After a home win in Game 4 of the riveting first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers held a commanding 3-1 lead. In NBA history, only eight teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in over 200 tries, so the odds seemed very favorable that the Clippers would advance to the second round for only the second time in their 34 years in California.
But the Grizzlies have stormed back, winning Games 5 and 6 to force a decisive Game 7 in Memphis on Sunday. Now holding the momentum, and with the home court advantage for the decisive game, the Grizzlies would have to be considered favored to become the ninth team ever to climb out of a 3-1 hole.
Both teams want to win and move forward, of course. But the stakes are even higher for the Clippers, where this isn't just a single basketball season, but a prolonged courtship of Chris Paul.
When Paul made it known that he wanted out of New Orleans, any potential transaction was complicated by Paul's contract status. Unwilling to sign a contract extension with any of the teams that had the trade assets to acquire him, the deal would be risky for his suitors. Paul is a transformative NBA talent, as the Clippers found out this year, going from 32-50 to the best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history. But what would a team be willing to give up for a one-season rental, and a shortened season at that, with no guarantees that he would stay longer?
As the talks with the Clippers progressed, Paul let it be known that he would be willing to waive the early termination option on his existing contract, meaning that the Clippers would have his services for a minimum of two seasons. He was still unwilling to sign a contract extension, but getting a guaranteed second season was the next best thing. The Clippers moved forward with the acquisition knowing full well that Paul would be a great addition, but that if they were unable to retain him beyond 2013, the loss of a stable of young assets including Eric Gordon and a lottery pick would set them back years. They had two seasons to audition for the part of Chris Paul's long-term NBA home.
It's difficult to say what a realistic expectation for the team during Paul's first year in L.A. might have been. It didn't help that the Clippers had a roller coaster of a season, starting strong in January and sending expectations through the roof, then going into a funk in the middle third of the season, before closing strong. Everyone would certainly have been sorely disappointed had the team missed the playoffs entirely. Everyone would surely be satisfied with a trip to the second round and a decent showing against the Spurs, even if they advance no further. A first-round exit? That's a grey area.
After all, Paul took the Hornets to the playoffs most of the time when he was healthy, including last season. First-round exits weren't good enough to keep him New Orleans. Even if the Clippers were moving in the right direction with Paul, a one-and-done postseason would be risky.
But there's a mitigating circumstance to this story, even if the Clippers do lose Game 7 and blow a 3-1 lead. In the fourth quarter of Game 5 in Memphis with the Clippers in the midst of erasing yet another big deficit, Paul strained his right hip flexor. He was removed from the game, returning a few moments later, but was clearly not able to move effectively with the injury. Memphis held on for the win.
For Game 6 in Los Angeles, Paul was considered a game-time decision because of the injury, but he started and played 35 minutes. The Clippers' second unit built an eight-point lead in the fourth with Paul on the bench, and though they couldn't hold all of it, they did hand him a one-point advantage when he returned for the final seven minutes.
Paul has been the best closer in the 2012 NBA playoffs, an absolute monster in the fourth quarter, carrying the Clippers across the finish line in each of their three wins. However, in his 11 fourth-quarter minutes over the Game 5 and 6 losses, he has scored one point, missed his only two shots, handed out one assist and committed two turnovers. The circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the injury has limited his effectiveness.
Paul would never use the injury as an excuse, but at the same time he knows how he feels. He's a fierce competitor and supremely confident. If the team loses Game 7 and fails to advance to the second round, he'll likely view it as a personal failing as opposed to a failing of the organization. If anything, the circumstances that have unfolded the last few days will make Paul more likely to want to remain a Clipper: We were so close. I need another chance to see what this team can do.
So on the whole, it's likely that year one of the great LACP3 experiment will be viewed as a success, regardless of the outcome of Game 7. The internal dialogue for Paul and the Clippers, whether justified or not, will be that they were a strained hip flexor away from the second round. But what about year two?
The dirty little secret for the Clippers is, as much work as Neil Olshey did to put this team together, he's got a lot of work to do this summer, and relatively few assets. Small forward Caron Butler is signed for two more seasons, and while his inaugural campaign as a Clipper has not been stellar from a statistical standpoint, one presumes that his willingness to play through a broken hand in the playoffs has endeared him to Paul as a long-term teammate.
DeAndre Jordan is signed long term, and Paul showed some signs of developing an on-court relationship with the young center similar to the one he had with Tyson Chandler on the Hornets. Jordan's disappearance during the playoffs has got to be considered a concern, but at least he's signed and available to play center for the team.
Young guard Eric Bledsoe is locked up for two more seasons, and his play late in the season and a semi-breakout in the playoffs has got to be considered a major plus. Mo Williams is around for another year, but is looking more and more like one small guard too many with the emergence of Bledsoe. Ryan Gomes is dead weight and a potential amnesty candidate, though the final year of his contract could be useful as trade filler.
Most of the role players in the rotation -- Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Nick Young and Randy Foye -- will be free agents. They've performed well for the Clippers, and some of them may be back, but they're not going to be the difference between Paul staying or going. Chauncey Billups will also be a free agent. Whether he can return from a torn Achilles tendon at his age (he'll be 36 by the start of the season) remains to be seen. Billups has said he wants to be back, and he's close with Paul, so it's a good bet the Clippers will try to re-sign him. But is he a realistic solution at shooting guard?
And then there's Blake Griffin. Griffin will be eligible to sign a contract extension this summer, and the Clippers will be on his door step with the extension and a fountain pen on July 1 at midnight. No player has ever turned down a maximum extension as a rookie, and there's no reason to suspect that Griffin will be the first. If this season has been a courtship of Paul, it's also been a courtship of Griffin, and as of now the Clippers and Griffin are very happy together.
Which leaves the team with some holes for next season, many of the same ones they have at present. Who will start at shooting guard? Is Billups the answer there, or do they need a better option? Would Billups be content to come off the bench in that scenario? And would the Clippers be once again overloaded in the backcourt if they signed Billups and a new starter to join Paul, Bledsoe and Williams?
The team desperately needs a legitimate NBA big man who can hit an 18-footer (not to mention make a free throw). Evans and Martin have been hard workers on defense, but with a big man rotation of Griffin, Jordan, Evans and Martin there is never anyone to stretch the floor -- or even to make a shot outside of the paint.
Can Olshey land an upgrade to start at the two and a big who can shoot with nothing to work with but the midlevel exception and potentially Williams as a trade chip? His task is further complicated by the fact that the Clippers don't have Nick Young's Bird rights (which had to be waived in the deal that brought him to L.A.). If Young is going to be a Clipper next season, his salary will come out of the midlevel exception, leaving less to fill the other holes.
Of course, Paul could choose to sign an extension with the Clippers this summer as well, but it seems unlikely that he would. He decided to keep his options open when he left New Orleans, and there's not much downside to continuing to do so. An extension would be great insurance against an injury of course, and if he already knows he's fully committed to L.A. it's possible he could extend. But if he's waited this long, he'll no doubt wait another summer to see what the landscape looks like in 2013.
His relationship with Griffin may be the single biggest factor in the decision of whether to stay in L.A. long term. Will they continue to develop on-court rapport? Will Paul be convinced that Griffin is or will be as good a co-star as he's likely to find elsewhere? If Griffin does indeed sign an extension, he'll be committed to the Clippers for the long term, presumably with the assumption or at least the strong hope that Paul would be there too. Would Paul feel any obligation to Griffin not to leave for perceived greener pastures?
Year one of the Chris Paul era in L.A. has been a mild success, albeit one with an injury asterisk if they lose in Game 7. The Clippers will need to make positive moves this summer, and sustain their success, to convince Paul to stay with the team beyond 2013. The relationship is off to a good start, but the courtship isn't over yet.