Here we thought the Los Angeles Clippers had had a quiet trade deadline. With two pretty glaring roster holes, one for a reserve big man and the other for help at the three, the rumor mill tied the Clippers to Iman Shumpert (a two, not a three, and useful but not necessarily a great fit) and Tyler Zeller. Those were some pretty underwhelming prospects, and in the end the Clippers didn't even get those guys.
What they did do was clear a couple of roster spots by paying a couple of teams under the salary cap to take some of their deadweight. With Antawn Jamison shipped to Atlanta and Byron Mullens safely in Philadelphia, the Clippers had three roster spots to fill. And now, just a week after the seemingly disappointing deadline, two of those spots have been allocated to Glen "Big Baby" Davis (signed on Monday) and Danny Granger (who will sign with the Clippers when he clears waivers at 2 PM today).
So essentially, the Clippers traded Bryon Mullens and Antawn Jamison for Big Baby Davis and Danny Granger -- and reduced their luxury tax bill a couple million dollars in the process. Wow.
In retrospect, there are at least a couple of interesting questions about how this all transpired. Is this a new trend, an unintended side effect of the more punitive luxury tax and other factors in the new CBA, that will see major talent hitting free agency in late February? And more importantly, is Doc Rivers a genius who saw this coming, or did he just get lucky?
On the first question, I'm somewhat torn. My gut feeling is that this is really just a confluence of several factors that caused a larger than usual number of intriguing veterans to be waived and bought out, and that the Clippers were at the right place at the right time when it happened. Buy outs are certainly related to tanking and it's not news that a higher than usual number of teams have no interest in being any good this season. The state of the teams in Philadelphia and Orlando and Milwaukee and Sacramento (teams that have waived interesting players) has more to do with rebuilding in general, with an assist to an overhyped 2014 draft class. After all, this isn't exactly new. The Spurs added Boris Diaw in this manner two years ago.
Did Doc have this planned from the start? Well, he can't have known that everything would fall into place the way it has, but at the same time he certainly knew it was a possibility. As far back as November 5th -- one week into the season -- I suggested that this could be a viable strategy:
If a truly useful player is going to become available, it's more likely to be near the trade deadline, when some number of teams that hadn't previously given up on their seasons decide it's time to start thinking about the future. Or when unused veterans on big contracts start negotiating buyouts for the express purpose of catching on with a playoff team in need of a rotation player.
The emphasis is added, but guess what? Big Baby Davis and Danny Granger were "unused veterans on big contracts" who negotiated buyouts. (What is it they say about blind pigs?)
If it was on my radar in early November, it was certainly on Doc's. And as the deadline drew nearer, he no doubt had more reason to believe that there would be some intriguing free agents available. We've mentioned the likes of Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman several times this season -- neither was bought out in the end, but others were. It would be a circumvention of the CBA and blatant tampering if Rivers had spoken to Big Baby about his situation in Orlando and how he might help in L.A, That would never have happened, and I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- that anyone would even imply it. But if Big Baby's agent happened to mention their thinking to a certain third party, and that third party happened to know a guy that also happens to know Doc, well, hey, what are you gonna do?
The fact that both of the most highly sought after free agents of this period are winding up in L.A. with the Clippers is a little paradigm altering for a franchise that is used to getting the future second round draft picks at the trade deadline, not the ring-chasing veterans on minimum deals. But it's a new era obviously. The Clippers roster-building strategy -- swing for the fences, you can always pick up an extra base runner on the buyout market -- looks like a model for teams going forward. The have All NBA performers at the one and the four, a defensive player of the year candidate at the five, and they hit a home run with their trade for a shooting guard (ignoring the injury worries). Mullens and Jamison were strike outs in filling out the roster, but who cares? Dump their salary and reload on the buyout market. Just make the room to add some veteran's minimum deals and make your sales pitch.
It helps to have a persuasive salesman like Rivers. And the Clippers also got lucky in that the most coveted free agents to hit the market happened to fit their needs, so they could legitimately offer them one of the things they most wanted -- playing time. Had Andre Miller not been traded to Washington and had wound up bought out of his Denver contract, he would not have considered the Clippers, not because of his earlier bad experience with the team, but because he would have been third on the depth chart. Rivers could look Davis in the eye and say "If you play well, you will be the third big in a three man rotation on a very good playoff team." He could sit down with Granger and sincerely say "If you play well, you will be the starting small forward on a very good playoff team."
Even if Granger doesn't fit as the starting three (and defensively it could be problematic, though it's not as if Jared Dudley or Matt Barnes have been stoppers), he can have a role with the Clippers. Remember that Granger has played some small ball stretch four with the Pacers this season, and that he played that role exclusively for Team USA in the World Championship in 2010. It's not immediately obvious whom Granger usurps in a ten man LAC rotation -- does he slot in ahead of Barnes or Dudley or both, does he replace Turkoglu as the small ball four -- but he'll have every chance to earn minutes somewhere from the fifth to the tenth man.
And that chance to play a significant role, along with a chance to win, is what guys like Granger and Davis (and Ben Gordon, maybe) are seeking. Were the Clippers brilliant or lucky to make what appear to be significant upgrades entering the final seven weeks of the season? The answer is a little of both.