NBA Sunday: For Chris Paul, Spurs Make Sense

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The smart money may be on Chris Paul re-signing with the Los Angeles Clippers this summer, but the smarter move for him may be ditching the bright lights of Los Angeles for the riverwalk in San Antonio.

After six years as a Clipper, Paul has won just three playoff series and is coming off of back-to-back first round exits. His primary running mates, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, are good at many things, but not as good at playing basketball as they are at getting hurt and missing free throws.

Unless Doc Rivers can somehow make Carmelo Anthony come walking through that door, the Spurs could make a lot of sense for CP3.

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Kobe Bryant stood in the bowels of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Despite shooting just 5-for-16 from the field, Bryant managed 18 points and helped the Los Angeles Lakers to their first victory of the regular season.

It was November 6, 2015. Bryant hadn’t played in a regular season game since January of that year and was only a shell of himself. Still, seeing him back on the floor was special. And despite his team beginning the regular season 1-4, it was obvious that Bryant was happy to be back.

In Brooklyn that night, he held his tongue and, even when asked directly, didn’t reveal that he had begun playing what ended up being his final season. That announcement would come a few weeks later.

What transpired from there was a year-long love-fest paid to one of the greatest players to ever do it. Bryant was celebrated. He was loved. He’d long grown accustomed to the bright lights and the attention.

Tim Duncan, on the other hand, never had.

In the most San Antonio Spurs way possible, while Bryant basked in the glory and went on a year-long retirement tour, it was somewhat ironic that the mighty Duncan, via an email sent out during the offseason, announced his retirement quietly and meekly.

It was a representation of the way the Spurs do business.

In Los Angeles, whether it’s the Lakers or Clippers, the lights shine quite brightly. As it relates to Chris Paul, in today’s sports culture, great players are overlooked and diminished unless they can deliver championships. When their teams fall short, we often point the finger at the superstar for not being able to “elevate” his team without fairly calling attention to the fact that, for the second tier of franchises, the NBA is as competitive as its ever been. With Bryant and Duncan dominating the league and the rise of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, for players like Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant, winning was an uphill climb and an almost impossible endeavor. While some of the blame should be attributable to the superstar when he fails to perform well, we have gotten into the habit of excusing the failures of front offices for not surrounding their teams with the pieces required to compete in such a talented league.

Unless a franchise strikes it rich with free agency, the key to winning in the NBA always has been and always will be about maximizing opportunities to get meaningful returns on investments. Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant don’t often switch teams. Hitting home runs as it relates to acquiring NBA talent may be a fast track to contention, but it’s also a seldom occurrence. The way that franchises win are by drafting well and augmenting their mainstays with the right pieces.

The Spurs have made a habit of doing just that.

In the first year after Duncan’s retirement, the Spurs managed to win 61 games and were a Kawhi Leonard injury away from giving the Warriors a competitive series. Of all of the players on their roster, only LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol were highly coveted free agent acquisitions. Discovering the diamond in the rough—Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Leonard, to name a few—has been the way of the Spurs.

Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons—these are among the few of the talents that the Spurs have maximized and ridden toward the top of the league.

What in the world could Gregg Popovich do with an all-world, trans-generational player like Chris Paul at his disposal?

Tim Duncan would probably serve as a good example. The same can’t be said of Doc Rivers, and it’s quite fair to ask whether or not the Clippers have already peaked.

Rather than ask how far the franchise would have gotten with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and no Chris Paul, the question more often posed is why Paul can’t get two fairly flawed players past the likes of teams that are both more talented and more versatile.

That’s more than unfair—it’s simply foolish.

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With Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick among the free agents that the Clippers have this summer, for them, offering Paul the five-year, $205 million contract for which he will be eligible is a no-brainer. For Paul, turning down that kind of payday would be quite difficult. As it stands, the Spurs don’t have the requisite cap space to offer Paul anything approaching a maximum contract (which, for any team other than the Clippers, would be around $150 million over four years).

For them, having the opportunity to sell Paul on the Spurs would require things to break favorably. The path to offering Paul a maximum offer would be simplest if Gasol opts out of the $16 million option he has for next season. Him doing so would be a curious, though. His skills are clearly deteriorating and he will be 37 years old by the time next season begins. Whether or not Gasol retires, though, the Spurs would almost certainly have to resolve the future of Ginobili and then determine whether Danny Green and Tony Parker (the duo have a combined salary of $25 million next season) are worth keeping around.

With some favorable young players and draft picks, though, executing a sign-and-trade for Paul shouldn’t be considered outside the realm of possibility. Neither should the thought of the Spurs convincing a third team to absorb Gasol’s contract (assuming he opts in) and/or otherwise taking Green or Parker back in what would amount to a salary dump.

In any event, in much the same way that the data tells you that the Warriors are the safe bet to best the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the safe money would also be on Paul re-signing with the Clippers on the aforementioned maximum $205 million contract offer. Still, the last time we heard about the Spurs being interested in a highly-coveted free agent, they walked away with LaMarcus Aldridge.

Heading into this season, many predicted the demise of the Clippers if they failed to show significant progress during these playoffs. After another injury to Blake Griffin and a first round exit for the second consecutive season, at the very least, Paul should be open minded about his other suitors.

And if the Spurs found a way to clear the requisite cap space, there’s no doubt that Popovich could offer him something that he’s been missing for quite some time—a capable front office that would succeed at surrounding him with the pieces he needs to compete with the other super teams in the NBA.

Because after six years in Los Angeles, it’s fair to say that this has been what has been missing for him.