Bobcats at Clippers 10:30 p.m. SportSouth

Charlotte Bobcats’ West Coast road trip could be scouting trip

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 25, 2013 

Chris Paul said he hasn’t already promised his future to the Los Angeles Clippers.

“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do next season,” Paul, a former Wake Forest star, said recently. “And, no, I haven’t told anyone what I am going to do.”

That was more in response to Internet reports he’s already committed to re-signing with the Clippers, and implying he can make de facto player-personnel decisions for that franchise, than implying he’s unhappy in Los Angeles.

Paul, an unrestricted free agent in July, has no reason to publicly dismiss other options in February. But is there any reason to think he wouldn’t be happy as a Clipper? At 40-18, they lead the Pacific Division by six games.

He’s playing with another star in Blake Griffin and one of the deepest benches in the NBA. Going to L.A. has helped him draw national commercials.

So it seems far-fetched that Paul, who plays against the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday night at the Staples Center, would bolt the Clippers for a North Carolina homecoming with the Bobcats.

Still, it’s conceivable this four-game West Coast trip could pair the Bobcats against some future free-agent targets. The Bobcats can be $20 million or more under the salary cap this summer. In Utah, they’ll see big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. In Portland, they’ll see J.J. Hickson. Each is unrestricted in the summer of 2013.

The Bobcats have the resources and, as president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said at midseason, “I don’t think there’s any limits to what we’d try to do.”

A snapshot of free-agency in the summer of 2013:

Unrealistic: It’s hard to picture Paul, Dwight Howard or Josh Smith giving the Bobcats much consideration. For Paul and Howard, re-signing where they are would be more lucrative, plus with either the Clippers or Lakers, they’d have a better chance to win big in the foreseeable future.

Smith is a bit more complicated, in that he probably won’t re-sign with his current team, the Atlanta Hawks. But teams like the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks figure to go hard after him; those franchises have track records of success the Bobcats can’t yet match.

More realistic: More than anything, the Bobcats need help in the low post. They give up 12.5 offensive rebounds per game. They have no real post scoring presence to force opposing teams to double-team. Here are five unrestricted free agents-to-be who could address that problem:

Jefferson, Utah Jazz: The guy is a proven scorer in just the areas of the court where the Bobcats can be pretty inept. He averages 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds this season. He offers center size (if not great defense). The question is, would someone who is already financially set jump into a rebuild like the Bobcats?

Millsap, Jazz: He’s smaller than Jefferson (6-foot-8 vs. 6-10) but there’s a lot of energy and spring to his game. And his numbers – 15.1 points and 7.3 rebounds are nearly as good.

Hickson, Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers are paying LaMarcus Aldridge a bundle and they’ll eventually have to pay big to retain rookie point guard Damian Lillard, a promising star already. That makes Hickson more a luxury than a necessity.

Hickson, a former N.C. State big man, has always been a good back-to-the-basket scorer. In addition to his 13 points per game, he averages 10.4 rebounds and shoots 57 percent from the field.

The only question is how much the defensive attention Aldridge draws bloats Hickson’s numbers.

David West, Indiana Pacers: West, who grew up in Raleigh, has a particularly diverse offensive game. Most guys who can post up so ruggedly don’t also have his 20-foot jump shot. The Pacers have enough young talent that West might want to re-up just to see what that team can become.

Jason Maxiell, Detroit Pistons: He probably wouldn’t have the impact of the four others, and he’s small for a power forward at 6-7. But as an energy guy off the bench, Maxiell is good for seven points, six rebounds and a block per game.

He’s always played hungry in a way that might appeal to Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap’s approach.

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