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Pistons at Clippers: talking Clippers with Steve Perrin of ClipsNation

What a difference a trade makes. The LA Clippers have risen through the ranks of the Western Conference in a meteoric fashion thanks to a number one pick and a pre-season blockbuster. While the team was already improving on the shoulders of young Blake Griffin, the addition of Chris Paul made them relevant to the playoff picture and beyond. To get a better sense of what's going on in Los Angeles, I chatted with Steve Perrin of ClipsNation, our SBN counterpart. Welcome, Steve!

Head over to ClipsNation to check out my answers to Steve's questions on the state of the Pistons.

Mike Payne - As last season ended and this one began, did you have any idea that your team would ultimately make a move for Chris Paul? How exciting was it when the rumors started to arrive about a pre-season trade?

Steve Perrin - The Clippers were well-positioned to make a big move as the season ended last year. They offered a chance to play in a huge market, alongside an emerging young star in Blake Griffin, making the Clippers more attractive as a destination than at any other time in the franchise's history. They had enough room under the salary cap to add another piece (eventually used on Caron Butler). And most importantly, they had compiled a trove of trade assets, including Chris Kaman's expiring contract, some young talent and most importantly, the unrestricted 2012 first round pick of the Timberwolves. With the Carmelo situation having just played out and Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard all a year away from free agency, yeah, I had known for a while that the Clippers would be a player for one of those guys.

That Minnesota pick is a great story in itself. The Clippers acquired it way back in 2005 when they traded Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell. It was top 10 protected for the last six drafts, and the Wolves were terrible that whole time. Finally, the restrictions were all removed, and with the Wolves coming off another bad season and the 2012 draft completely loaded, that pick looked like solid gold. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Minnesota turned it around this year removing a lot of that value -- but in December, that picked looked a lot like Anthony Davis.

The first rumors I remember linked the Clippers to Howard, and I was thinking that Paul would be the much better fit. I mean, if you're going to pair an established star with Blake Griffin, wouldn't you rather have a pick and roll point guard than another guy who is scoring at the rim and can't make free throws? When the Lakers-Rockets-Hornets deal was first announced, I was crest-fallen -- I was sure the Clippers could have and should have beaten that deal, but instead it looked like Paul was headed to our dreaded nemesis. When that trade was later vetoed, I pretty much knew that Paul was going to be a Clipper. There weren't many teams on his list, and none of them could compete with what the Clippers had to offer. We even got a little greedy as fans, since the Clippers were more or less bidding against themselves at that point, and wanted to keep Eric Gordon in the deal. But in the end, if it took Gordon to get the deal done, it was still a no-brainer.

It was a great day to be a Clipper fan when the trade went down.
Mike Payne - Paul's pairing with Blake Griffin was probably the biggest talking point in the league as the season began. Hell, it even got its own nickname. Has it played out the way you expected it would? What have been the positives and negatives (if any) of that pairing?
Steve Perrin - Honestly, the Paul-Griffin combo has been a little wonky. Paul joined the team about December 15, with the Clippers part of the opening day NBA slate of games on Christmas. So obviously 10 days is not a lot of time for players to get a feel for each other. Not to mention that Butler and Chauncey Billups were also brand new, and DeAndre Jordan missed some of a truncated camp waiting on offer sheets as a restricted free agent. So I expected it to take a while for the team, and for Paul and Griffin in particular, to start to jell.

Then the team went out and won 11 of 15 games in January, including wins over the Lakers, the Heat, the Mavs and the Thunder, and it was all happening much more quickly than I thought possible. It made no sense that they should be that good that soon. Unfortunately, it now appears that the January record was indeed too good to be true, as the team has been in a deep funk recently -- they're 6-9 in their last 15 and haven't won two in a row in over a month.

Even when the team was rolling, I didn't get a Stockton-Malone sense from Paul and Griffin -- I never got the impression that they were locked into each other on the court. Frankly, Paul has seemed to connect better with DeAndre Jordan (certainly as far as lob passes go), a player that reminds CP3 of his old Hornets buddy Tyson Chandler. And Baron Davis seemed to be more on a wavelength with Griffin -- the Lob City name applied better to last season's Clippers than it does this year. So right now, I'm still waiting for the pairing to mature. Paul and Griffin are clearly great individual players, and having them on the same team is going to be productive -- but we haven't seen the synergistic, "greater than the sum of the parts" combination from those two yet. Hopefully it's just a matter of time.

Mike Payne - Many of us Pistons fans regret that Joe Dumars passed on DeAndre Jordan in the 2008 draft. The team needed a center just like him, but instead they made a draft-day trade for the rights to pick Walter Sharpe (a narcoleptic). It was awesome. What's your take on Jordan, and where do you feel he is with regard to his potential ceiling?
Steve Perrin - Jordan is never going to be much more than a finisher of lobs and offensive rebounder on the offensive end -- he hasn't developed much there in four seasons. Don't tell Lawrence Frank, but the Clippers first possession Sunday will be an iso for Jordan -- and they won't call his number again the rest of the game.

But when Jordan is active and aggressive, he can be a defensive force. He's third in the league in blocked shots, and can impact the game with his activity at that end, because he's impossibly long and super athletic. He still needs to develop more discipline on defense -- he tends to bite on too many pump fakes and has a terrible habit of chasing after weak side blocks that he has no hope of getting which leaves the Clippers exposed to put backs -- but he definitely has been progressing. I mentioned Chandler above, and that's precisely the guy Jordan should be emulating (or perhaps Ben Wallace in his heyday). That's his ceiling. He won't ever be a post scorer, but he is making strides toward being a significant presence on defense, and can absolutely continue to improve there.

Mike Payne - Both of our teams whiffed in free agency this last, uh, winter. If you could undo the Caron Butler signing, would you? Do you feel there was a better fit for the Clippers on the market?
Steve Perrin - Well, I actually liked Prince, but he's your burden now. Actually, I didn't think there was anyone who was a perfect fit for the Clippers, but I assumed that Prince could be had at a decent price.

The Clippers got nothing from the small forward position last season and absolutely had to have an upgrade there. And while Ryan Gomes was bad then, he's been far worse this year -- he's recently been replaced completely in the rotation by Bobby Simmons, who was in the D-League and had played one NBA in three seasons. Butler started the season great -- he was hitting a decent percentage, making threes, and providing consistent if unspectacular production from the three spot. But while the Chauncey Billups injury is widely assumed to be the root cause of the Clippers' current malaise, it's also possible to trace it to Butler's current shooting slump. He shot 43% before the All-Star break; 32% since. Yikes.

If I can get the Butler back that started the year, I'm fine with the signing. Did the Clippers overpay some? Sure. But sometimes you have to, and the Clippers absolutely had to upgrade at the three, which they did. At the same time, it's only a three year deal, so he won't be a salary cap anchor as long as, say, Tayshaun will be.

Mike Payne - If you could do anything to change the Clippers between now and the trade deadline next year, what moves might put LA in a position of contention for the 2013 title?
Steve Perrin - It's interesting, I've been so focused on the 2012 trade deadline that I haven't thought much beyond that. I guess that's progress in Clips Nation -- to actually be focused on the season at hand instead of next year. I'm not sure I know what to do in this situation.

There are six players in the current Clippers rotation who are signed for next season -- Paul, Griffin, Butler, Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Mo Williams (Williams has a player option which I assume he'll exercise). That leaves the team more or less exactly where it has been -- without a true shooting guard, without any size in the backcourt, and without any depth. And they won't have much, if any, cap space to try to fill out the roster. They can get under the cap by amnestying Gomes, but it won't get them much under and they may be better off keeping him to use his expiring contract in potential trades. It will be very, VERY difficult to build the full roster given the situation.

Nick Young will have an audition for the next three of four months as the shooting guard, and he could turn out to be a great fit -- but they didn't get his Bird rights in the trade, so they'll have to use cap space or an exception to re-sign him, which limits the other options in free agency. They will have the option to go over the cap to re-sign free agents like Billups and Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans -- but Martin and Evans are somewhat redundant with each other, and Billups is yet another point guard, the only position they have covered.

In the end, the Clippers are probably going to have to use the MLE on Young or another starting caliber two guard, and then hope that they can lure some decent veterans to sign at or near the minimum to provide depth on the wing and up front. Plus a backup big with SOME semblance of an offensive game would be nice. Mo Williams has been great in an instant offense sixth man role this season, but given the holes in the rest of the roster going forward and the glut of small guards, it may make sense to try to move Mo to fill those other holes. Of course, Williams and Gomes together will represent $12.5MM in expiring contracts next year, so a big deal at the 2013 trade deadline might be an option.

At any rate, the dirty secret of the Clippers is that they are not positioned to make major upgrades before next season -- it may take a couple of seasons, and a couple of decent MLE signings, to make the right moves unless they get very lucky.

Mike Payne
- Do you think Chris Paul will stick with the Clippers after his 2013 expiration? Given the massive amount of cap space the team will have that summer, has there been much thought about a potential Chris Paul / Blake Griffin / Dwight Howard trio in LAC?
Steve Perrin - You might want to double check your math on that 2013 cap space. When Griffin signs his extension this summer, he'll be on the books for a maximum deal. And Paul will be on the books in the summer of 2013 as a cap hold, even if they don't re-sign him. So when you take max deals for Griffin and Paul into account, plus the contracts of Butler ($8MM) and Jordan ($11MM), in fact the Clippers will be locked into a good $50MM of salary -- so unless the cap goes WAY up, there's no room there for making an offer to Howard. Not too mention that the Clippers will be paying people to fill some roster holes before then, so Howard in 2013 is not an option.

Griffin will sign his extension in summer 2012 -- no rookie has ever turned down a maximum extension, and there's no reason to think that Griffin will be the first. LA has been good to him, and frankly, where else would he go? Since Griffin will be locked into a long term deal by the time Paul is a free agent in 2013, I think there will be a lot of pressure on him to stay with the Clippers. Clearly, Griffin will feel betrayed if he doesn't, not to mention that Paul will have left two teams in a period of less than two years. He's made a big deal about how much he loves it in LA, how he's helping change the culture of the Clippers, so none of that will look very good if he leaves. Plus, he too has benefited from being in the market -- early season appearances on Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmell more or less introduced him to the rest of the country, even though he's been the best point guard in the NBA for half a decade. Market still matters.

The scary thing is that Howard, by waiving his ETO in Orlando, has now synched his free agency year with Paul's. In the post Wade-LeBron era, the trend seems to be for superstars to band together. Will Paul be tempted to team up with Howard somewhere? Will there be a team that is able to clear enough cap space to go after both of them AND offer Paul a better chance to win than he has in LA? That's the nightmare scenario. But I think it's a long shot.

A lot depends of course on how the team fares between now and then. If this team can't snap out of it's current funk, if it misses the playoffs or makes a poor showing, then it would be tough to blame Paul for moving on.

Mike Payne
: Last, has the Clippers organization asked you to kindly remove the "Clipper" part of your nickname?
Steve Perrin - Well, I haven't been ClipperSteve on the blog for several years now... that's just a Twitter thing at this point. I'll say this -- it's not at all surprising that an NBA team would take issue with someone unaffiliated with them using their brand. The Clipper Darrell situation was handled very poorly, but the Clippers were trying to do the smart thing as an organization -- they just screwed up the PR part of it all.

But you don't mess with someone's brand -- least of all an entity as visible as an NBA team. There's a reason that my blog is called Clips Nation and not Clipper Nation. That's a 'cease and desist' letter I didn't want to get, so I stayed away from the name from the start.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Steve. Good luck tonight and in the playoffs this Spring!