When Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night, it signaled a major change in the history of the beleaguered franchise. Arguably the least successful team in all of pro sports, the Clippers had long been a punch line. But in the superstar-driven NBA, pairing Paul, the best point guard of a generation, with last year's Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, suddenly thrust the team into the upper echelon of teams, at least as far as buzz and glamour are concerned. Of course, the team will still need to win some basketball games, but with Paul and Griffin around, they most certainly will.
It's not just that Paul wound up with the other team in Los Angeles; it's how it happened. Paul is a star of the very first order, and when he made it clear that he had no intention of staying in New Orleans after this season, he forced the Hornets to trade him now or risk losing him for nothing in free agency next summer. But Paul also let it be known that there was a short list of teams for which he was willing to play long term - the Clippers weren't his first choice, but they weren't his last choice either, which is news in and of itself.
It's not difficult to trace the change in the Clippers' franchise - it comes from Griffin, the prize the Clippers received when they won the draft lottery in 2009. Griffin is going to be a major NBA star in his own right, and his presence on the Clippers has made the team relevant. Suddenly free agents like the newly acquired Caron Butler seem to have noticed that Los Angeles is just as big a market whether you're a Laker or a Clipper, that the sun shines just as bright and the beaches are just as sandy.
This is all the sweeter for the Clippers because they succeeded in acquiring Paul where the Lakers failed. The Clippers have lived in the Lakers' shadow in LA the entire time they've been here, and justifiably so. If the Clippers set the standard of futility in the NBA, the Lakers have set the standard of excellence. The trade process has been a week long ordeal for both teams - the Lakers thought they had a deal in place last Thursday only to have it nixed by the league office, supposedly acting in their capacity as owners of the Hornets. The Lakers tried again to make a deal that was amenable to the league, only to have it rejected again, until finally GM Mitch Kupchak gave up. That left the playing field to Neil Olshey and the Clippers, who likewise thought they had a deal in place for Paul on Monday, only to have the league ask for more. In the Clippers' case though, they were able to eventually push through and get the Paul over the goal line.
The Clippers gave up a lot in the deal, to be sure. They sent veteran center Chris Kaman, second year forward Al-Farouq Aminu, fourth year guard Eric Gordon and Minnesota's 2012 first round draft pick to New Orleans in exchange for Paul and two second round draft picks. Of those assets, Gordon and the Minnesota picks are the ones the Clippers least wanted to part with. Gordon is arguably the best young shooting guard in the league, not yet 23 years old, a Gold Medalist on Team USA at the 2010 World Championships. He averaged over 22 points per game last season and only figured to go up from there. Meanwhile, the draft pick is unprotected, the Timberwolves had the worst record in the NBA last season, and the 2012 draft is projected to be the best since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2003. The Clippers had hoped to hang onto at least one of those two prized assets.
In the end though, you do what you have to in order to acquire a superstar. Paul is still only 26 years old, and putting him with the 22 year old Griffin appears to be a match made in heaven. The prospect of a Paul-Griffin pick and roll is no doubt already causing sleepless nights for other Western Conference coaches. Or consider this - last year Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan were second and third in the league in dunks. How many more are they going to get from Chris Paul lobs? With Griffin and Jordan flying around the rim, Staples Center may need to employ air traffic controllers during Clippers games.
In Paul and Griffin, the Clippers have a dynamic duo to rival any other in the league: better than Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire in New York, younger than Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol across the hall, they are second only to James and Wade in Miami. Even then, Paul and Griffin have a distinct advantage in that they are such complementary talents - Paul will have the ball in his hands, he'll start plays, Griffin will finish them. Much of the time in Miami it was just a matter of James and Wade taking turns going one on one.
The job is far from over for the Clippers though. They convinced Paul to come to LA - now they must convince him to stay. As part of the trade, Paul agreed not to opt out of the final year of his contract, so the Clippers now have his services for two seasons, this year and next. At that time he can become a free agent, and while the Clippers as his existing team will have some inherent advantages in re-signing him, there are no guarantees. So during these two seasons the Clippers need to convince Paul that they can compete for a championship. If they can't do that and Paul decides to go elsewhere in 2013, this will have been a very expensive two year rental.
But the Clippers now have that chance, which is all they can ask for. They're on the map, they beat their big brother Lakers to the summer's big prize, and they're bound to be one of the most talked-about teams in the league all season. They need to win and they need to convince Paul to stay, but frankly they have all the pieces in place to do those things.
Welcome to the Paul-to-Griffin era in Clippers basketball. And welcome to the era of two marquee NBA teams in LA.