So, perhaps there is karma after all.
After his Clippers meeting went awry, Chris Paul helped himself to a playoff team that may get him to his first conference final. It is the Clippers history. Luck always escapes them, either by going out a window or bolting loud as day out the front door with a slam, ending in Houston.
The Clippers are going backwards faster than you can say Clippers Curse and never been to a Conference Final. But no one who has been on this Chris Paul ride is surprised it happened to them by one of their own.