Clippers' first-round loss opens door to uncertain future for Chris Paul
Some NBA rules are widely acknowledged but rarely enforced, and one of them has to do with where perimeter players can stand during free throws. Unless positioned along the key, they are supposed to remain beyond the three-point line, yet many keep at least one foot inside of it. This subtle violation irritates Chris Paul to no end. If Clippers forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan were better free-throw shooters, Paul might not be bothered, but Griffin shoots 66 percent from the free-throw line and Jordan 38 percent. Opponents are able to get a head start chasing their misses. "DJ and Blake are not great free-throw shooters, so every guy in the league stands over the line like this," Paul said, straddling the arc in a brief demonstration earlier this spring at the Clippers practice facility. He points out transgressions to officials. He shows videotaped evidence to head coach Vinny Del Negro. He has even discussed the matter with Stu Jackson, the NBA's executive vice president for basketball operations, who is in charge of discipline.
With 2:29 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Friday, and the Clippers trailing Memphis by 12 points, Tayshaun Prince shot his second free throw for the Grizzlies. Chauncey Billups asked Paul to help box out Marc Gasol. Paul stood on the left wing, one foot outside the three-point line, and one within it. He was breaking the rule he holds dear. As Prince released, Paul bolted to the left block and charged into Gasol's midsection, earning his second technical foul and first career playoff ejection. Paul hugged three Grizzlies and waved his right hand disdainfully at the court. The Clippers can only hope it was not goodbye. "I've got a lot of time to think," said Paul, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. "We'll see what happens."
When Paul looks back at December of 2011 and the trades that changed basketball in Los Angeles (one vetoed, one consummated), he insists that he preferred the Clippers over the Lakers. "This is where I wanted to be," he said in an interview two months ago. "This was my first choice." He was drawn to the challenge, yes, but more important the young talent. Griffin could be his skyscraping sidekick. Jordan could be his Tyson Chandler. Eric Bledsoe could spell him through extended minutes. For the most part, his vision came into focus. Last season, the Clippers won their second playoff series since moving from Buffalo. This season, they won their first Pacific Division championship and swept the Lakers. On New Year's Eve, coming off a 17-game winning streak, they flaunted the best record in the NBA.
Paul will now have to weigh the Clippers' accomplishments of the past year-and-a-half against their failures of the past week-and-a-half, culminating with a 118-105 loss to Memphis in a game that included 58 fouls, seven technicals and ejections of both Paul and Zach Randolph. The Clippers, who have made a lot of ignominious history in their existence, became the first team ever to win the first two games of a series and lose the next four by 10 or more points.
"I don't want to win," Paul said back in his introductory press conference. "I have to win. And if I don't, it's a problem." He has won plenty with the Clippers, but he dropped the last four games leading up to his free agency, and the Clips fell in the first round to a team they ousted a year ago. All that young talent, so enticing in '11, does not appear quite as attractive anymore. Jordan, who has two years left on a $43 million contract, is no Chandler. Griffin has made strides, especially in terms of shooting and defense, but his numbers aren't much different than when he was a rookie. Bledsoe, on the other hand, has improved so dramatically that Paul doesn't believe the Clippers can hang onto him long term. He could emerge as a valuable trade chip, especially with Chauncey Billups becoming a free agent.
The Clippers' greatest strength this season was their depth, and Del Negro's greatest strength was handling the surplus. He found a way to keep 11 regulars content while logging limited minutes. But depth is not as crucial in the playoffs, when rotations are shorter and breaks longer. The Clippers might still be playing if Griffin had not landed on Lamar Odom's foot during a practice Monday, but should they need a scapegoat, Del Negro is the most convenient one. His relationship with Paul will probably determine whether he returns.
Like the Lakers' Dwight Howard, Paul was ejected from his final game before free agency, and like Howard, he has dropped few clues about what he will do. He said Friday that he will seek input from his family, even his three-year-old son, as well as his agent, Leon Rose. Paul has never been treated to a full-scale recruitment. Instead of switching high schools, he stuck at West Forsyth in Clemmons, N.C. He committed early to Wake Forest. He was drafted by the Hornets and traded to the Clippers. Some close to Paul believe he will go through the process but eventually re-sign. He enjoys living in L.A. He treasures the Hollywood connections he's made. He appreciates everything from the Clippers' practice facility to the voice they've given him in personnel decisions. However, stars want to play with stars who give them the best shot at a championship. The Clippers only have one other star, Griffin, and you can debate whether he fully qualifies.
Four straight losses and a first-round exit is enough to raise doubts about Paul's supporting cast. The severity of those doubts won't be known until he's done thinking.