Anyone who knows me (and I suppose there are readers at this point who may not) knows that I don’t write here very much any more. In fact, my Clipper obsession has subsided to the point where a text from my sister-in-law — my freaking sister-in-law for FSM’s sake — is how I learned that Chris Paul had been traded to the Houston Rockets.
Others will discuss ad infinitum how that happened, what the Clippers got, etc. Without spending much time or bandwidth on it, I’ll just call it a strange deal. Clearly the Rockets got the better end of it, but in a way it feels like that rare lose-lose trade. Chris Paul and James Harden appear, on the surface, to be a terrible fit. It’s not just the obvious — sure they are both ball dominant guards, so that seems like a problem. There’s also the small matter of Paul’s infamous perfectionism and attention to detail paired with Harden’s ridiculous shot selection and inattention to details like for instance playing defense. Think Paul grated on Blake Griffin from time to time? What happens when Paul gets into the beard-of-the-franchise-MVP-runner-up for the first time? I guess we’ll find out.
And it goes without saying that when you trade a player the caliber of Chris Paul you want more than a pupu platter of assets. All four things the Clippers got back have value — Patrick Beverley is the default starter at the point, Lou Williams is an expiring deal, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are young and cheap and could be useful in the NBA, a first round pick is a first round pick — but there’s nothing great by any means. Still, bear in mind that Paul had to go along with this trade — he had to opt in for the last year of his deal — or the Clippers would have lost him for nothing. Something is better than nothing.
Clearly this is a terrible blow for the team, which lost a superstar player in a superstar league. The team will certainly be worse off next season, and those of us who love watching one of the great point guards in the history of the league lead our favorite team will be deprived of that simple pleasure.
And yet when my sister-in-law described it as “depressing” I had to take a step back and think for a moment.
I WAS ALREADY DEPRESSED ABOUT THE NBA.
The Golden-fuh-State-king-Warriors ruined 2016-17 for me and figure to ruin the next five NBA seasons for me. Plenty of people will call me a hater, but I swear this is not simply because I hate the Warriors — it’s because I love the NBA, and the Warriors have made it boring. They are better than any other team, by a significant margin. And that sucks for everyone who is not a Warriors fan.
Why did I not know that Chris Paul had been traded? Why did I not know that Russell Westbrook had won the MVP until two days after it was announced? Why did I forget that the draft was last Thursday? Because while off-seasons are supposed to be about finding a way to build your team toward an NBA championship, that prize is off the table for the foreseeable future. Spoiler alert: barring an injury, the Warriors are NBA champs next year, and the year after that, and the year after that....
Answer me this: what was the one big play the Clippers could make during the summer of 2017 to be able to compete with Golden State? There wasn’t one.
In fact, if a championship or even a Finals appearance is the ultimate goal (a dubious goal to be certain, but one that is frequently espoused), then signing Paul to a new five year deal would have been the worst possible move. Consider these four simple facts: Chris Paul, 32; Blake Griffin, 28; Steph Curry, 29; Kevin Durant, 28. Five years from now, Paul will be ready to retire. If he were wearing a Clippers’ uniform in the interim, he’d be losing to the Warriors each and every year, because Curry and Durant aren’t going anywhere.
So flash forward to summer 2022 in an alternate reality where the Clippers did the obvious thing and re-signed both Paul and Griffin. Just when Curry and Durant might be declining a bit, the Clippers are at the end of over a decade of Paul and Griffin together without ever breaking through, without ever beating the Warriors.
(Griffin’s in the same boat, by the way. He may be younger than Curry and Durant, but he’s also far more dependent on athleticism. He won’t age as well as they will.)
It didn’t help matters that the Warriors seemed to relish embarrassing the Clippers. I don’t think most people understand just how good that team is. The simple fact is that they can easily win any game without much caring how they play. But they hate the Clippers, and always want to crush them — which they do.
Moving Paul changes the calculus. Let’s stipulate for now that Griffin re-signs (I think you can make either case, that the trade makes it more likely or that the trade makes it less likely, but let’s assume it happens.) The Clippers are now battling for a second tier playoff spot in the West, rather than expected to get home court advantage. Every spot they rise above eight now feels like a triumph; rather than every spot below two feeling like a failure. We as fans can begin to watch with a feeling of anticipation once again — watching for signs of progress, as opposed to watching for signs of decline.
Oh, and what happens when the Clippers decide to run their offense through Griffin on a full time basis? Who knows? But it will be fun to find out. How would you like to see the four-five pick and roll about 20 times a game? And let’s not forget that Patrick Beverley threw his share of lobs to the likes of Clint Capela last season.
Am I depressed that Chris Paul is no longer a Clipper? Sure. He’s the smartest player I’ve ever seen, and I do love me some smart basketball. But after three consecutive Warriors-Cavs Finals (and especially after Durant created the super-Dubs), I’m OK with pretty much anything that stirs things up.
Yesterday I had no interest in the off-season. Things just got interesting.
Oh, and don’t get me wrong — the Warriors are still going to be NBA champs for the next five seasons. But there’s always 2023.