LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul will supply the Los Angeles Clippers with so much more than alley-oop passes to Blake Griffin when he arrives in Hollywood on Thursday night.
A bold trade for New Orleans’ superstar point guard on Wednesday just might alter the entire sports world’s perception of the Clippers. After managing just six winning seasons in their first 41 years of existence, the bumbling Clippers suddenly look slick and scintillating after swinging arguably the biggest trade in franchise history, giving them two of the NBA’s elite players and a capable supporting cast.
Outfoxing the Lakers and thrilling their long-suffering fans, Los Angeles on Wednesday traded high-scoring guard Eric Gordon, former All-Star center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round draft choice acquired from Minnesota for Paul, the four-time All-Star widely considered to be the NBA’s best point guard.
“We decided for a player of Chris’ caliber that it was just time to make the move and push all our chips into the center of the table,” Clippers vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey told the team’s website. “We’re really happy about it. Chris is the kind of player that makes everybody around him better. He’s a general. He wins. He’s a warrior, and he’s going to take this whole organization to the next level.”
Even the Clippers themselves had trouble believing what their front office had just done in the moments after the trade was announced. Most of the players — including the ones who were traded — were on a holiday bus ride with season-ticket holders when their phones blew up with the news.
Griffin’s reaction was captured by television cameras after he chest-bumped center DeAndre Jordan: “Lob city!”
It’s already a T-shirt in Los Angeles, and it should be a way of life when the playmaking Paul and the high-flying NBA Rookie of the Year get together.
While armchair analysts debate who won the trade and wonder whether the club can keep its newfound assets for the long term, it’s clear that suddenly the Clippers don’t seem to be the modern archetype for sports ineptitude.
Sure, Los Angeles has missed the playoffs 13 times in the last 14 seasons, going 32-50 last spring in the Clippers’ 18th non-winning season in the past 19 years. The former Buffalo Braves have won just one playoff series since 1976.
And sure, the Clippers are still owned by Donald Sterling, the much-criticized real estate magnate who sometimes heckles his own players from his center-court seat. But the Clippers have been gathering momentum since Olshey replaced Mike Dunleavy in March 2010, patiently stockpiling good players around 2009 top pick Griffin while making runs at free agents such as LeBron James, who gave them a courtesy meeting last summer before heading to Miami.
When Paul made it clear he wouldn’t sign a contract extension with the Hornets and was interested in playing in Los Angeles, the Clippers watched while the Lakers’ three-team trade for Paul was blocked by the NBA last week — and then they pounced, offering a deal that not even Commissioner David Stern could reject.
“It was a pivotal moment for us,” Olshey said. “It took a long time to accumulate the assets for a deal like this.”
The 26-year-old Paul is in his basketball prime after averaging 18.7 points and 9.8 assists in his sixth season in New Orleans, which he capped by almost singlehandedly throwing a scare into the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
Paul will earn $16.4 million this year, and he’s expected to exercise his player option for the 2012-13 season, making $17.8 million. The Clippers are counting on it, hoping two seasons with Griffin will entice both players to form a long-term partnership.
For Paul, Wednesday night’s trade means no more lame-duck practices — or ducking questions — in New Orleans. He’s headed from the Bayou backwater to the bright lights of North America’s second-largest market, teaming up with a forward whose finishing skills are a playmaker’s dream.
The deal required Stern’s approval because the Hornets are owned by the league — just one of the many reasons Paul wanted out.
Paul nearly ended up in a different locker room at Staples Center. The Lakers had a deal in place to give up Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for Paul, only to have Stern nix the trade in a widely criticized decision that gave another black eye to the NBA just as it emerged from a protracted, damaging lockout.
Stern told New Orleans general manager Dell Demps to scrap the Lakers deal because he thought the Hornets could get younger, better players and more enticing assets. Demps claimed he and Stern were acting “hand in hand,” even though Demps agreed to the deal with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who voiced the 16-time champions’ fury to the league.
“I knew we were doing the best thing for New Orleans, and that was my job,” Stern said. “You have to stick with what you think was right. I must confess it wasn’t a lot of fun, but I don’t get paid to have fun, even though I generally do.”
At least the Hornets know who coach Monty Williams will have available when the season opens.
Gordon, who turns 23 on Christmas, averaged 22.3 points last season with a smooth jumper and scoring instincts honed by a stint with the U.S. national team. Aminu is a second-year pro who averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds as a rookie, making only a negligible impact, while the 7-foot Kaman is an eight-year veteran who averaged 12.4 points and seven rebounds last season — and has a valuable expiring contract that will pay him $12.2 million this season.
“With this trade, we now have three additional players who were among the top eight draft picks in their respective drafts as well as our own first-round pick and (another) first-round pick,” Demps said. “Aminu is a young talent with a bright future, Gordon is a big-time scorer and one of the best (shooting) guards in the league and Kaman is a proven center and former All-Star.”
New Orleans also sent two 2015 second-round draft picks to the Clippers.
Paul showed up for Hornets training camp last Friday, but has not spoken to reporters since. He was excused from a normally mandatory media event Wednesday, hours before the trade went through, in which players pose for photos in uniform and talk about the upcoming season.
He should have plenty to say when the Clippers introduce him to Los Angeles.
“We wanted to make sure that we got the best possible deal for a player of Chris’ caliber, and we feel great about the outcome,” said Jac Sperling, whom Stern appointed as the Hornets’ governor after the league bought the team in December 2010.
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