Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Star Wars

Before we get into nuts and bolts, I'd like to start out by saying that I am profoundly grateful as a professional basketball fan. For at least the next two seasons, we will have the privilege, nay, the unadulterated, rapturous pleasure of watching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the same team. The best pure point in the game is going to be running pick and rolls and hucking oops to a guy who's well on his way to being the preeminent power forward in the league. That's not to mention the fun CP3 is going to have with DeAndre Jordan. Oh, they have Blake double-trapped in the corner? Ho hum. Hey, DeAndre, cut to that empty space there ... here ya go. ... Perfect!!!

I am a reeling, giddy mess just contemplating the insanity that is about to unfold. SportsCenter is essentially going to have to rechristen its Top 10 as "The CP3 and Blake Show" from Christmas through the playoffs.

And yet ...

I'm wondering if the Clippers are going to be contenders. No doubt they will contend, in the sense of existence as an upper-echelon team in the Western Conference. They will likely win a playoff berth this year, and they will be a formidable challenge for any and all opponents with that absolutely devastating high-low action. But "contenders" in the serious, capitalized context of a threat to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy this year? I just don't see it.

The NBA accomplished its stated goal of attaining sufficient compensation for New Orleans in this deal (i.e. "basketball reasons"), however shady their purported motives may have been. In doing so, they provided the Hornets a wonderful structural base from which to rebuild, and hopefully made the franchise attractive to prospective new owners. The Hornets are going to be worse for the next few years than they would have been with the initial Lakers trade, but they have younger talent, more cap flexibility, and what will be a high pick in a loaded 2012 draft class to work with now. The NBA made the right decision for, in my opinion, the wrong reasons, but in the end no one got hurt.

The primary side effect of this is: the Clippers just completely transmogrified themselves as a basketball organization. Forget the obvious observations that they're no longer a joke/laughing stock, and that having Chris Paul and Blake Griffin instantly legitimizes them as a marquee franchise. I'm not interested in the star power/recognition aspect of this trade for L.A. I'm talking about the mechanics of what it represents for the Clippers in terms of basketball philosophy.

Before this trade, L.A. was going about its business in a certain manner, and now they will have to continue in an entirely different one. They didn't merely switch gears, they took the exit ramp to a completely different road. We can identify those two roads as follows ...

Clippers pre-trade: The Oklahoma City Thunder model. (Or: What the Hornets could/will become if a smart new ownership does in fact acquire the franchise.) A youthful assemblage of talent centered around one transcendent player growing up in the league together, forging cohesive bonds and making steady but inexorable strides towards greatness, with some necessary and expected stumbling blocks along the way.

This is what the Clips were before this deal. They had a stellar young core with Griffin, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jordan, and Eric Bledsoe. Their acquisition of Chauncey Billups before the CP3 trade transpired meant that they had a veteran in place to operate an offense full of burgeoning talent, provide a good, steadying personality/influence in the locker room, and tutor Bledsoe in how best to run a system. (I suspect that Mo Williams was either getting reduced minutes or shipped out for parts. Poor guy.)

That nucleus, coupled with some smart moves over the next few seasons (admittedly a stretch given the Clippers' track record) would have allowed them to continue to grow as exciting up-and-comers and potentially dominate the Western conference along with OKC and Memphis for the next 5-10 years. They weren't going to walk away with the hardware this season, but they had the opportunity to realize their collective potential while almost every key player was still shy of qualifying for breaks on their car insurance rates. As the Lakers and Spurs faded/aged out of relevance and Denver and Utah remained burdened by incoherence and rebuilding, the opening was there for L.A.'s "other" team to assert themselves. Now, their paradigm for success has been significantly altered, and I 'm not sure it's for the better.

Clippers post-trade: The Miami Heat model. Clearly, this team was not manufactured in the same manner as Emperor Wade luring Darth LeBron and Jar Jar Bosh to South Beach, but they face a similar set of problems. Acquiring CP3 cost them depth and versatility, and as Miami just demonstrated, it's awfully difficult to win without it. Even if Paul stays healthy (iffy) and elects to stick around after 2013 (iffier), what do the Clippers really have?

Sure, the starting front court is going to be one of the best in the game. Griffin and Jordan are going to be more than a handful for any defense, especially with Paul orchestrating things. But what happens when they need a rest? The trade cost L.A. their only other semi-decent big in Chris Kaman. They better pray D-League veteran Marcus Hubbard can at least hold down the fort when he's asked to spell Jordan. Same goes for Trey Thompkins. As things stand, the rookie from UGA is going to be the go-to guy when Griffin needs a rest, and he may be called upon to fill some time at the 5 is well, either through small-lineup offensive design or necessity. That's not exactly a comforting thought for Clips fans.

I'm not crazy about the Caron Butler/Ryan Gomes/Renaldo Major rotation at small forward, but it's serviceable, and shouldn't actively cost them too many games. (Al-Farouq Aminu was their easiest and smartest give in the trade, in my opinion.)

Now, the real question, and it's a doozy: exactly who's going to be spacing the floor and providing perimeter shooting for this team? They lost a great young 2-guard in Eric Gordon which leaves them with ... uh ... a Randy Foye/Willie Warren combo at the 2? Rookie Travis Leslie? Mo Williams or Chauncey Billups playing out of position? The problem is that right now L.A. has a surffeit of point guards (five total) and no true 2's on their roster.

My personal bet for a solution: Chauncey at the "two." Mr. Big Shot may not be Ray Allen, but he's not exactly a slouch. I can see him running a tight pick-and-pop game with Paul, and a killer give'n'go as well. Paul should always be the primary handler, but if he's swarmed by the opposing D, Billups' PG acumen renders capable of either knocking down shots or finding one the the Clips' interior players as the situation dictates. Both Billups and Paul are good, savvy defenders, which should compensate at least somewhat for their relative lack of size.

This leaves them with Williams, Warren, Foye, and PG Blake Ahearn either coming off the bench or traded off for another asset. An additional big would be nice (and frankly it's a quasi-necessity), but what the Clippers absolutely need is a bench perimeter scoring threat, either a Jamal Crawford type or a J.J. Redick-style sniper. Until they get that guy, they're just not going to be able to sustain offensive momentum while the starters get their rest.

To recap, we're looking at a starting five of Paul/Billups/Butler/Griffin/Jordan. That's more than a pretty damned good lineup, it's downright frightening. The problem is that a key bench rotation of Foye, Williams, and Thompkins ain't going to get it done. If the Clippers can't figure out a way to acquire some better assets, the CP3 trade isn't going to matter.

Right now, it's possible that the Clippers are the best basketball team in Los Angeles. However: the team they (possibly) deposed to (maybe) earn that (hypothetical) title got creamed in the playoffs last season. So even if the Clippers are better, are they good enough?

The answer is an emphatic "not yet they aren't." But they're a move or two away. For fans of this perennially haggard franchise, that knowledge ought to be sufficient to be getting on with. That knowledge, and the promise of oh so many jaw-dropping highlight reels waiting to happen.

The Los Angeles Clippers, folks! Come for the entertainment, stay for the bright, bright future!

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