In discussing the Los Angeles Clippers' performance as an organization on the free agency market in the summer of 2012, I feel compelled to return, however briefly, to February of 2011. That's when the organization traded away the unwieldy contract of Baron Davis for the shorter, cheaper deal of Mo Williams. The price they paid to rid themselves of Baron's $27M was an unprotected first round draft pick that they knew would be in the lottery.
When the organization made that deal it was making a decision about the method they wanted to use to build for the future. The decision was that with Blake Griffin in place in a desirable market like Los Angeles, the Clippers could now become a serious contender through trades (they had accumulated many assets) and free agency, rather than trying to build through the crap shoot of the NBA draft that had previously been their strategy.
A little less than two years later, that decision has been vindicated in spades. For although Cleveland defied the odds and won the right to choose Kyrie Irving in the 2011 draft with the Clippers pick, the Clippers have something much more tangible -- the best record in the NBA.
The trade that brought Chris Paul to the Clippers is of course the most important single event in transforming the team from doormat to league power -- it should probably be number two and three on the list as well, like location, location and location. But by creating some financial wiggle room in the Davis trade, the Clippers gave themselves the flexibility to put some of the right pieces around Paul as well. It started with Caron Butler, who signed even before the Chris Paul trade. But in the summer of 2012, something else happened -- for the first time, players really wanted to sign with the Clippers.
The 2012 off-season began inauspiciously, with Neil Olshey, widely credited as being the architect of the Clippers renaissance (or was it simply a naissance?) accepting a job offer to become the general manager in Portland. Worse still, with many key roster spots to fill, the organization dragged their feet on Olshey's replacement, giving his front office responsibilities to a three-headed monster of head coach Vinny Del Negro, team president Andy Roeser and Assistant GM Gary Sacks. It seemed like a plan fraught with peril.
The trade that effectively swapped Mo Williams for Lamar Odom solved an issue in the front court, but the remaining issues -- a viable two guard and more or less their entire bench -- would have to be addressed via free agency.
If the shooting guard problem was obvious, the solution was less so. Ray Allen and Jamal Crawford were the big name veterans; Courtney Lee the young, restricted free agent possibility. The Clippers did not hesitate though -- Crawford was their target from the beginning, they arrived at a price, and the former Sixth Man Award winner was a Clipper so quickly that Allen's planned meeting with the team was cancelled. And because Crawford has been most successful coming off the bench throughout his career, the Clippers also re-signed veteran Chauncey Billups to be the starter.
With Crawford taking up the team's mid-level exception, the rest of the bench would have to be filled out with the bi-annual exception and minimum contracts. To everyone's surprise, the team was able to sign Grant Hill from the Suns to a two-year deal with their BAE. Sure, he was 39, but he was the most productive 39 year old the league had seen in a long time, and seemed like a steal for the BAE. More surprising still was that a player of Hill's stature would want to sign with the Clippers. But both Crawford and Hill were anxious to join the team, an indication of the transformative power of Chris Paul. Veteran bigs Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins were also brought on for minimum deals to add front court depth.
After that flurry of activity in July, the Clippers appeared to be done with free agency. With 14 players under contract, it seemed they likely had the team they would take into the regular season. But as the summer wore on, and the players began congregating at the team's training facility in Playa Vista for pick up games, former Laker Matt Barnes became a fixture at the scrimmages. When Barnes began to mesh with the rest of the Clippers (particularly the coalescing second unit that featured a couple of other former Lakers), Chris Paul went to team management to suggest they sign him, and Barnes too was added at the vet's min.
How have all of these signings worked out, you ask? Amazingly well, especially when you consider that two of them have been injured for all or most of the season so far.
The Clippers this season have been distinguished, as much as anything, by their remarkable depth. Four of the six players who have been a part of that second unit were free agent signings during the off-season.
Crawford, coming off perhaps the worst season of his career in Portland, immediately established himself as a leading candidate to win the Sixth Man Award again. He is among the leading bench scorers in the league, and almost single-handedly makes the second unit viable. That unit thrives on defense and transition points, but when they have to play half-court basketball, the points run almost exclusively through Crawford, one of the very best players in the league at getting his own shot. When the Clippers signed him this summer, there was a reasonable doubt as to whether they would be getting the Portland Crawford who shot under 40% from the field, or the Atlanta Sixth Man of the Year. There's little question now which one they got, and the four year deal they signed with him (with years three and four only partially guaranteed) looks like a bargain in retrospect.
Turiaf and Hollins have been great for the money. They've provided much more productivity than you might expect from guys signed for the minimum to fill out the roster. Hollins began the season as the second string center, though those minutes now go to Turiaf. Regardless, they've both been welcome additions to the team and have fit in perfectly with those very productive reserves.
But Barnes has been the real surprise of the off-season signings. While the three-headed GM can take credit for carefully assembling the rest of roster, Barnes was purely a case of serendipity -- he was in the right place at the right time. Signed as an afterthought, he's become a crucial part of the success, fourth on the team in minutes per game and in scoring. He has made himself indispensable as injuries to Hill and Billups have kept those two veteran wings out of all all but three games total. That has left Barnes as the primary wing defender and the "glue guy" of the roster. His signing this summer has been a complete god-send -- the only problem being that he only signed a one year deal.
It's tempting to decree the Clippers 2012 free agent signings an unmitigated success -- and yet two crucial elements are still missing. The fact that Hill has missed the entire season while Billups has played in only three games would seem like a major problem -- except that it could be a blessing in disguise. The team's depth has allowed them to thrive even in the absence of those two veterans, who, if they are still capable of contributing, will be much more valuable to the Clippers in April, May and June than in November and December. Keeping the miles low on Billups and Hill is not a bad thing, provided they will eventually become productive members of the roster. As it happens, Hill has been practicing at full speed and will likely make his Clippers debut this week, while Billups will probably rejoin the the team some time in January. (Bear in mind also that these two could be considered good signings even if they never played a game, simply for their experience, leadership and presence on the team and in the locker room.)
So the Clippers free agent signings this off-season have worked out superbly so far -- and the situation could get even better in the very near future.