Chris Paul is a difference maker with Clippers

For Clippers fans, Dec. 14 of last year was a date to remember. David Stern OK’d the trade and effervescent point guard Chris Paul landed on the Clippers’ roster.

The Clippers became an instant playoff team. On the court and in the locker room Paul pushed teammates to be their best, rejecting the notion that the culture couldn’t be changed inside the Clippers’ organization.

Many NBA experts say the Clippers are now a top-four team in the Western Conference. Clearly, Paul is the engine that drives the team.

Wednesday night the Clippers open the regular season against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. And for most Clippers fans there will be two key questions:

Just how far can Paul take them this season? And how long will he stay here?

On July 1, Paul becomes an unrestricted free agent after his contract expires. He can sign a five-year, $110-million extension with the Clippers next summer and keep the movement going forward.

Or he can leave.

When asked recently whether he planned on signing a long-term deal with the Clippers, Paul paused.

“I don’t even think about it,” said Paul, who’ll earn $17 million this season. “When you just led up to that question, that’s not what I expected you to say. It’s crazy, but I don’t even think about it. I seriously just play. I don’t even think about it.”

Paul was told uncertainty about his future is on the mind of every Clippers fan.

“I can’t answer it, either,” Paul said, smiling. “Not right now.”

Blake Griffin believes winning, like the Clippers did last season when they finished with a 40-26 record during the shortened season for a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference, will make it easy for Paul to want to return.

Griffin said knowing the Clippers remain a playoff team will play a role in Paul’s decision.

And Griffin believes that seeing the franchise sign him to a five-year contract extension last July worth up to $95 million, re-signing Chauncey Billups, acquiring Lamar Odom and signing Jamal Crawford as a free agent are things Paul will see as positive steps.

“I’m going to let him know that I would love more than anything for him to be back,” Griffin said. “But it’s his decision. He has to do what’s best for his family. He doesn’t need any of us telling him, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ He’s going to know that we want him to be back.”

Griffin mentioned how the Clippers’ newly appointed vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks, and Coach Vinny Del Negro, kept Paul and Griffin involved in the roster movements over the summer.

That, Griffin said, shows Paul how committed the Clippers are to changing the culture and to winning.

“Over the past two years, they have done as good of a job as any team as far as giving the players what they need, putting the right pieces in place,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve shown that we’re about winning and we’re capable of winning here. The rest is up to kind of letting the season play out and making sure we stay on course.”

On the court, Paul, is widely considered one of the best players in the NBA.

He was recently voted the best point guard by the league’s general managers. Last season he was voted first team All-NBA, All-NBA defensive first team and he was a Western Conference All-Star starter. He averaged 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

He had a busy summer too, as the starting guard on Team USA’s gold-medal-winning Olympic team.

Paul, 27, moves the needle in the NBA and for the Clippers.

In the off-season he recruited newcomers Crawford, Matt Barnes and Willie Green. Paul was happy about getting Odom, about keeping Billups, about how the organization went about its business.

“It’s all about creating a winning culture and a winning mentality and that’s what I’m trying to do here along with everybody else,” Paul said. “We have to understand it’s more than just bright lights, nice plane rides and nice hotels. At the end of the day, you’ve got to win. You’ve got to win and that’s what makes it exciting for everybody.”

And the Clippers hope that’s what will make Paul want to stick around — after this season.