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Building a Roster - How we Got This Clippers Team

After the San Antonio game, Citizen Zhiv was riffing on DeJuan Blair and draft steals and the karmic circle that has brought us to this roster, and I think it's a topic worthy of it's own post.  And of course we have to make the obligatory preface that the team has yet to play a regular season game, and things could obviously veer horribly karmicly wrong at any moment now.  But even if that happens, I think it's safe to say that you don't have to be a member of Club Optimism to see that the Clippers are in a pretty good place, roster wise, entering the season.  Certainly a much better place than they have been over the last two seasons.  So how did we get here?

For the ten players who figure most prominently into this season's rotation and the future of the franchise,
  • five of them were added via the draft (Griffin, Gordon, Jordan, Thornton and Kaman);
  • four of them arrived via trade (Camby, Butler, Smith and Telfair);
  • and one was a marquee free agent signing (Baron Davis).

But it's worth digging into a couple of those categories a little deeper. 

Of the draft picks, four of them (Griffin, Gordon, Jordan and Thornton) were added in the last three drafts - this is significant, as it means they are all still on their rookie contracts.  Kaman arrived in the 2003 draft, and signed an extension in 2006.

Of the tradees, Camby and Butler are in a slightly different category.  In each case, the Clippers took a starter off the hands of an overbudget team in exchange for the NBA trade equivalent of nothing - a heavily protected future second round draft pick or some such.  These trades highlight the reality of the modern NBA - trades used to be about talent-for-talent - you evaluated them on who got the best player in the deal.  When players are only moving one direction, it's a little different.  In the cases of Camby and Butler, these are almost akin to free agent signings, and you can in fact trace them directly to an earlier roster event.  Elton Brand's defection to Philadelphia via free agency produced the room under the salary cap to allow the Clippers to make the mis-matched salary Camby trade.  As for Butler, the trade of Zach Randolph to Memphis was mismatched in salary the other way, generating a trade exception for the Clippers, which they turned into Butler (so far - they still have some of it left).

And of course Randolph is the player that spawned Telfair and Smith as well.  Randolph, became Quentin Richardson, Richardson became Smith and Telfair.  Tracing the legacy a bit further back, Randolph himself came to the Clippers in exchange for Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas, who were free agent signings in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

So that's the relatively short answer to how the roster was built.  But let's go a little deeper.

It's axiomatic that good NBA teams draft well.  In the interim between the Kaman draft in 2003 and the Thornton draft in 2007, the Clippers have nothing to show.  Three drafts, two lottery picks, four second rounders (some of them pretty high), and the team has NOTHING.  None of the players even left as part of a deal - they all just left.  That's a complete disaster, right?  Well, maybe not.  Andrew Bogut, the first player in Korolev's draft, is due to make $60M over the next five seasons.  I like Bogut, and I think he's a pretty good center.  But you think we're worried about Kaman's injury issues?  Bogut missed 46 games last season with back issues.   My point is, if you draft well, it's an unqualified success for the duration of the rookie contract.  Then, you have to re-sign the guy, and unless the guy is LeBron James or Chris Paul or someone in that category (that is, a very elite group, and probably only a couple of guys each draft on average), there's a distinct possibility that you might be overpaying them.  It's not an excuse (and only slight facetious) - but Korolev is a great pick compared to some as regards the bottom line.  He's gone, and he was gone quickly.  No roster spot, no cap space, gone.  Spending that money on someone else.  Same with Shaun Livingston.

In that sense, the Clippers are incredibly lucky that they've strung three good drafts together, after three strike outs.  You'd much rather have that than the same batting average, but getting your base hits every other draft.  Why?  Because it provides a window where all the rookies are together, and still on their rookie deals.  Think about it - of the five draft picks on the team, which one is paid by far the most?  Kaman makes $10M, because he was re-signed.  Whether you think Kaman is overpaid or underpaid is beside my current point - he is highly paid, because he's no longer on his rookie deal. 

And not having a 2004, 2005 or 2006 pick on the roster, as painful as that seems from a basketball standpoint, is just peachy from a salary cap standpoint.  The Clippers have had the financial flexibility in the last few seasons to sign Baron Davis and to trade for Marcus Camby.  Not to mention that they weren't too afraid of the cost to use their trade exception on Rasual Butler.  See, karma?  Korolev becomes Camby.  Not really, but you get the idea.

Of course, you could argue that there's something much less eastern than karma at work here.  Having three consecutive completely empty drafts, while also suffering injuries to all your key players, causes you to have a bad record, which increases the odds that you win the lottery, and if you play the game with decent odds enough times, eventually you're going to win.  So it's just the NBA's version of rewarding incompetence, and not the law of moral causation.

Sure, if you believe in the NBA lottery.