It finally happened Friday night for the Los Angeles Clippers.
In the 52nd game of what will eventually go down as the first 50-win season in franchise history, Vinny Del Negro had his full complement of players at last.
Everyone was in uniform for the first time all season for the Clips' ESPN-televised trip to Miami.
Which means that Friday's beatdown inflicted by the Heat also launched a brief but critical period of evaluation for Clipper decision-makers in the wake of a painful 3-6 slide while Paul's bruised right knee healed. With the Feb. 21 trade deadline fast approaching, the L.A. team that pretty much no one bothered to talk about until CP3 went down has to take quick stock of how all of its primary pieces re-click and then decide how badly it needs to make a move.
The suspicion here, though, is that the Clips already know.
In a win-now season, they look more and more like a team that needs to take a midseason trade gamble.
The whispers of optimism emanating from Staples Center about how confident they are that Paul will commit to sign for the long term when free agency hits in July have been rampant for months. And if the Clips' co-tenants can continue to get away with saying they're convinced Dwight Howard will choose to stay, no matter how the Lakers' increasingly nightmarish season turns out, maybe they have a right to act so sure.
As one source close to the situation put it this week when asked to grade the Clips' chances of retaining CP3, keeping in mind his well-chronicled love of the Hollywood scene and the fact that this team was good enough to reel off 17 wins in a row earlier this season: "I'm saying 99.5 percent."
Yet the surest way to address that pesky half a percentage point -- assuming you buy the above prognosis -- is for the Clips to make a long playoff run that conclusively proves to Paul that he has no need to look elsewhere to satisfy his championship ambitions. A run that takes them, at worst, to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
This is where you ask, with full justification, whether the team many regard as the league's deepest in regular-season terms really has enough playoff know-how and toughness to get there.
The suspicion here, again, is that the Clips already know they don't.
Their need for a reliable crunch-time frontcourt partner for Blake Griffin, as well as an extra shooter to loosen things up for Griffin inside, are glaring weaknesses that the grind of the postseason is bound to expose. Especially in a Western Conference where the Clips can reasonably expect to play Golden State, Denver or maybe even Memphis in Round 1 before having to deal with San Antonio and/or Oklahoma City.
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ESPN.com | Feb 9