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Paul deal epitomizes new Clippers culture

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Clippers jokes are no longer in vogue. The transformation of a once-laughingstock organization took a dramatic step toward completion when the Clippers acquired Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups in a matter of days, and now expectations are soaring for Los Angeles’s former stepchild team, while concerns abound at Lakers training camp.

This is a perfect Hollywood drama, filled with betrayal (Lamar Odom being traded, untraded, and then traded again), commitment (Paul promising to opt in to the final year of his contract, meaning he will be a Clipper for at least two years), and suspense as Los Angeles fans ponder the possibility that the Clippers are more talented than the Lakers.

It has taken nearly 30 years but the Clippers have moved into a respectable neighborhood. Given their desire in acquiring Paul, astuteness in claiming Billups out of amnestyland, and eagerness in matching the offer sheet for DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers appear intent on being more than renters.

The club capitalized on the vulnerability of the Lakers, whose deal for Paul was spurned by commissioner David Stern, who served as the Hornets’ de facto owner because the club is owned by the league. Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said he received permission from the Hornets and league office to speak with Paul about coming to Los Angeles’s less-heralded team, and the All-Star guard expressed enthusiasm.

“I believe in the organization, I believe in the players here, and I want to win now,’’ Paul said.

Free agents and other standout players have generally used the Clippers to cash in and then shut down. Paul’s commitment to the Clippers helps change the perception of the organization as a second-rate club with little passion to win.

The hiring of Olshey and several recent fruitful drafts that produced Blake Griffin, Jordan, Eric Gordon, and Al-Farouq Aminu (Gordon and Aminu were sent to New Orleans as part of the Paul trade package) have turned the Clippers into potential contenders. What was lacking were established veterans, not prospects who may bail in free agency, and Paul and Billups fulfill that requirement.

“After it looked like things had died, we just kind of got in a room, and got with [owner Donald Sterling] and just said, ‘If we’re going to take this quantum leap as a franchise, it’s going to have to be with a superstar,’ and we just couldn’t let the opportunity pass,’’ Olshey said. “We’re a destination. That’s the first part of this.

“We got a lucky ping-pong ball bounce and we got Blake. We surrounded him with some good pieces and when the time came to push our chips in the middle of the table and get a player like Chris, we did it. I think the opportunity to play with guys like [Paul, Jordan, and Griffin] is going to put us on the short list of places guys may be more amenable to coming to without the financial remuneration they are used to.’’

The roster is now stocked at point guard with Paul, Billups, Mo Williams, and Eric Bledsoe, with newly signed Caron Butler, Jordan, and Griffin filling the frontcourt. The Clippers appear to be a legitimate fourth seed in the Western Conference. That’s a far cry from the days when the organization played at the ancient and cavernous Los Angeles Sports Arena in front of crowds who showed up mostly to see the opposing team.

The Clippers have a new practice facility in the Culver City area and have slowly begun competing favorably with the popular Lakers. As Kobe Bryant told reporters last week, the proof is in the jewelry, but for the first time since they moved to Los Angeles in 1984 from San Diego, the Clippers are on even ground with their so-called rivals.

“I’m most excited because I think more than I can remember any time in the franchise history, we’ve got a chance to be really good right now,’’ said Andy Roeser, who has been the Clippers’ president since 1986. “The resources that we have put to use, we’re in a really good spot. I’m exhausted, like everybody at this time, but it just feels very good for the franchise.’’

Youth no longer can be used as an excuse. If the Clippers are to arrive as a franchise and make themselves significant in the NBA, it has to be now. There is no better time and no better opportunity.

“In one move, it accomplishes everything Vinny [Del Negro, the coach] and I have been blathering on about for the past two years, which is to change the culture,’’ Olshey said. “And that’s what we did. The fact that Chris chose to be here. I want guys that want to be here, and that’s what inspired me to keep driving this home.

“The perception here is not the reality. Going forward, all that [Clipper bad luck ends] and it’s just about the future from now on.’’

HORNETS’ NEST

New Orleans, Stern in synch

The NBA’s participation in the Chris Paul deal begs the question about DavidStern’s dedication to the survival of the New Orleans franchise. He appears determined to ensure the Hornets remain in Louisiana, with an enthusiasm that wasn’t evident in similar situations in Seattle, and to a lesser extent Sacramento.

The Kings have one more season in which to build a state-of-the-art arena or their owners, the Maloof brothers, can pursue relocation. They want to head south to Anaheim, Calif. As for Seattle, Stern was so turned off by a 2006 meeting with the Washington state legislature that he basically excused himself from the situation and encouraged Clay Bennett to purchase the SuperSonics, ask for a $500 million arena in a region that had recently constructed and paid for football and baseball stadiums, and then eventually move the franchise to Oklahoma City.

It seems Stern has learned from that experience, and partly because the area has yet to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans fans purchased 10,000 season-ticket packages (before the Paul trade), he is intent on keeping the franchise there.

“Our sole focus was and will remain - until we sell this team hopefully, which will be in the first half of 2012 - how best to maintain the Hornets, make them as attractive and competitive as we can, and ensure that we have a buyer that will keep them in New Orleans,’’ Stern said after the Paul trade. “So we’re dealing with what we expect will be record season tickets, record sponsorship, increased cable revenue, and hopefully a renewal of the lease that will assure - after we finish after the first of the year - discussions with the governor and the legislature that will assure the continuity of the New Orleans Hornets in Louisiana.’’

Stern did not mandate in Seattle that the owners keep the team in Washington, and he gave Sacramento a one-year deadline to build an arena, so there is an obvious affinity for the Hornets. Consequently, he was hypersensitive about the small-market team dealing its biggest star.

But the players the Hornets received in return provide the opportunity for New Orleans to build and move forward as a potential Western Conference contender. Stern has never been a commissioner who cares about perception, but his delicate treatment of the situation in New Orleans is definitely worth noting. While some NBA observers suggested contraction may be the best method for solving the league’s financial problems, the commissioner has made it clear he plans to ensure the Hornets thrive, even if that means widespread criticism from other owners.

“I think the future of the Hornets in New Orleans is looking better today than it’s ever looked before, and I’m very excited about that,’’ Stern said. “Because I think the NBA sort of implicitly made representations to the community that it would do the best it could providing [Hornets president] Hugh [Weber] and [ chairman] Jac [Sperling] with additional support on the marketing side, giving [general manager] Dell [Demps] whatever he needed in basketball advice, and actually within approved budgets, supporting the team financially. And we feel that we’re well on the way to accomplishing that goal.’’

ETC.

Lockout effect looms large

The abbreviated training camp is going to wreak havoc as the season progresses, many experts predict. Just as the NFL lockout led to a slew of hamstring, groin, and Achilles’ tendon injuries, the NBA lockout is expected to have a residual effect on most players, but most notably rookies, who had no NBA instruction before last week.

The lockout began July 1, wiping out summer league and team workouts for first-year players. JaJuanJohnson and E’Twaun Moore of the Celtics are doing surprisingly well despite their lack of exposure. But the consensus is that the league’s rookies will not produce as much as in years past because of the circumstances.

After the last lockout, Vince Carter ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award in 1999, averaging 18.3 points for the Raptors, while the Celtics’ Paul Pierce averaged 16.5 and Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki averaged 8.2. The cream of this year’s rookie class - Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Derrick Williams, and Utah’s Enes Kanter - are expected to compete for that award, but it is uncertain how these neophytes will transition into the NBA with such little training.

“There’s no doubt that the rookies are going to be hit the hardest, no doubt, not even close,’’ said NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony. “It’s far more difficult for them than for a guy who let’s say just got traded this week or signing a free agent because they know how they are as an NBA player, they know what their skill set is typically, so they are going to be able to make that transition a lot quicker.

“In terms of the rookies, it’s not just that you haven’t been able to get out on the floor with your teammates, you don’t even know the system. You have not had any direction with the coaching staff. So you have not really been [in the] fabric of what’s going on. No one’s really been able to evaluate you from a professional standpoint to tell you what areas you’ve got to work on.’’

The Celtics’ Doc Rivers has been notoriously hard on rookies during his coaching career. Last week, he raved about Moore’s production in practice, while he is still trying to stress to Johnson to become more aggressive offensively.

“The other person that gets affected the most are the coaches,’’ Anthony said. “They are going to have to have the patience to allow these guys to make even more mistakes and balance that with trying to win today. The thing about the NBA is that pressure, it’s about winning now. It’s not about developing. They have to figure out a way to try to develop while still able to win, so it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for these young players.’’

Meanwhile, college freshmen such as Duke’s Austin Rivers (Doc’s son), Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, and Baylor’s Quincy Miller were observing the labor negotiations as the sides discussed the entry rule for college players. The sides decided to retain the rule allowing those one year removed from high school to enter the draft, meaning that trio can declare next spring.

“I’ll take [Rivers and Davis] as an example ,’’ Anthony said. “They play for great coaches who have a lot of history with players going to the league. So that’s going to help them maintain their focus on what’s important. The bottom line is at least they know that the option exists.’’

Still, the decision will be monumental for anyone who decides to take the plunge into the draft, which is expected to be one of the deepest in recent memory.

On the market

A week before the regular season begins, there remains a handful of capable free agents waiting for jobs. Etan Thomas, Carlos Arroyo, Troy Murphy, Jamario Moon, Erick Dampier, Michael Redd, and Julian Wright are still on the market, a testament to how the lockout has adversely affected free agency. During a normal NBA year, players can wait up to three months after free agency begins to sign a contract and still be ready for training camp. That window shrunk to zero when training camp and free agency began the same day.

Layups

The Celtics’ 20-year contract with Comcast SportsNet has yet to be officially announced but the deal was agreed upon months ago and should do wonders in helping the Celtics to remain a high-salary team . . . Ex-NBA forward Chris Webber was asked why players do not target Atlanta, one of the league’s underrated cities, as a destination spot. He blamed apathy. “To be very honest, Atlanta doesn’t sell out games,’’ he said. “You have to have diehard fans, and Atlanta needs to ask itself, does it have diehard fans? That might answer the question as to why players don’t want to come here.’’ . . . The Warriors used their amnesty clause on guard Charlie Bell, who was arrested for reporting intoxicated to a court appearance Dec. 9 for a DUI charge in Michigan. Bell will earn $4.09 million this season, but the Warriors removed that figure from their salary cap . . . Ex-Harvard guard Jeremy Lin is working out with the Rockets after the Warriors released him last week to make a bid at Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. The Warriors also renounced the rights to Reggie Williams. Williams signed a two-year deal with the Bobcats for $5 million in what could be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason . . . Ex-UConn forward Jeff Adrien signed a two-year contract with the Rockets, the well-traveled rebounder finally gaining some security. Adrien spent the past few months with Benetton Treviso, playing alongside Celtic E’Twaun Moore and providing a positive influence on him . . . Josh Howard considered the Celtics early in free agency but signed with the Jazz. The salary cap-strapped Celtics had nothing to offer Howard besides their $2.5 million mini midlevel exception that was used on Chris Wilcox . . . Swingman Travis Outlaw, who was waived by the Nets using their amnesty clause, was an intriguing player on the market until he was signed by the Kings yesterday. Outlaw, 27, was a colossal bust during his lone season in New Jersey, as coach Avery Johnson said the former Trail Blazer was out of shape. He averaged 9.2 points last season. The Kings must pay only the veteran’s minimum, with the Nets responsible for the $28 million owed on his deal.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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