Friday, December 16, 2011

The Clippers Are Still the Clippers

Does this mean the Clippers are finally a real NBA franchise?
Three trades, nearly a dozen players, and an endless array of crappy draft picks later, the Chris Paul saga is finally over. (Hopefully.)

Barring a bizarre and totally unforeseen twist from the commissioner’s office (can’t rule that out!), the league has avoided a potentially devastating PR disaster, accomplishing its goal of keeping Paul away from the “Big Boys” of the NBA while also receiving a sizable package of young, cost effective assets. While the massive conflict of interest created by the league’s ownership of the franchise still hangs like a giant black cloud over the proceedings, the anger and outrage stirred up by it has greatly subsided. The fact that there was very little mention of the now-infamous ‘Chris Paul Trade Veto’ in today’s headlines is proof of that. For the time being, it appears as if the league has dodged a major bullet.

Given that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to declare David Stern, along with his cohorts, the biggest winner in this trade.  Remember, we’re coming off a lockout in which the owners boldly proclaimed that star players would no longer be able to hold their teams hostage in an attempt to force their way to the Lakers’ and Knicks’ of the world. It would be an absolute disaster if, after the owners’ five month power play, Chris Paul would have forced his way to the Lakers within two weeks. Not only would the league suffer short term ridicule for the deal, it would be subject to it for years and years down the road. Granted, the Clippers play in the same market as the Lakers…but it’s the Clippers! Now, instead of dealing with a second straight offseason of “How much do you hate this team?” polls and “Are super-teams good for basketball?” storylines, the majority of the NBA world is thinking about/salivating over the potential of an endless array of Chris Paul to Blake Griffin alley-oops. Any time the focus and excitement is for the on-court product, the NBA is a winner. In this case, they’re a HUGE winner.

Since we’re thinking outside the box here, let’s pinpoint another major winner of this deal. The fans! I think we all remember the utter torture of the “Carmelo Anthony Hostage Crisis” last season. The last thing I want to do is re-live that every single year. Shy of Chris Paul himself buying the Hornets (or his mother), the realities of Chris Paul’s situation in New Orleans dictated that he was eventually getting dealt this season. Given the insane “will he, won’t he” media circus that surrounded this past week and a half, it’s safe to say that a prolonged stalemate would be enough to push people off the ledge. Thank you, NBA, for getting this one over with. (Now I can focus my hatred on the inevitable Dwight Howard Hostage Crisis…)

Here is how the trade breaks down:

Hornets Receive:

Eric Gordon
Al-Farouq Aminu
Chris Kaman
Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 first round pick

Clippers Receive:

Chris Paul
Two second round picks

First and foremost, this trade is 1000x better than the initial Chris Paul-Lakers trade. No contest. People wanted to focus solely on the Lakers supposed lack of frontcourt depth after the deal, but they conveniently forgot to mention that LA was receiving the best pure PG in the league for 60 cents on the dollar. And yes, Gasol and Odom for Paul is 60 cents on the dollar. Don’t get sidetracked by the addition of the third team in the deal; the Lakers were giving up Gasol and Odom for Chris Paul. Given that Odom was subsequently dealt for essentially nothing, I’m thinking that most people were vastly overestimating his trade value.

Even considering the fleece job the Hornets would be pulling on Houston in the deal, New Orleans would still be receiving a package far less valuable than what they are getting from the Clippers. Yes, the Odom/Scola/Martin trio is clearly going to produce more wins THIS YEAR, but that actually is part of the reason the deal is so bad. Odom/Scola/Martin aren’t taking you anywhere. Maybe to 45 wins at the most. In the NBA, that’s not good enough. Not only that, but consider the monetary impact of taking on that package vs. what they got from the Clippers:

Vetoed Deal
Lamar Odom (32) – 2yrs $17.1mil
Luis Scola (31) – 4yrs $39.3mil
Kevin Martin (28) – 2yrs $24mil

Clippers Deal
Eric Gordon (23) – 1yr $3.8mil
Al-Farouq Aminu (21) – 3yrs $9.5mil
Chris Kaman (29) – 1yr $12.7mil

Once again, the two deals aren’t even close. Gordon, the best player of the above six, is a budding young star that might end up being a premier scorer as soon as this season. He’ll be a restricted free agent next season, meaning New Orleans is in a much better position to keep him long term. Aminu showed a lot of promise last season, and since he has three years left on his rookie deal, he’s a far better long term proposition than Lamar Odom. Even Kaman, the worst thing they’re getting, is a valuable asset since his contract expires next season. With the Lakers deal, the Hornets would have a lot of money committed for a long time to an older group of players that will take them nowhere. With the Clippers deal, the Hornets basically do the exact opposite. And if the Minnesota pick turns into a top 5 draft choice, then this could turn out to be the haul of a lifetime. It’s also worth noting that this deal makes them a far more attractive purchase for a prospective owner.

OK, now that we’ve gotten that bit of business out of the way, let’s talk about the Clippers.

The Clips have been losers for so long that it’s almost a shock to say “let’s talk about the Clippers” in the first place. After all, this is a franchise that has had a losing record in 17 of their last 18 seasons, a level of futility that even the Bengals would be envious of. Given that, it’s no wonder that sports writers across the country are lauding the Clippers for the deal. Call it a newfound commitment to winning, call it dumb luck, call it whatever you want. The point is that the NBA’s equivalent to the Washington Generals suddenly finds itself boasting what some describe as the best young duo in the league. (Side note: Chris Paul-Blake Griffin vs. Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook is an interesting debate. Also, it will be really fun to watch.)

ESPN’s J.A. Adande wrote an interesting reaction piece to the trade, boldly stating that the deal essentially ends the Clippers as we know them. Gone is the atmosphere of losing, replaced with the winning drive of their new superstar. Gone are the days of bungling management, replaced by a group that has finally found its way. With all respect to Adande, whom I deeply enjoy reading, I must strongly disagree with his claim. While Chris Paul will almost certainly bring an unforeseen level of success to the organization, it is severely short sighted and over reactionary to believe the Clippers are any more competent today than they were before the trade. In fact, there is ample evidence to prove the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not labeling the Clippers as ‘losers’ in this trade. Any time you end up with Chris Paul in a deal, you have to be thrilled. And, while I think they probably paid more than they needed to, I love that they were aggressive in turning young assets into a bigger piece. For whatever reason, teams seem terrified to employ this strategy, for fear that they will be giving up the next (insert name of the star player that team is probably acquiring in the deal).

Example: Several years ago, the Chicago Bulls boasted one of the best young teams in the NBA. Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Thabo Sefalosha, Luol Deng, Tyson Chandler, and Andres Nocioni were all viewed as extremely valuable assets throughout the league, and Chicago had multiple opportunities to spin some of these assets into a premier player. At the time, my friend Cutter and I were following the team fairly closely, and we seemingly had weekly conversations on how dumb it would be for the Bulls to NOT make a deal. After all, it is literally impossible to win in the NBA without a star player. Not surprisingly, the Bulls did nothing. A year later, they finished with 33 wins.

Moral of the story: Even if you think giving up Eric Gordon was excessive, the implications of passing on Chris Paul could have been devastating. The Clippers HAD TO DO the deal. They HAD TO, because this is the first opportunity in over a decade for them to take some of the spotlight from the Lakers. They HAD TO, because the Western Conference playoffs are as wide open as it has been in a long time. And they HAD TO, because losing Blake Griffin in free agency is not an option. They HAD TO DO IT, and I give them all the credit in the world for having the guts to pull the trigger.

Nevertheless, it certainly seems like the sheer scope and splash of the deal has punched Adande in the temple so hard that it has given him a case of amnesia. There’s no other way to put it; the Clippers have pretty much been the Clippers all along, and Chris Paul is now serving as a giant Band-Aid to cover up the giant mess they created last season.

If I told you that, years from now, these Clippers would be featured in one of those “What If?” shows because of something dumb they did, would you have any idea what I meant? Would you be able to pinpoint the one massive blunder they committed that could eventually have us shaking our heads at the huge opportunity they let slip? If not, then you’re not alone. In their hurry to overreact to anything and everything, Adande and his media cohorts have forgotten as well. Here’s a reminder:

February 24, 2011 – Clippers trade Baron Davis and an unprotected 2011 first round pick to the Cavaliers for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon.

As we now know, that first round pick would end up becoming the number one overall pick in the draft. Ironically, the player taken with that pick, Kyrie Irving, is most often compared to……..Chris Paul.

Take a second to comprehend the sheer insanity of this trade. If they were so desperate to move the remaining 2yrs and $28.6mil on Baron’s contract, then what sense does it make to absorb the remaining 2yrs and $17mil on Mo Williams’ contract? That’s hardly an improvement at all! And that’s the most sensible part of the deal! Two things stand out in this deal that might very well make it the worst trade ever:

#1 – Why didn’t they protect the pick?

This is common practice throughout the league, and it is totally inexplicable that the Clippers did not do this. They were openly disinterested in the back end of the lottery, so a full lottery protection wasn’t even necessary. Just making the pick top 5 protected would have saved them from this disaster. Honestly, I think their GM should have been fired immediately for overlooking this.

#2 – Why were they so desperate to dump Baron’s contract?

Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew there would be an amnesty clause in the new CBA. The owners had been clamoring for it since negotiations had started, and its inclusion was a fait accompli. Did Donald Sterling not get that memo? Did he not understand what an amnesty clause is? Basically, the Clippers GAVE AWAY the top pick in the draft for absolutely nothing. Baron could have been amnestied this week! Their desperation to move his bad contract makes even less sense now that they’ve thrown $70 million combined at Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan! (Jordan’s contract is so bad that, after my friend Hicks saw it, he immediately said “They better save their amnesty for that thing!”)

The Clippers today are far better than they have ever been. No question. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin teaming up, there’s no telling how far they will go. It really is about as much as a Clippers fan can ask for…

…except for this.

Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 first round pick.

That’s unquestionably the best young team in the game. And if they wanted to package Irving and Minnesota’s first round pick for Paul, it’s all the better. And, while we’re at it, they could have used DeAndre Jordan’s money on Tyson Chandler! That team could compete with anybody for a championship…right now. Instead, they’re left hoping this current group is good enough to get a top 4 seed in the West.

A message to everyone: Don’t worry. The world is not ending. The Clippers are not smart. As nice as their current situation is, it could have been FAR better.   The Clippers had the opportunity to lay the foundation for what could have been a Spurs-like run through the league. Instead, they laid a foundation that could theoretically crumble in two years time.

Winning a championship will certainly make everyone forget all this, and it will certainly keep them off the “What If?” shows. Of course, winning a championship is a very un-Clipper-like thing to do. As you can see, the Clippers are still very much the Clippers.

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