Note: This could end up being one of the craziest months in NBA history. To celebrate the signings, trades, rumors, roster shuffling, insanity and (almost definitely) ensuing hilarity/incompetence, I have unleashed a special series called “The 12 Days of NBA Christmas.” Every weekday through December 19 (give or take a day), I will be writing about this unexpected NBA Christmas.
Day 1: The Road to Groundhog Day (and more dumb contracts than ever)
Day 2: The Donut Dilemma (the bubble in the center market)
Day 3: Is Arron Afflalo Really Worth $50 Million?
Day 4: Where the Hell is Chris Paul Going?
Day 5: Inside Grantland Featuring Blake Griffin, Part II
Day 6: The Day the NBA Lost Its Way
The One Day When the Clippers Actually Mattered (VOIDED BY DAVID STERN)
Day 8: The Chris Paul NBA Hostage Crisis Continues
Day 9: The Might of Dwight
Day 10 (12/15): The Black Sheep Little Brother’s Revenge
We’re celebrating Day 10 with a bullet-point column for three reasons
1. I am no longer capable of writing a coherent column with a beginning, middle and end.
2. It’s a special holiday anniversary tribute to Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton.
3. It symbolizes the bullet the Clippers put in the Lakers yesterday.
Yesterday, the Lakers were hanging out in front of the Staples Center, twiddling their thumbs and coming to the depressing realization that Josh McRoberts was their fourth-best player, when suddenly the Clippers did a drive-by shooting, popped them in the leg and sent them limping away. It wasn’t a fatal blow, but the Lakers definitely lost a ton of blood. And they might spend the next few years walking with a limp.
On to the bullets
• Will December 14, 2011, be remembered as the day when the Black Sheep Little Brother Clippers turned the tables on the Successful Big Brother Lakers? That depends on Chris Paul’s surgically repaired knee (325 percent more vulnerable now that he’s wearing a Clippers jersey), Paul’s future (will he stay in Los Angeles for longer than two years?), Blake Griffin’s future (will he sign a lucrative extension next summer without knowing if Paul is sticking around?), everything that happens with the possibly imploding Lakers these next few months (stay tuned),1 and, of course, the world ending in 2012. Leave it to the Clippers to finally become a contender during the same year for which the Mayans predicted an apocalypse.
I know, I know, “possibly imploding” was a little strong. I just loved the way it looked in print. Give me that one as a Christmas present. Thanks.
• Forget about the future for a second. At the very least, you have to give the Clippers credit for the following sequence: Successful Big Brother thought it was getting Chris Paul, made the trade, had the deal blocked by the NBA in one of the shadiest moments in professional sports history, was forced to trade a ticked-off Lamar Odom to its biggest rival as part of the fallout and then, incredibly, Black Sheep Little Brother improbably swooped in and pulled off the trade. Even better, Successful Big Brother is furious about it! You can’t even say the Clippers turned the tables on the Lakers; it would belittle what happened. Are we sure this wasn’t part of what the Mayans predicted? Has anyone checked?
• One last time: I still don’t think the Clippers should have sacrificed Eric Gordon in this trade. A smarter, less desperate team would have waited out the NBA/Hornets, known there were no other suitors, banked on them panicking once the season started and Paul was dejectedly going through the motions on a dreadful team, then swooped in with a “Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Minnesota’s pick and a future no. 1 for Paul and Trevor Ariza’s contract” offer. They would have gotten it done. With a little more patience, they could have secured that Paul/Griffin/Jordan/Gordon nucleus for the rest of the decade.
But after watching what happened last night, it’s hard to blame them for going all-in on two years (and, hopefully, more) of Chris Paul. They sold out every season-ticket and partial season-ticket package last night. There’s nothing left. That’s never happened for them before. They’re relevant. They matter. They might contend for the title. Despite the steep price, they couldn’t be happier with what they bought. And as I wrote on Monday, I think David Stern was banking on this the whole time — he’s known Donald Sterling for 30 years; he knew the Clippers would cave, and they did.
• Here’s another reason you trade Gordon: For once, Clipper fans feel better about their team than Laker fans do. Know this: Laker fans are freaking out. Between the canceled trade, the Clippers getting Paul, Dwight Howard being pulled off the table, Odom’s inexplicable trade, Kobe slowly going into Super-Icy Pissed-Off Mode, the haunting prospect of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake trying to defend Chris Paul, the growing influence of Jimmy Buss (a.k.a., James Dolan 2.0), Not Phil Jackson (a.k.a. Mike Brown), Kobe’s advancing age (not even monthly Germany trips can stave off Father Time, Kobe), and their bizarrely constructed roster (no speed whatsoever, no easy points, three low-post players, no above-average perimeter athletes other than Kobe), I can’t remember seeing Laker fans this distraught. Even during those ugly post-Shaq/pre-Gasol years, they got to watch Kobe during his “becoming the best all-around player in the league” stretch. What now? What’s worse than an aging roster that doesn’t make sense? Would flipping Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard REALLY change anything? And what possibly possessed them to give Odom away????
• More on Odom: He was their security blanket for the annual Bynum injury. Any time Bynum went down, they slid Odom into the starting lineup and never missed a beat. Last season, Odom started 35 games and averaged a 16-10 with 58 percent shooting. Where are they getting those numbers this year? Bynum missed 47 games in 2008, 32 games in 2009, 17 games in 2010 and 28 games in 2011. They can’t keep him on the floor. You really think they’re getting 66 games out of Bynum in 120 days? Does anyone see this is happening? If I gave you the over/under of 50.5 games for Bynum in 2011-12, wouldn’t you grab the under? So who’s getting those minutes? Josh McRoberts? When they gave Odom away for that meaningless pick and that $8.9 million trade exception, I assumed a trade was coming. Where’s the trade? How do you just give him away like that?
• My prediction: The Lakers’ steadfast refusal to deal Bynum will end up being the downfall of the Kobe era Lakers. Last year’s team struggled for many reasons, but mainly because L.A.’s best four players (Odom, Bynum, Gasol and Kobe) couldn’t play together at the same time. They were just too slow and plodding. And also their superstar stopped playing like a superstar. Even if Kobe remains one of the best 10 or 12 players in the league, that’s a little different than the night-after-night meal ticket from 2004 through 2010. After 1,311 games (including playoffs), it’s harder for him to score, harder for him to beat guys off the dribble, harder for him to defend, harder for him to play back-to-backs now he’s dealing with a brutal schedule (again, 66 regular-season games in 120 days!) and even more of a facilitator load because of a different offense and Odom’s absence. Could Kobe finally wear down this season? Remember in last year’s two playoff rounds (a win over New Orleans, then a loss to Dallas), he wasn’t the best player in either series. When’s the last time that happened? If you’re a Lakers fan counting on Kobe Bryant to save the day this season, just know that there’s a good chance he doesn’t have those kinds of chops anymore.
Even the staunchest Kobe defender would agree the Lakers desperately need an infusion of fresh blood. But from where? That’s why they should be considering a Bynum trade. What if they flipped him to a desperate-for-a-center team like Houston (Bynum, Steve Blake and Luke Walton’s contract for Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Hasheem Thabeet and Patrick Patterson?), Minnesota (Bynum for Derrick Williams and Wesley Johnson?), Indiana (Bynum for Danny Granger?) or Philly (Bynum and the Metta World Peace/Walton contracts for Andre Igoudala and Elton Brand?)? Wouldn’t they be selling high? What makes them think Bynum can stay on the court? Why even risk the last two years of Kobe’s dwindling prime?
• Along those same lines: Since they know the Rockets are hot for Gasol, why wouldn’t they tinker with that same Rockets package from last week’s vetoed three-teamer (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a 2012 o. 1 pick), see if they can dump Walton’s contract in the deal (and maybe take back Hasheem Thabeet’s expiring deal), then see if they can flip Martin to Milwaukee (for Stephen Jackson and a draft pick), Denver (in a sign-and-trade for Arron Afflalo) or Phoenix (for Jared Dudley, Mickael Pietrus’ expiring deal and a future pick)? If their ultimate play is Dwight Howard, wouldn’t it make more sense to deal Gasol for multiple pieces, then make a run at Howard with Bynum plus some of those pieces? Let’s say they made that Houston deal (Gasol for Scola, Martin, Dragic and a 2012 no. 1 pick), then quickly flipped Bynum, Martin, Dragic, their 2012 no. 1 pick and Houston’s no. 1 pick for Howard and J.J. Redick (and kept Scola for themselves). Now you’re looking at Howard, Scola (such an underrated offensive player), Metta World Peace, Kobe and Fisher as starters, with McRoberts, Blake and Redick off the bench. That’s a pretty good outcome, right?
• One more Lakers note: The best five teams in the West, on paper, are Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and the Clippers in some order. From there, it gets weird: Denver is still putting together its team (and has two potentially key guys still trapped in China); Portland got blindsided by the Greg Oden/Brandon Roy injuries (although I still think it’s a playoff team); Houston might blow things up and rebuild unless it can revive the Gasol trade; New Orleans already blew it up; Minnesota and Golden State will be better (but not “playoffs” better); Sacramento and Utah are in No Man’s Land; and Phoenix looks like a fringe playoff team.
Where do the Lakers fit into that mess? The safe move would be to squish them into the top five and make it a top six, but how do we know for sure? With the shorter schedule all bets are off — we know from the goofy 1999 season that weird stuff happens when you chop training camps and condense schedules. (Remember the 1999 Sonics missing the playoffs after winning 61 games the year before? Or the Knicks barely squeezing out an 8-seed, then catching fire and making the Finals?) We know Bynum is suspended for the first five games; what if the Lakers start out 1-4? What if Kobe tweaks his knee and misses two weeks? What if Mike Brown turns out to be Rudy Tomjanovich Jr. as a Lakers coach? What if they’re barely .500 in March right when Bynum suffers his annual injury? Would you bet your life on the 2011-12 Lakers making the playoffs? I sure wouldn’t.
• Semi-related: Los Angeles is a really, really weird sports town. Because of the city’s mammoth size and all the transplants, every team has die-hard fans (the Lakers, the Dodgers, UCLA and USC with the most, then the Angels, the Kings and the Clippers trailing), but there’s an excess population of casual sports fans who drift around depending on who’s interesting. I moved to Los Angeles in November of 2002, right after the Angels won the World Series and grabbed those bandwagoners. They drifted over to Gagne’s Dodgers in 2003 and 2004, then briefly to the 2005-06 Clippers (the Brand/Cassell team), then to the Bush/Leinart Trojans (2005), then to the Gasol-infused Lakers and the Mannywood Dodgers (2008), and then the Lakers gobbled up all the casuals and transplants these past three years. Just so you know, those people are about 16 Griffin/Paul alley-oops from jumping over to Clipperland.
It was kinda sorta maybe happening, anyway. Griffin has slowly emerged as the NBA’s most appealing young star. Kids love him. The Internet loves him. His commercials are funny. He’s done a nice job of pushing his sense of humor with various Internet clips and TV appearances. When the Clippers played on the road last year, Griffin quietly made them one of the league’s biggest draws. Within the league itself, opposing players, scouts, executives and even grizzled writers love his work ethic and competitiveness; this was someone who noticeably improved as the season went on, added a low-post game on the fly, figured out how to pace himself during games and generally turned into a force. And this was playing without any semblance of a competent point guard for more than half the season, save for an undeniably fun stretch when an overweight Baron Davis rekindled his career just long enough to make Blake his dunk muse. Now Griffin is getting the best point guard alive, someone with a proven track record of making his teammates better? No wonder Griffin reacted so happily in the now-famous “Lob City!” video.
• Yes, I’m fully aware that Vinny Del Negro is prominently involved in the 2011-12 Clippers season. Elephant, meet room.
• As for Chris Paul, do you think he feels like he won the lottery? The Clippers are trotting out the league’s most entertaining team, two franchise players (only Miami and Oklahoma City can say the same), a potential “Stockton/Malone 2.0” brewing with Paul and Griffin, the Lob City gimmick (let the record show that Griffin and DeAndre Jordan finished second and third in dunks last year http://www.cbssports.com/nba/dunk-o-meter/yearly, and that Jordan’s “2008 Tyson Chandler” potential was the most underrated thing about this trade), and enough legitimate playoff rotation guys (Jordan, Billups, Williams, Randy Foye, Caron Butler) that they’re one more signing (a veteran rebounder or big man who can spell Griffin and/or Jordan) or trade (swapping Williams or Foye for that piece) from becoming a legitimate, no-doubt-about-it threat to make the Finals.
To recap: Paul gets a contending team, a potentially historic pairing with Griffin (who complements him perfectly), a shot-blocker to protect him defensively (Jordan), and a supporting cast of leapers and shooters who will become something of a toy chest for him. He gets to play in a big market — Los Angeles, no less — and nearly all the credit if the Clippers end up flipping places with the Lakers. Every one of his home games will be sold out. Nearly every one of his road games (probably all of them) will be sold out.
Even better, people will be rooting for him — the Clippers won’t be villains like Miami last season, just supremely entertaining, the perfect team for our current 24/7 basketball world that’s dominated by nonstop tweets, YouTube clips, trade rumors, “sources say,” endless blog posts, seven DIRECTV-pass games at once and everything else. There won’t be a potential alpha dog battle brewing — like in Miami or Oklahoma City — because Paul doesn’t care about that crap, just about running the show and making everyone else better. There won’t be suffocating expectations; after all, it’s the Clippers, which means anything can go wrong at any given time. There won’t be pressure, not with Clippers fans so exceedingly grateful that, for once, their favorite basketball team matters. It’s the rarest of sports situations: all upside, no downside. At least for right now.
So yeah, Chris Paul might flee the premises in 19 months. That’s why giving up a talent like Gordon was so risky, maybe even a little reckless. Then again, I’m only a Celtics fan who lives in Los Angeles and happens to have Clippers season tickets — I can think about this stuff objectively. If you love the Clippers? If you rooted for the Black Sheep Little Brother all these years? If you’ve never mattered before? If the Lakers have been kicking sand in your face for three solid decades? Suddenly it’s not so much of a risk.
The best thing about following sports? When the stars align and your team wins a championship. The second-best thing? Anticipation. Having a quality team, knowing it’s headed someplace, dreaming about the possibilities. Staring at the schedule, circling games, knowing that something like 50 of your next 150 nights are going to be a blast. Glancing at the clock at 3:30 in the afternoon and saying, “Four more hours.” Standing in front of your seat 20 minutes before tipoff, watching warm-ups, feeling that buzz, feeling those goose bumps slowly form on your arms.
That’s the gift of the Chris Paul trade. And if it comes with a shelf life, so be it.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
Previously from Bill Simmons: