Clippers next steps start with making Chris Paul happy

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The Clippers were eliminated, swept right out of the playoffs by the Spurs Sunday night.

But it didn’t feel like a painful elimination as much as the start of a journey. Clippers fans stayed and cheered for minutes after what may have been the best season in franchise history. The players talked about the loss as part of the process of becoming a contender.

“Just learning, just watching (the Spurs) maneuver,” Clippers guard Randy Foye said after the game. “And understanding how they execute game plans, and what they do is definitely something you can take from it… Just watching guys like (Manu Ginobili), just watching guys like (Tony Parker), just watching how they maneuver, how they continue to attack — they’re down 1, they’re down 10, they’re up 10 they just continue to keep the pressure on and keep the defense on their heels. Tim Duncan does that, too. That is something I will definitely take from this.”

Now come the questions of how the Clippers get to the next level. And there are a lot to answer this summer

But it all starts with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

• First, the Clippers will re-sign Blake Griffin to a max contract. Griffin is up for the extension of his rookie deal this summer and he is a no-brainer max player. Griffin said after the game he had given no thought to his next contract, but players in his situation almost always sign for the big payday.

Yes, Griffin does need to work on parts of his game — he talked about his defense and his outside shot as areas of focus after the loss. But this is a 23-year-old guy who has played two years in the league and has a tremendous work ethic. He’ll get there. Plus, he’s key to team marketing.

• Chris Paul is the bigger fish — this is his team now and if the Clippers want to be contenders they have to keep him past next season when his contract is up.

But the new CBA gives a lot of leverage to players —they get more and better money by becoming a free agent and re-signing with the same team then they get by just extending their existing deal. So Paul will become a free agent next summer with options, the Clippers have to prove they are the best one (L.A. will be able to offer more money and years than any other team).

Los Angeles needs to sit down with Paul and make sure he knows how much the franchise wants to keep him. Then they have to go out and get better talent to go around him that can help the team take the next step.

• Does that mean getting a pick-and-pop big to pair with Paul? In Del Negro’s pick-and-roll heavy offense the Clippers needed an option where a big could pop out and space the floor with a dangerous midrange of longer jumper. Like what Paul had with David West in New Orleans.

The challenge is finding the right guy — if you get a four then you need to either sit Griffin or have Griffin play and defend the center spot (something Kevin Pelton pointed out on twitter). Neither of those are good options for long stretches. Also, you can bet Griffin will work on his midrange game this summer. But a pick-and-pop big seems a target.

• What about Vinny Del Negro? The Clippers coach did not do a terrible job as Clippers coach — he got them to the five seed, the second round of the playoffs and guys play hard for him. But is that enough? Is he the guy who can lead this team to contender status? There are plenty of people with doubts.

If I am Clippers GM Neil Olshey, I sit down in the next week or so with Paul and discuss Del Negro. In the end, this is all about keeping Paul and his input matters a lot — not that Paul should be allowed to hire and fire coaches, but the best point guard in the game is much harder to come by than a new coach.

• Mo Williams said after the game he would be picking up his $8.5 million option to return to the team. No surprise there. That is a bit pricy for him but Williams does bring real scoring punch off the bench that the Clippers can use.

• What to do with free agents Randy Foye, Nick Young, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans?

My guess is that they bring Nick Young back, he can be part of the young core of this team, but he has to dedicate himself in a way this offseason that was not seen in Washington and that culture the last few years. Evans can be brought back at an affordable price. Remember that the Clippers are already at the salary cap before they start picking up players, so guys like Martin it may be about the price the market offers.

The Clippers would like to have Billups back, but can he really come back and be productive from a torn Achilles? I’m not offering much for him, you just can’t.

There are a lot of questions to answer this summer.

This is the Clippers, the worst franchise in the NBA over the past two decades and you always feel with owner Donald Sterling around something could just go horribly wrong. But they have a chance, a window, to become a contender and franchise reputation around.

But that is all about CP3 now.