NEW ORLEANS— Chris Paul is headed to Los Angeles for real this time — to the Clippers, not the Lakers.
The Hornets traded Paul to the Clippers for guard Eric Gordon, forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Chris Kaman and a first-round draft choice.
The deal required the approval of NBA Commissioner David Stern because the Hornets are owned by the league.
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For Paul, Wednesday night’s trade means no more lame-duck practices — or ducking questions — in New Orleans.
It also ended a tortured week in which the Hornets’ season sat in limbo, while the NBA took a public relations beating over everything from potential conflicts of interest to hampering the team’s pursuit of free agents to disrespecting the New Orleans fan base.
“I knew we were doing the best thing for New Orleans and that was my job,” Stern said. “You have to stick with what you think was right. I must confess it wasn’t a lot of fun, but I don’t get paid to have fun.”
Stern said he never allowed other owners’ opinions or considerations of large and small markets to determine where Paul, one of the NBA’s biggest stars, would end up. He said his only focus was on getting the best deal for the Hornets.
That may take time to determine. But for now, the Hornets at last have a measure of certainty about the roster they’ll have when the regular season begins in less than two weeks.
Paul, already a star with international appeal, gets to play in one of the NBA’s biggest markets, even if his new team plays in the shadow of the Lakers. That’s the club Paul was almost traded to last week, only to have Stern nix the deal and unleash a torrent of bad publicity on his league just as it was trying to generate good will following a nearly five-month labor dispute that has already caused a shortening of the season.
Then again, maybe there is no such thing as bad publicity — or as Stern called it, “a frenzy.” Even with the NFL’s Saints on a five-game winning streak and wrapping up a playoff spot, the Hornets-and-Paul saga was the talk of New Orleans for a change.
“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 as competitive as we can and ensure we have a buyer who can keep them in New Orleans,” Stern said.
Stern said the team is in negotiations with several potential ownership groups, who, if all goes to plan, will have to accept a new long-term lease in the state-owned New Orleans Arena in order to buy the team.
“The future of the Hornets in New Orleans is brighter than it’s ever been,” Stern said.
Meanwhile, the Clippers have plenty of reason for optimism themselves.
The 26-year-old Paul is a four-time All-Star who averaged 18.7 points and 9.8 assists last season, his sixth in the NBA. His move to the Clippers means he’ll now be able to lob alley-oop passes to one of the best finishers in the game — one who’s famous for dunking over a car. That would be forward Blake Griffin, who averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds last season, his first as a pro.
Paul will earn $16.4 million this year and has a player option for the 2012-13 season — in which he is due $17.8 million.
The Hornets get a prolific young shooting guard in Gordon, who turns 23 on Christmas Day and averaged 22.3 points last season. Gordon would be a restricted free agent after this season unless he signs an extension with New Orleans. Hornets general manager Dell Demps said those talks haven’t yet started.
The 6-foot-9 Aminu is a second-year pro who averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds as a rookie.
The 7-foot Kaman, 29, is an eight-year veteran who averaged 12.4 points and seven rebounds last season, but played in only 32 games because of a left ankle injury. He’s in the last year of his contract, which will pay him $12.2 million this season.
“With this trade, we now have three additional players who were among the top eight draft picks in their respective drafts as well as our own first-round pick and (another) first-round pick,” Demps said. “Aminu is a young talent with a bright future, Gordon is a big-time scorer and one of the best (shooting) guards in the league and Kaman is a proven center and former All-Star.”
ESPN, citing anonymous sources, first reported the trade, which also involves New Orleans sending two 2015 second-round draft picks to the Clippers.
“We wanted to make sure that we got the best possible deal for a player of Chris’ caliber, and we feel great about the outcome,” said Jac Sperling, who Stern appointed as the Hornets’ governor after the league bought the team in December 2010.
The Hornets can only hope the deal will sit well with fans and area businesspeople, who bought more than 10,000 season tickets despite the lockout in an effort to show the NBA that their community could make the franchise viable for whatever ownership group eventually buys the club.
Paul, whom the Hornets drafted fourth overall in 2005, told New Orleans earlier this month that he was not going to sign an extension, and Demps had been trying to trade him since to avoid losing him in free agency with no compensation after this season.
Demps came close to making a three-team deal last Thursday that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. The Lakers would have sent Lamar Odom to the Hornets and Pau Gasol to Houston, while the Rockets would have sent Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans.
Stern, however, told Demps to take that deal off the table because he thought the Hornets could do better, both in terms of personnel and salary obligations.
While the move caused speculation that Stern was acting against Demps’ better judgment, Demps said he and Stern were acting “hand in hand,” while Stern said people who anonymously leaked details of the proposed Lakers trade did so because they “were trying to force him to make that deal.”
Paul showed up for Hornets training camp last Friday but has not spoken to reporters since. He was excused from a normally mandatory media event on Wednesday, hours before the trade went through, in which players pose for photos in uniform and talk about the upcoming season.
For the Hornets, the urgency to make a deal appeared to be growing, though Demps insisted earlier Wednesday that the Hornets had no timeline and would not be rushed into a “rash decision.”
Still, Demps acknowledged it was hard for the Hornets to pursue free agents and further build their roster while Paul’s status was in limbo. If trade talks had dragged on much longer, the Hornets could have gone into Friday night’s preseason opener at Memphis with little idea of what their roster would look like in their first regular-season game at Phoenix on Dec. 26.
Other than Paul, the Hornets had only five returning veterans under contract: center Emeka Okafor, forward Trevor Ariza, point guard Jarrett Jack, second-year swingman Quincy Pondexter and shooting guard Marco Belinelli.
The additions of Gordon, Aminu and Kaman give New Orleans desperately needed depth, while opening the way for the franchise to further strengthen its roster through free agency.
Meanwhile, the Hornets also could look forward to an additional first-round draft choice next summer. The pick originally belonged to Minnesota, meaning it will be tied to where the Timberwolves finish in the standings this season.
“For the long-term future of the New Orleans Hornets, this is the best deal,” Demps said.
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