In our continuing series of SBNation Theme Days, today's posts are on the theme "What if?" Across SBNation, NBA bloggers are going to imagine an alternate universe in which an event that really could have gone either way went differently. All franchises have thousands of these "What if?" moments, and of course the Clippers are no exception. It's probably more tempting to think about them when the team is in a bad place, rather than when they are flying relatively high as the Clippers are now. Still, it's interesting to imagine the way history might have been altered with one minor change.
We won't be going back through the annals of history; it's not particularly interesting to imagine a parallel universe from the 80s involving a bunch of players who have long since retired. So no "What if the Buffalo Braves hadn't traded Bob McAdoo?" or "What if Bill Walton/Marques Johnson/Norm Nixon/Danny Manning/Insert Clipper Name Here had not gotten hurt?" We'll stick to relatively recent history.
I was tempted to imagine what might have happened had Elton Brand not reneged on his verbal agreement and had signed in L.A. along with Baron Davis in 2008. Of course, both of those signings turned out to be for far too much money, and both of those players were eventually waived under the NBA's amnesty clause, so ultimately Brand did the Clippers a favor by breaking his promise. Moreover, since the Clippers were able to acquire Zach Randolph as Brand's replacement, it's easy to imagine a series of events very similar to those that took place. Davis might have arrived in L.A. in a better mindset had Brand not left him holding the bag, but Randolph's contract was considered even more onerous than Brand's at the time, and the Clippers managed to rid themselves of that albatross when they drafted Blake Griffin, so you can imagine they could have done the same with Brand's deal. The real question is would a more motivated Davis have helped the Clippers win more games in 08-09, which might have reduced their odds of winning the lottery, and in turn could have cost them Griffin. As we said from the start, Brand's decision to leave for Philly was ultimately for the best.
Another obvious "What if?" from recent history would have been to ask how the Clippers would be different had David Stern NOT uttered the words "basketball reasons". What if Chris Paul had been traded to the Lakers in December 2011 instead of to the Lakers? I think we can all agree that the Clippers would be in a far less competitive place today.
Along a similar vein, I'm going to posit the following question: What if the Clippers hadn't traded away their 2011 first round draft pick? As you'll recall, in February 2011, Neil Olshey was determined to rid the team of that terrible Baron Davis contract. He dealt Davis to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon, but in order to get the Cavs to accept the deal, he also had to include a first round pick -- a pick that four month later turned into Kyrie Irving through the magic of the NBA Draft Lottery.
We're not here to rehash whether the pick should have been protected -- we've been through that before, and suffice it to say that because the Clippers had already dealt several conditional picks, it's very likely that any restrictions they could have put on the 2011 pick might have decreased its value enough to make the Cavs walk away. But it doesn't matter whether the deal could have been structured better -- we're here to imagine what would be different if the deal had not happened at all.
There's a decent argument that it should not have happened; not because of the first round pick per se, but because the perceived benefit -- getting out from under Davis' contract -- was rendered less important ten months later when the new CBA was ratified with an amnesty provision. Could Olshey have known that it would include an amnesty provision at the time of the trade? It's not out of the realm of possibility to say that he might have at least suspected it. The prior CBA included one and many observers had already suggested by Februrary that the new one -- whenever it happened -- might include one as well.
So let's imagine that Davis is still a Clipper at the end of the 2011 season and the Clippers still have their first round pick. At this point the events in our alternate reality begin to cascade. The Clippers and Cavs would have finished the regular season with different rosters, which could mean they would have had different records, which could in turn change the results of the draft lottery. Would the Clippers have won the lottery, as the Cavs did with their pick? We can't be certain, but for now let's assume that they did. In that case, in June 2011 the Clippers would certainly have drafted Irving, the clear consensus as the best player in a relatively weak 2011 Draft.
The immediate benefit of the trade for the Clippers was to create some cap space in the brief post-lockout off-season. In our parallel universe, the Clippers would either have no cap space (if they kept Davis) or much more cap space (if they had requested amnesty waivers on him). Given that Donald Sterling has never willingly paid anyone to go away, let's assume that they did NOT waive Davis. In that scenario, the December 2011 signing of Caron Butler would never have happened.
Likewise, given that only teams under the salary cap were allowed to make offers for players on amnesty waivers, not to mention the fact that they already had Irving and Davis on the roster, the signing of Chauncey Billups likewise would not have happened. None of these losses -- Mo Williams, Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups -- are particularly painful. None of them are with the team today, and while they all made contributions to back-to-back playoff teams, none were crucial elements of those teams.
And now we come to the moment of truth. In our existing reality, the Clippers traded for Chris Paul on December 14, 2011, vaulting the team directly into the playoffs and even into the discussion as a legitimate contender. But would the Clippers have traded for the best point guard in the league -- if they had just used the first overall pick in the draft on a point guard? The Davis trade had no direct bearing on the Paul trade -- all of the assets used in the Paul trade would still be available in our alternate universe -- the trade could still happen. But would New Orleans have insisted on receiving Irving? Would the Clippers have given him up? Would they have given up so many other assets to create a log jam at the point guard? In a very real sense, although the 2011 trade of Davis clearly cost the Clippers an incredibly valuable asset that they could easily have retained, it may be that things happened exactly the way that they had to happen for us to arrive at a place where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been Clipper teammates for the past two seasons and will be for five more seasons to come.
The alt-Clippers roster would certainly be fascinating: Irving at the point, Eric Gordon at shooting guard, Al-Farouq Aminu at small forward, Griffin at power forward and DeAndre Jordan at center -- with Eric Bledsoe coming off the bench. That's six players, including an entire starting lineup, under 23 of age in 2011, featuring four players who have played on Team USA or the US Select team over the past three years. Small forward is the obvious weak link, but the team would also have retained some amazing assets, including Bledsoe, an unprotected first round pick in 2012 from the Timberwolves, and the option of waiving Davis to create additional cap space.
From here, the fabric of our alternate reality begins to get more and more frayed. Would Eric Gordon have been injured as a Clipper they way he was in New Orleans? Could the Clippers have signed players like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes to come to a team led by Kyrie Irving as opposed to a team led by Chris Paul? Would the Clippers ever have used the amnesty clause on Davis, freeing up all that cap space to improve the roster, but forcing Sterling to pay Davis while he left to play for another team? Would they even have had that cap space, or would a new deal for Gordon have soaked it all up? It would be difficult not to be excited about the incredibly young, incredibly enticing core of Irving, Griffin, Gordon, Jordan and Bledsoe -- but how many years would it be before they were ready to really compete?
As we said from the start of this exercise, the Clippers are in a pretty good place as it is: Paul and Griffin are two great cornerstones in the prime of their careers, and they're signed for five years to come. The supporting cast around them seems strong, and the Clippers have added one of the best coaches in the NBA at this point. I could spin an even more favorable view of this alternate reality -- instead of winning the lottery, the Clippers remain in he seven or eight slot where they belong, draft Kawhi Leonard, and go ahead and make the Chris Paul trade giving them Leonard instead of Butler for the past two seasons and a big three going forward of Paul, Griffin and Leonard -- wow. But that's just getting greedy.
What if the Clippers hadn't traded away their 2011 first round pick? Well, it was an unnecessary sacrifice that cost the team a great asset -- but given where they are today, maybe it was all for the best.