The Los Angeles Clippers have had a very successful 2012 offseason. Not every move has been a home run, but the sum total of those moves has been extremely positive. From the standpoint of building the roster, there have been some high-risk, high-reward maneuvers like the acquisition of Lamar Odom, some moves they may eventually regret like the signing of Jamal Crawford, and one hugely significant if not at all surprising move in the extension of Blake Griffin. But perhaps the most important move of all will not make any difference on the basketball court.
The Clippers have spent close to a decade now trying to get out of their own way. When they traded for Elton Brand in the summer of 2001, it was a shrewd move, but trading a draft pick for a player on a rookie deal is just another deal. It worked out well for the Clippers, but it was far from a turning point in the behavior of the franchise. They'd always been willing to trade cheap resources for other cheap resources.
Two summers later, when they matched offer sheets for restricted free agents Brand and Corey Maggette, it was something else altogether. Prior to 2003, in the history of the franchise, to my knowledge only two players, Loy Vaught and Eric Piatkowski, had ever re-signed with the Clippers. In the course of ten days in 2003 they doubled that number. They also hired Mike Dunleavy Sr. as head coach that summer, and regardless of your feelings about MDsr at this point, he was a grown up signing for the team, a former Coach of the Year who had taken multiple teams on deep playoff runs, including one trip to the Finals.
Summer 2003 was the Clippers' Pinocchio moment. No longer just a toy, they were now a real live NBA team, and by and large they've behaved that way ever since. Sure, there have been myriad missteps along the way, with much of the dysfunction bearing Donald Sterling's fingerprints, but if you look at the personnel moves since 2003 I'd dare you to call any of them cheap or even blatantly stupid. Baron Davis obviously didn't work out and Elton Brand left, but you can't really blame anyone within the organization for what happened with those players -- as it happens, had Brand stayed it would have been even worse. Sometimes things don't work out, but the Clippers as a franchise have made reasonable personnel moves for almost a decade now.
But perceptions die hard, and respect around the league has been a long time coming. Kobe Bryant probably never seriously considered moving across the hall in 2004, ultimately just using his flirtation with the rivals as a way to get the Lakers' attention. Gilbert Arenas took a smaller contract from Washington than he could have gotten from his hometown Clippers in 2003. And in 2010 it was considered progress that the Clippers got in the room with free agent LeBron James, even if it was never even a remote possibility that James would choose the LAC. His famous "Decision" broadcast was suspiciously devoid of any references to the Clippers, mentioning all the other suitors that had met with the King.
In the era of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, things genuinely seem to be changing. At least four transactions from this summer would seem out of step with the traditional view of the Clippers:
- Re-signing Chauncey Billups -- When Billups was first claimed by the Clippers off of amnesty waivers, he was none too happy about it. Not that he despised the Clippers or anything, but as a former Finals MVP and NBA champion, he wanted to be left alone to pick his own destiny. Given that chance in the summer of 2012, he actively chose the Clippers. This is significant for several reasons, not least because it's a respected veteran with inside knowledge of the franchise choosing to play here.
- Extending Blake Griffin -- As you all well know, Griffin's maximum extension was always a foregone conclusion in my mind. But the very fact that I had to argue the point with such vehemence, in the face of astounding ignorance from external sources and hard-earned fatalism from inside Clips Nation, means that the extension itself is significant. It was a no-brainer, it was always going to happen, it's what any money-loving owner of any real franchise would do -- and it's what happened. Ergo the Clippers are a real franchise.
- Signing Grant Hill -- Sure, he'll be the oldest player in the NBA next season (assuming no one exhumes the corpse of Kurt Thomas) but the dude started 46 games last season and was still one of the better on ball wing defenders in the league. Well guess what? The Clippers need a wing defender. His age makes it all the more significant that he chose the Clippers -- at 39 he knows this is the last contract he'll ever sign. The Lakers, Heat and Knicks were all rumored to be interested in him, but he picked the Clippers. Did the LAC offer a lot more money? Well, it couldn't have been too much more when the full bi-annual exception contract is worth less than $4M over two seasons, not to mention that Hill has made too much money over the years and is too damn smart to be making a strictly monetary decision at this point of his career. Does this mean that Hill thinks he can win a ring with the Clippers in the next two seasons? Not necessarily, but one presumes that he believes he can play a role on a team that can move deep into the playoffs at least.
- Waiving Ryan Gomes -- To me, this is by FAR the most significant off-season move the Clippers have made as regards the evolution of the franchise. I pointed out back in June that the Clippers would need to request amnesty waivers on Gomes if they wanted to use their exceptions this summer to improve the roster, and that's exactly what they did. It's difficult in the extreme for Sterling to pay someone NOT to work for him (just ask Bill Fitch and MDsr) but it was the real live franchise thing to do in this case. It's too early to be expecting the Clippers to be venturing into the luxury tax (though that situation is looming in the Griffin/Paul era no doubt) and it's only smart to be under it while you can when one of the penalties is based on repeatedly being over. But rather than pinching pennies, signing minimum players rather than Grant Hill or skimping on a new shooting guard, the Clippers did the mature thing and said goodbye to Gomes.
None of this guarantees anything, but it all helps. The team should be improved, and at the very least the depth chart makes a lot more sense. Whether Hill is the best choice or not, I for one am very pleased to see the team use the BAE on a wing rather than a big -- although it's tempting to think that another seven-footer was the biggest hole, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the era of needing multiple big guys who have no discernible skills beyond their size is drawing to a close, so finding a lummox for the league minimum is fine with me. Use skill money to find skill players.
There are of course two major milestones looming in the next twelve months which may determine whether the franchise's makeover is complete. The first is the hiring of a new general manager. Although this off-season may offer pretty convincing proof that the impact of the position is overstated since the Clippers seem to be doing just fine without one, it would be pretty easy to accuse the team of once again pinching pennies if they promote Gary Sacks to the position rather than hiring an experienced candidate from the outside.
But the situation will all come to a head when Paul hits free agency. It's not necessarily that Paul's decision to re-sign with the Clippers or go elsewhere will determine whether the franchise has truly progressed from laughing stock to elite -- the truth, regardless of Paul's choice, will remain somewhere between. But the perception will all too easily return if Paul leaves L.A. for supposedly greener pastures. I don't believe it will happen, and many of the moves the team has made this summer are positive steps in preventing it from happening. But we're going to have to wait another year before we see if the franchise's transformation is complete.