It’s a pivotal season for the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s another season for Chris Paul. Perhaps, therein lies the intrigue as the Clippers – yes, those Clippers -- embark on another season with one of the biggest stars in the game today anchoring them. Having made it to the Western Conference semi-finals last season, the Clippers will be hoping to put on a better show this season. If they don’t, the collateral damage won’t be just another exit from the playoffs. It could potentially be Chris Paul himself.
In a league bursting with quality point-guards, Paul, it could be argued, has no peer. Like Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Tony Parker, he is capable of creating his own offense, but it is his defensive ability that possibly puts him ahead of even a healthy Derrick Rose. Add to that his leadership skills, desire to win and his toughness and you possibly have one of the most elite point guards of all time. Consequently, a comparison with Detroit Pistons’ great, Isiah Thomas, is not completely out of the question every time Paul steps out on to the court.
Paul, a five-time NBA All-Star, came to the Clippers after he was traded by the New Orleans Hornets in December of 2011. His addition immediately made an impact on the franchise’s fortunes. The Clippers made their way to just their second playoff appearance in a decade before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2012 postseason. The Clippers then signed Blake Griffin to a USD 95 million contract for the next five seasons in the 2012 offseason before adding players like Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill to strengthen their bench. The results were immediate, with the Clippers taking down the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs (at home and on the road) and the Miami Heat to burst out to an 8-2 start.
But it’s been downhill since, with no signs of a letup. The Clippers have lost four straight games, losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks and the New Orleans Hornets to slip to 8-6. Losses to the Thunder, the Nets and the Hawks are understandable, given that they came on the road, against team above .500. But defeat to the Anthony Davis-less Hornets has to be deflating. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves, losers of five straight, currently have a longer losing streak than the Clippers in the Western Conference.
It is a pattern that is emerging all too uncomfortably for the Clippers. Before the four-game losing streak, their earlier two losses were against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. This means that the Clippers are now 0-3 at home against teams that were in the lottery last season. Analyzing the loss to the Hornets, blogger Steve Perrin wrote in his latest column on clipsnation.com, “The loss is the Clippers fourth in a row -- the longest losing streak for the team since Chris Paul arrived in L.A… They have more lottery opponents coming to town -- Minnesota on Wednesday followed by Sacramento on Saturday -- but that seems to be the worst thing for this team this season. If they can't figure out how to take lesser opponents seriously, and figure it out in a hurry, things are going to get uglier than they already are.”
That uglier could be CP3’s exit. Remember, Paul is tied to the Clippers until the end of the current season after which he could test the waters of free agency. Perhaps, if we’re dreaming big here, Dwight Howard (also a free agent at the end of this season) and Paul could hook up and join another superstar to form another enviable troika of all-stars playing for one team. Who knows? But if the Clippers regress this season, anything could be possible.
One of the things that came out of LeBron James joining the Miami Heat in the 2010 offseason is that superstars want to win badly. Unlike players from an earlier era, who were happy to carry teams on their shoulders, big name players today want to surround themselves with talent and win. If that means James has to share the spotlight with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, so be it. But at least the King now has a ring to go with it.
With the Clippers, Paul faces a similar predicament. After being swept 0-4 by the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference semi-finals, Paul will want to do better this season. He could form a potent combination with Blake Griffin - a la John Stockton and Karl Malone - over the next few years and terrorize opponents. But that depends on whether Griffin improves as a player. The playoffs are not about alley-oops and dunks, but fundamental basketball play. Griffin still has room to improve on that count. Similarly, head coach Vinny Del Negro’s ability to get the Clippers to improve would have a huge impact on Paul’s future course of action. If not, Paul would be well within his right to test his options.
And the Clippers might not be the best one.