HOUSTON – Free agency is a distant, fleeting idea for Chris Paul now, an All-Star game MVP under his arm and a Western Conference championship within his reach. He's planning to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, punctuating his pick-and-roll partnership with Blake Griffin with a maximum contract extension and final say about every move their franchise now makes.
When the West's 143-138 All-Star Game victory was on the line Sunday night, Paul played the point perfectly, distinguishing himself as a worthy heir to Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas with 20 points and 15 assists. For all the suspicions of Paul and Dwight Howard manipulating the system to make the 2013 free-agent market about them, Paul has drained the drama out of his decision and the dysfunction out of the franchise.
"If Chris wants Vinny [Del Negro], he'll be the coach," one source tied to the Clippers and Paul said. "If Chris wants [Kevin Garnett], they'll push harder for it."
The way Paul didn't need Howard on the floor in the final minutes of the All-Star Game, he doesn't need him in his future. For all the salary-cap space cleared in Dallas and Atlanta – those franchises fantasize luring Paul and Howard together – Paul's greatness has made the Clippers a destination.
Who would've thought, but it's true: For the older guys wanting to take less money to win, the Clippers are the choice over the Lakers now. That's on Paul and that was in full bloom in the All-Star Game.
"The No. 1 point guard we have in this league," LeBron James, the No. 1 player, marveled on Sunday night.
For Howard, the trade deadline comes on Thursday and rivals are still poking at the Lakers, understanding fully that Howard is miserable. When teams call to talk trade, they say, the Lakers' private message has been consistent with the public one: Howard isn't available, general manager Mitch Kupchak tells them.
When suggestions surfaced over the weekend that the Lakers had engaged in trade talks, Kupchak delivered word directly to Howard that he should pay it no mind.
"They're too arrogant to move him now, even if Dwight asked for it," one rival GM said. "They're the Lakers, and they'll dare you to walk away in July. And if I was them, I would, too."
When asked about the possibility of the Lakers moving Howard at the deadline, Kobe Bryant was devastatingly indifferent. "I don't know what they're going to do," he said Sunday. "At this point, it doesn't matter."
Rest assured, Bryant and Howard didn't spend this All-Star weekend bonding the way Bryant and Andrew Bynum did a year ago. Bryant doesn't ask Howard about his future, nor does he sell him on re-signing. The trade deadline is Thursday, but the organization still hasn't come to Howard with that ultimate question: Come July, are you in or out?
Howard has grown to believe that winning has to be the premium priority of his free-agent decision, sources say. He promises to take a long look this summer – study the Lakers' present and future against those options available to him in free agency, including sign-and-trades – and make a choice weighed less in marketing potential and geography, and more in proper personnel for sustainable success.
For now, Howard's back and shoulder leave him a shell of his old self, but it's hard to imagine that he can't still return to the dominance of his Orlando days.
"As I get older – and I'm 27 – you have to start playing with your mind more than all the athleticism," Paul said Sunday night.
Make no mistake: The Clippers conduct business in complete concert with Paul's intelligence and desires. Within the organization and Paul's inner-circle, there's an understanding that he's staying a Clipper, but committing now costs him leverage – and perhaps could allow one of the league's all-time cheap franchises to get away with a half-hearted pursuit at contention.
Without James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder are more vulnerable in the Western Conference now. As one West GM said, "You can load up on Durant and Westbrook in a way that you couldn't do with Harden there."
Indeed, the Clippers are genuine contenders this season. They're deep and talented, and Paul makes everything go now. And if the Clippers were to get Garnett to spread the floor, several league GMs and coaches believe the move could transform Los Angeles into a bigger threat to the Miami Heat.
Everything's changed with these Los Angeles Clippers, because Chris Paul gives them what he gave the Western Conference All-Stars on Sunday night: the best point guard on the planet running the ball, running the team and, ultimately, maybe running Dwight Howard out of a town where second place can feel so far, far away in the Staples Center.
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