Paul, Clippers ready to emerge from Lakers' shadow
The ragged history of the Clippers’ franchise reminded Paul of his own tough times
Paul guaranteed GM Neil Olshey he would remain with the team for two years
The Clippers now have three point guards, Paul, Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams
On his first day in Lob City, Chris Paul gazed at a basket in the Clippers practice facility, and pondered how high one should throw passes to a man who can jump over cars. "I've got to find the right height," Paul said. "He plays on a goal under 10 feet." Of course, Blake Griffin plays on 10-foot baskets like everybody else, even if he makes them look like mini-hoops. Griffin was the one who coined his adopted hometown "Lob City," moments after the Clippers traded for Paul on Wednesday, and by Thursday entrepreneurs had turned the moniker into a message tee.
But before the Clippers throw half-court ally oops, contend for Western Conference titles, and pry civic control from the Lakers -- yes, expectations are loftier than Griffin's vertical leap -- consider the extent of the upset they just pulled. They convinced a real live superstar to join them, not because he was paid the most money, or obligated by a fateful ping pong ball. He actually wanted to be a Clipper, mainly for Griffin, but also for reasons many others have stayed away.
"There's so much history here," Paul said, and it was hard not to laugh, given how much of that history has to do with wasted draft picks, career-ending injuries, and lawsuits implicating the owner. But Paul was not joking. The Clippers ragged past reminded him of his own, missing out on the varsity as a freshman and sophomore at West Forsythe High School in Clemmons, N.C. The sales pitch from Clippers general manager Neil Olshey reminded him of deceased Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who recruited him to a small liberal arts college forever in the shadows of Duke and North Carolina.
In Southern California, the Lakers are Duke and UNC combined, and a week ago Paul was supposed to be playing for them. Then the trade was vetoed, the Lakers combusted, and the Clippers asked the Hornets to speak with Paul. Olshey has met many players who are interested in the Clippers' cash, but not invested in their plight. In a phone call with Olshey, Paul guaranteed he would remain with the team for at least two years and rattled off details about other players on the roster, style of offense, and where the club stood in terms of the salary cap. "His commitment to wanting to be here is what inspired us to this point," Olshey said. A former soap opera actor, Olshey repeated that line -- "wanting to be here" -- for dramatic effect.
The Clippers sold out their season tickets. Kobe Bryant acknowledged the rustling of a rivalry. Griffin came off the floor after his first post-Paul practice and declared: "When you hear the Clippers, it's not going to be a joke anymore, I guarantee that." Olshey recalled nights when he staggered into opposing arenas feeling like the Clippers didn't have a prayer. "There's no gym we'll walk into between now and May where we don't have a chance," he said. President Andy Roeser, with the team for 27 years, seemed to exhale. "It's all behind us," he said. "I'd rather climb a mountain than be dropped on a peak."
But anyone who has followed this franchise for any length of time can remember other moments they could see the summit, and promptly fell back to the base: When the Clippers signed Bill Walton in 1979, when they hired Larry Brown in 1992, when they won a playoff series in 2005. The bottles popped, and shortly thereafter, the celebrations stalled.
Olshey, Roeser and head coach Vinny Del Negro called owner Donald Sterling on Wednesday and told him it was time to take another risk, sending two of their best players and a potential top-five draft pick to the Hornets for Paul. "We pushed our chips to the middle of the table," Olshey said. If Paul and Griffin remain happy and healthy -- both underwent knee surgeries two years ago -- the Clippers will become a new Western power, a destination for bargain free agents, and the team of choice for the next generation in L.A.
But they better hustle. If the Clippers just sneak into the playoffs this season, like the Hornets did eight months ago, Paul will not be as satisfied as the team's long-suffering fans. The Clippers could find themselves in the same situation next year as the Hornets, with Paul threatening to leave as a free agent, and Griffin's future also at stake. The Clips, who are not used to playing under pressure, are on the clock. "I don't want to win," Paul said. "I have to win. And if I don't, it's a problem."
The ally oops will make for can't-miss highlights, but the Clippers delivered plenty of those last season, thanks to Griffin. They still finished 18 games under .500. Paul is essentially being asked to flip the record. He does have more help, with newly acquired Chauncey Billups, but Billups was signed this week to play point guard and is not thrilled to move over. The Clippers now have three point guards who have been All Stars -- Mo Williams is third string -- and a former point guard in Del Negro to sort it out. Olshey's background in soap operas could be helpful.
Talent and drama, usually the Lakers domain, has finally been spread even, leaving L.A. with a question rarely pondered before. Who is better: Lakers or Clippers? We might not know until spring. Reporters asked Bryant on Thursday how it felt to play for the second-most exciting team in town and he did not even bother to dispute the premise. "I like jewelry," he said, conceding the rights to Lob City, but holding tight to the surrounding areas.