Originally Published: Feb 8, 2013

1. Will Clippers Go All-In With Deadline Trade?

By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHold off and build for the future or deal now and play for the title? That's the L.A. Clippers' dilemma.

It finally happened Friday night for the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the 52nd game of what should 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, with Chris Paul on a minutes restriction, also launched a brief but critical period of evaluation for Clippers decision-makers in the wake of a painful 3-6 slide while their franchise QB's bruised right kneecap healed. With the Feb. 21 trade deadline fast approaching, that L.A. team pretty much no one bothered to talk about until CP3 went down has to take quick stock of how all its primary pieces click and 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 gamble.

The whispers of optimism emanating from Staples Center about how confident the Clippers are that Paul will 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 continues to be, 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 Paul's 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, again, is that the Clips already know they don't.

Although this is obviously the best Clippers team we've ever seen, their need for a reliable crunch-time frontcourt partner for Blake Griffin along with an extra shooter to loosen things up for Griffin inside are glaring weaknesses that the grind of the postseason is bound to expose. This is especially true 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.

Expect the Clippers, then, to quietly keep searching for trade partners if the Boston Celtics, as it increasingly appears, dial back their willingness to surrender Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett in exchange for a package headlined by CP3 protégé Eric Bledsoe.

As much as the Clippers dread the thought of parting with Bledsoe before they have Paul's signature on a new deal, sources close to the situation acknowledge that the Clips know it's just as dangerous (or maybe even more so) to leave the roster as is and thus expose themselves to an early playoff exit because DeAndre Jordan's offensive limitations or free throw woes (or both) render him a playoff non-factor. Or because Lamar Odom proved too small and ground-bound to close games alongside Griffin when it mattered most.

Word is there's frustration on both sides when it comes to Jordan, with the 24-year-old center unquestionably hungry for more playing time and an expanded role from Del Negro amid presumed skepticism from the coach that he'll ever be able to produce like the third-highest-paid Clipper should.

But trading Jordan for a more finished article, sensible as that sounds, might not be feasible before the trade buzzer in a mere 13 days, since prospective trade partners will surely have all those same questions. Bledsoe is the Clipper other teams covet, with serious consequences risked whether L.A. decides to give in or hold firm.

Do nothing and the Clips would still appear to have enough firepower, as a team that has ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency for much of the season, to stay on course to win their first division title in a 43-season run that began in beautiful Buffalo.

Yet the suspicion, once more, is that everyone in Clipperland surely understands it's going to take more than a Pacific Division banner to take the pressure off Del Negro -- who's in the final year of his contract -- and the organization as a whole when it comes to quenching CP3's title thirst.