Paul to the Clippers: the (big) easy way out.

Posted on Thu 15 December 2011 in 2012 Season Preview by Aaron McGuire

Remember my post from less than a week ago, where I started with a misleading paragraph meant to make you think I was describing the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade? The one where I was actually talking about Albert Pujols in an attempt at some classical misdirection comedy? Well. I'd ask you to read that introduction again, and actually apply it to Chris Paul this time. Because virtually everything I said for the Lakers -- that they weren't really expected to land Paul, that they took a bigger risk than was being reported, that there's this sense where you wonder if you're dreaming -- effectively summarizes how I feel about Paul going to the Clippers. Countless words have already been spilled on it, but I feel that there's a lot that's being left out of the conversation right now. So, I'll be the contrarian folk hero who quixotically tries to add a bit to the discussion. Paul to the Clippers. Really. This actually happened. Let's discuss.

• • •

I have a lot of disparate thoughts floating around in my head regarding Chris Paul's move to the Clippers. But I'll start with something that's escaped major mention in the mainstream coverage of the trade. This is a great pairing, don't get me wrong, but regardless of how electric Griffin and Paul can be together? The 2012 Los Angeles Clippers really aren't going to be significantly better than the 2011 Hornets, when healthy. It's a fact. They'll be more fun to watch for the general public, and they've got a more engaging core. But they've only really accomplished the first step of becoming a contender -- they now have a stunning two-person core with a load of ill-fitting flotsam around them. The sensationalist ramblings of how the Clippers have immediately become the team to beat in the Pacific or among the class of the Western Conference strikes me as misguided at best and completely absurd at worst. They'll be good, but they're going to be 2011 Hornets type good, not 2011 Thunder type good. And the 2011 Hornets were a really good team. Chris Paul ran the offense as Chris Paul is wont to do, and Monty Williams built a brilliant defensive system around the pieces he had.

To wit: the 2010 Hornets were, defensively, one of the worst teams at utilizing their talent in the league. They ran man-to-man defense with poor man defenders and had no coherent system. Monty came in last season and not only changed the system, he completely threw out the old defensive playbook. Gone was the strand-your-man defensive stylings from late in Scott's tenure and Bowers' misguided reign. Instead, Monty instituted a new and somewhat revolutionary system. When they were in the game, he parked Chris Paul on the opponent's primary ball handler, Trevor Ariza on the opponent's primary perimeter scorer (dependent on who was hot as well as who was the "star"), and Emeka Okafor on the opponent's primary big man. Everyone else? Rotations. Lots of them. The Hornets defense was extremely fluid, leading to constant cross-matching and a wealth of strange but creative rotations. David West on a star shooting guard, Jarrett Jack on a big man, etc -- there were a lot of strange (and usually deathly poor) cross matches last year with the Hornets. The thing is? It worked. The Hornets were a top-10 defensive team in the 2011 season, despite starting David West and Marco Bellinelli, and despite CP3's defense falling off ever so slightly from his 2009 peak. But they were also -- despite CP3's best efforts -- a bottom 10 offensive team. And this is where I have to stop this and emphasize a few key facts about these Clippers compared to last year's Hornets, or anything close to the most successful Hornets team Paul ever had, the incredible 2008 Hornets from when Paul was at the height of his powers.

  1. Chris Paul isn't quite what he used to be. Paul, when healthy, is the greatest point guard talent in the NBA. He's a complete package and there's really not a guard in the league that can even approach his level. But it's also true that Paul hasn't played consistently to his 2008 level since... well... 2009, ish. It's somewhat hard to find an aspect of his game that's been the same since his 2010 knee surgery. While the commentariat is generally reluctant to admit it, Paul has declined. He was healthy virtually all of last year, yet put up numbers generally paling in comparison to what he did in 2007-2009. He shot worse (eFG% lowest since 2007, despite the lowest usage% of his career), he wasn't nearly as proficient at distributing the ball (45.8% aRATE vs 54.2% at his peak -- and this is despite some ridiculous home bias present in his assist totals), and he set a career high in TOV% (13.9%, compared to a career low of 12.2%). All of these are marginal effects in and of themselves, but with Paul's game not improving in any way to offset them, they combine to make a player who's different -- in a bad way -- from the MVP candidate we witnessed in the late 2000s. And his excellent playoffs versus the Lakers doesn't erase that. Was he still the best PG in the league? Sure, but by a rather slim margin.
  2. Blake Griffin is David West 2.0. While there are some big differences in the way they approach the game (one is a pick and pop guy, the other a dunk artist; one is timid on the boards, the other is a rebounding beast; one can rotate on defense, the other is apparently offended by the concept of defense altogether), Blake bears a startling similarity to the type of player West was at his best alongside Paul. The manner in which West gets his points is different than the manner Blake gets his, but you can pencil in either for about 20-25 ppg, a decent rebounding performance, and awful defense. Monty finally fixed West's defensive issues by forcing him to rotate more, the one defensive skill West really has. He's a good rotating defensive big even if he's essentially awful when placed on an island with his man. Blake was the same, except minus the "one defensive skill" -- Blake simply didn't have a defensive skill last year, and it showed in how easily his men scored on him. Unfortunately for the Clips. Anyway. Blake is a much better David West, with a lot of upside potential. But replacing an all-star caliber big man with a better one is sort of like upgrading from a 30" TV to a 33" -- it will help, it will be noticeable if you're looking for it, but in the long run your team isn't going to gain 5-10 wins solely from jumping up from an all-star reserve quality big man to an all-star starter.
  3. DeAndre Jordan is worse than Emeka Okafor or Tyson Chandler. Alright. I know there's a big movement to essentially attribute all of Chandler/Okafor's success to Paul's oops and setups. And I agree that DeAndre's offense will improve this year with Paul setting him up. But DeAndre Jordan isn't half the defensive big man that either Okafor or Chandler is, I'm sorry. And both Chandler and Okafor have tertiary skills that destroy Jordan's tertiaries -- Okafor with his close-in bank shot and startlingly effective shot distribution chart, and Chandler with his (sometimes illegal) incredible screens. Jordan's tertiary skills are basically "he's best bros with Blake Griffin", and while that's cool and all, he's going to need to develop some part of his game other than his average to subpar rebounding and his block-heavy (not altogether effective) foul-heavy defense.
  4. The supporting cast is terrible. This is a problem that dogged Paul in New Orleans, and honestly, the Clippers if anything make that worse. The team he's leaving had: a good catch-and-shoot three point shooter ready to make bombs (Bellinelli), a solid defensive three who can drive and finish (Ariza), and a shockingly effective bench mob type of guy who was never a good defender but always found a way to contribute around the court (Landry). This team? A lot of print has been shed about the Billups signing, but I don't really see that as all that relevant. Billups is not a good catch and shoot gunner -- he's more of a LeBron-type three shooter, where his best threes are off the dribble in the rhythm of his own offense. He's one of the players who is going to be helped least by playing with a setup man like Paul. Caron Butler would be great, if this was 2008. But it isn't. He misses half the season on average, he has balky knees, and he's far over the hill and fading fast. Beyond them? They have nothing. The rest of the roster is going to be composed of D-League call-ups, Foye, Gomes, and point guards they can't play. That's worse than even New Orleans had last year, and far worse than the motley crew Paul dragged to the seventh game versus the Spurs in 2008.
  5. Vinny Del Negro. The number one reason this Clippers team is worse off than the Hornets teams of yore? Vinny Del Negro. I'm one to be hard on Byron Scott essentially 24-7, but if you had to let me choose between Monty Williams, Byron Scott, and Vinny Del Negro? I'd pick Monty, obviously, as he's one of the brightest young coaches in the league. But I'd also pick Byron Scott eons before I'd ever want Vinny Del Negro getting close to my team. Del Negro is one of the worst play calling coaches in all of basketball. He's not a good manager of minutes, nor is he good at developing coherent defensive schemes. Vinny was just under the season threshhold for me to count him as a "significant" coach in my previous look into coaching as it relates to team injuries, but if you look at the overall stats for all the coaches I looked at, Vinny was well above the mean in terms of games lost to injury per season -- it may not be statistically significant, but would you really put it past Vinny to play guys who are sloppy and unprepared for NBA action? I really wouldn't. And he's going to be coaching a player without a meniscus along with a PF that absolutely needs to learn how to defend? Good luck with that, Vinny. Monty helped the Hornets overachieve last year. If anything, Vinny is going to work his hardest to do the opposite.

They'll be good. 2011 Hornets good, that is. Not contender good, yet.

• • •

Having said all that, it's time to explain the title of the article. It's true that every team involved took a risk here. Stern risked his reputation to veto the Laker deal, then approved this knowing that the debacle has added a slightly skeevy tint he's never going to be able to wash out to his overall legacy. While the Hornets got back a rather amazing package (Gordon will probably be the best shooting guard in the league in two years, a top-10 pick in the most loaded draft since 2003, a promising prospect in Al Faroq Aminu, and an expiring contract to save future cap room in Kaman), don't think they aren't taking a pretty big risk here. Gordon is a star player and in two years he'll be up for free agency himself. His hometown team -- the Indiana Pacers -- has specifically angled to have max-deal cap room right when Gordon gets to free agency. This trade looks significantly worse for the Hornets in 2014 if Gordon spends two years leading them to middling sub-playoff performances that nevertheless keep the Hornets from getting the quality draft talent they need. It looks worse still if after leading them to that kind of a middle-tier hell, Gordon gets up and leaves for the Pacers. There's a big risk of that happening. The Clippers, on the other hand, essentially gutted their team to put together a two-man core starring a mileage-heavy point god with no meniscus in his left knee and a no-defense rookie phenom. What if Paul blows out his knee? What if they find they need more pieces, but DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler's insane deals keep them from doing it? What if they peter out at a ceiling no better than the 2007 Hornets? Gigantic risks all around.

I'd argue, though, that if you look past the risks and go a bit deeper into each side's motivations this is a deal that is best summarized as "the easy way out" for essentially every party involved. For Paul, he gets his big market he wanted, even if it's not the franchise he wanted -- he gets to leave New Orleans, say some nice stuff about the city, and move on with his life. He gets the instant "it's the Clippers" excuse if Blake and him don't pan out as a dominating twosome, and he gets his free agency in two years if the situation simply doesn't work out. It's great for him. It's simple, it's easy, and there's no real penalty for failure. The Hornets took the easy deal, able to sell to their fans that they got the best package available and they're building for the future even if they just pulled a bush-league move with their season tickets. They've sold out their 2012 season tickets already, from what I've read -- this was sort of on the expectation they'd have Paul, or at least some kind of decent basketball to put on the court. Now? They're the consensus worst team in the league and they've harmed the franchise's ability to stay relevant in a market that wants them moved out. The original Laker deal was far, far worse than the Clips deal for the future of the Hornets franchise. That's impossible to argue.

But contextually, trading Paul for a decent roster that makes playoff revenue isn't the worst fate for the Hornets, and for a franchise on the verge of getting thrown out of their city, it might be the best-case scenario. Turning the team into an unwatchable horror show gives me shivers of the Seattle Supersonics back before Bennett moved them out. And ripping an already-moved franchise from the city of Katrina seems like a terrible, terrible move for the Hornets as a franchise. But it also seems like something virtually guaranteed by this deal. Was it the best deal? Sure, in the long term, and if you don't care if the Hornets stay in New Orleans. It was the easiest call you could possibly make if you're that front office, or the NBA people who vetoed the Laker deal. If you're the fans, though, you're in for a terrible hard slog and left feeling that New Orleans is far more likely to lose the franchise now than they were before this ordeal. And the Clippers? That's the easiest one to explain. They essentially have had the 2nd most bumbling offseason of any team yet, what with the massively overpaid Jordan deal, the awful Caron Butler signing, and the signing of Chauncey Billups to a team where he can't actually be of any use. But the price? The Clips gave up 4 of their top 5 trade assets and essentially got destroyed at the bargaining table -- if they'd held out and kept Gordon, they'd be the second best team in the Western Conference. Instead they went the easy route -- they gave in, shrugged it off, and now have a markedly worse team with pieces that don't make sense together. But they have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and you can sell that.

Which, in the end, is all that matters. Sterling can sell Los Angeles that, easily. And even if the pieces he gave up mean the team is hardly better than the Hornets team that probably was (with West on board) a second round team that push the defending champs to 5 or 6 games before bowing out, the Clips have two stars and Sterling doesn't really care what they do beyond that. He cares about his money. He cares about making the Clippers profitable. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers are the most marketable team in the NBA. They'll thrill crowds with dunks and pretty passing, even if their defense is crap and their coach is arguably the worst in the league. Sterling doesn't really care how far they get in the playoffs, or if they'll ever be a champion -- his ultimate goal is to have a franchise that makes money. And thanks to this trade, he's now the owner of the single most marketable superstar combo in the league. Did he give up too much to get it, and leave the team (basketball-wise) relatively adrift? Yep. Does he care if the basketball isn't nearly as good as its potential? Does he care if CP3/Griffin is potentially a horrible and underachieving disappointment, if he makes his money? I don't think so.

And if you really think about it, you probably don't think he does either.