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The Luck of the Draw

The Clippers play two of their next three games against the mighty San Antonio Spurs.  You might think the Clippers have no chance in San Antonio.  And then you notice that the Spurs actually have a better ROAD record than home record.  So it's not exactly a gimme win in either place.  These guys are good.

The two franchises are widely thought to represent the two ends of the competency spectrum in basketball operations over the years (recent Clipper success notwithstanding).  The Spurs front office is brilliant.  The Clippers front office is inept.  

Clearly much of the Clippers misery over the past several decades has been self-inflicted.  There can be no debate about that.  However, there are some things that just don't seem fair.  Donald Sterling has always maintained that he would have paid top dollar for top-dollar-talent, and there is some evidence that it just wasn't there in the pre-Brand era.  Now, you have to draft well to get top talent, so evaluating talent is important.  But pure, blind, dumb luck is a big part of it as well.  Bad luck in the case of the Clippers.  Incredibly good luck in the case of the Spurs.

The Spurs have been one of the dominant franchises in the NBA for 18 years now.  This run of excellence can be attributed to two events:  drafting David Robinson with the number 1 pick in 1987, and drafting Tim Duncan with the number 1 pick in 1997.  The Spurs have been in the draft lottery three times in the 22 years of its existence.  Three.  Times.  Total.  The Clippers have been there 18 times.  In their 3 lottery trips, the Spurs have gotten the number one pick TWICE, and the third pick the other time.  The Clippers likewise have gotten the number one pick twice.  2 out of 18 versus 2 out of 3.  Yup, that Clippers franchise sure is poorly run.  The Spurs front office is a bunch of geniuses!

But it's so much worse than that.  It's one thing to get the number one pick when Tim Duncan is a senior in college, and another to get it when Michael Olowokandi is a senior.  In the 22 years of the lottery, there have been 3 consensus number 1 picks who went on to win NBA championships, and two of them are Spurs (Shaq is the third).  Obviously, there have been other consensus number 1 picks (Patrick Ewing, even Danny Manning) and some number 1 picks may yet win rings (LeBron James comes to mind.)  But so far, the Spurs have gotten 2 of the 3 super lotto prizes, in three trips.

The Clippers two number 1 picks were Danny Manning and Michael Olowokandi.  Manning, as I mentioned, was a consensus number 1, and would have been a great pick.  Except that in his first season with the Clippers, he ruptured his ACL and was never the same player again.  

Olowokandi, on the other hand, is arguably the worst number 1 pick OF ALL TIME now that Kwame Brown is contributing.  But the Clippers were not the only team to end up looking bad in that draft.  Kandi and Bibby were the consensus 1-2, and any GM in the league would have taken the chance on Kandi, although they all would have been wrong.  And you know that I think Bibby, though a fine pro, is vastly overrated.  Raef LaFrentz was the third pick.  By FAR the best player in that draft was Dirk Nowitzki, who was a complete unknown at the time.  Dallas actually traded DOWN to get him.  Think the Clippers feel stupid for taking Kandi first?  How about the Bucks?  They traded the 9th pick (Nowitzki) AND Pat Garrity to Dallas for the 6th pick (Robert Traylor).  I guess they really wanted a 400 pound power forward.  Oh, and the second best player in the draft (Paul Pierce) was picked 10th.  So Milwaukee would have had a choice between Nowitzki and Pierce picking 9th, but wanted to move up to 6th REALLY badly to get Traylor.  What I'm saying is, Dirk was the franchise player in that draft, and Elgin Baylor wasn't the only guy who didn't know it.

Now, you may be asking yourself, why were the Spurs in the lottery two more times if they became a top team the minute they drafted Robinson in 1987?  A fine question.  They didn't actually get good until the 1989-1990 season, because David Robinson was serving in the Navy (more on that below).  Then, in 1996-1997, Robinson missed all but 6 games with an injury, and the Spurs went 20-62.  The absence of a perennial power opened up a playoff spot in the Western Conference - a spot taken by the 36-46 Clippers.  That's right; the Spurs took the Clippers spot in the Tim Duncan derby, while the Clippers took the Spurs spot in the playoffs and got swept by the Jazz.  The next season, the Clippers won 17 games and first place in the Michael Olowokandi derby.

Don't get me wrong; the San Antonio organization has done some great things to remain at the top of the league for so long.  If you think about it, they were a top team when Bird and Magic were playing in the finals, they were a top team when Jordan was winning 6, they watched the Shaq / Kobe era come and go in LA, and they are STILL a top team (probably the best).  They've only missed the playoffs once in the last 18 years, and that was when Robinson was hurt (which of course allowed them to draft Duncan and be a top team now).  No other team has remained at the top for so long.  Not even close.  Even the Lakers and Pistons had to suffer through some tough times before returning to the top.  

Parker, Ginobili and now Udrih and Oberto have all been absolute STEALS in the draft.  And they always seem to find the right other parts (like Bruce Bowen).  But let's face it - Tim Duncan is one of those players that makes the game easy.  Are they finding the exactly right parts, or would pretty much anything work starting with Duncan?  Look, I'm a huge fan of Ginobili - I think he's a stud.  But Marko Jaric was the Italian League MVP when he and Ginobili played in the same backcourt.  I'm not saying that Jaric is better than Ginobili - but at the time they were drafted, they were considered to be in the same ballpark.  Ginobili's great, but he also benefits greatly from playing with Tim Duncan.  

Before Parker and Ginobili, when the Spurs won their first championships, they basically did it with Robinson and Duncan and Sean Elliot (3rd pick in 1989).  Remember that Robinson served two years in the Navy before playing for the Spurs.  So they remained a poor team a couple more seasons, and got Sean Elliot with the third pick in '89.  The rest of the guys on those teams were absolute filler.  Malik Rose was a second round pick; Mario Elie had been in the CBA; Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr - anybody could have had these guys.  

Just to close the loop, the year the Spurs picked third and took Elliot, the Clippers had the second pick and took Danny Ferry.  Now that was a bad pick, no doubt about it.  Even worse when you consider that Ferry had made it clear he did not want to play for the Clippers, and made good on his threat by playing in Italy the next season.  Well, the Clippers actually salvaged that situation by trading Ferry's rights to Cleveland for Ron Harper, a great player.  In his first season with the Clippers, Harper ruptured his ACL and was never the same player again.  Danny Ferry kicked around the league for awhile, and eventually won a championship with ... the Spurs.