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Are the Clippers Going to Trade the Pick?

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There continue to be rumors that the Clippers are going to trade the first draft pick.  The latest rumor appeared on DraftExpress and then was picked up by SI and probably others (hat tip to citizen DocD):

NBA sources continue to indicate that the Los Angeles Clippers are entertaining offers for the #1 pick. Despite their initial comments made on draft night about having already decided to pick Blake Griffin, they are keeping all their options open for now. "From what I understand, they didn’t want to sound uncertain on draft night, since that’s a typical Clippers reaction. This is a very important time for them in terms of season ticket renewals, which is why they had that kneejerk reaction."

Huh.  There are several issues I have with this reasoning.  For one thing, it's inaccurate.  The Clippers were in fact quite non-committal on draft night, with Andy Roeser playing coy about the pick for the media gathered on the post-draft conference call.  Mike Dunleavy Sr. did tell Lisa Dillman of the LA Times that it was 'Definitely Griffin' that night.  But on the whole, the logic that the decisiveness was an act, a 'kneejerk reaction' to counter perceptions of how they traditionally behave, is some pretty tortured logic, which doesn't even have it's facts straight.  It was the next day, at Neil Olshey's press conference, when they put on the 'decisive act' (if you want to believe it's an act).

So, are they 'keeping all their options open'?  Well, I have a question.  What exactly would closing off options look like at this point?  And why would they do it?  They can't actually draft Griffin until, you know, the draft.  And until they've drafted him, I suppose their options are open, aren't they?

But contrary to popular belief, the Clippers are not stupid.  The whole 'this is a very important time for them in terms of season ticket renewals' thing implies that some other time is NOT an important time for season ticket renewals.  If you think about the gist of the statement on the whole, it's just silly.  "Gee, our intent is to run the franchise straight into the ground, but we don't want to do it while it would negatively impact ticket sales."  I.E. that's exactly what we're going to do as soon as every single ticket is sold.  Lucky for us, there's no chance of that.   So go figure - the desire to sell tickets is making an NBA team behave in it's best interests.  What a shock.

Rest assured, the Clippers would have to be completely blown away by any trade offer for this pick.  It's worth noting that in at least 40 years, I can only think of one first overall pick who was traded before he played for the team that owned the pick:  the Magic traded Chris Webber to the Warriors in 1993.  That's it.  It doesn't happen, partly because the mythology associated with the first overall pick means that teams know that their fan base would openly revolt.  ([Note by Steve Perrin, 05/27/09 9:17 AM PDT ] Chip, one of the editors at the Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue, reminded me of the Celtics-Warriors trade involving first pick Joe Barry Carroll.  Still, we're going back to 1980 for that one, so I think the general conclusion that it's a rarity remains valid.)

That Webber trade involved the number three pick in the same draft (Penny Hardaway), and THREE future, unprotected first round picks.  The equivalent trade in this draft (given that Penny Hardaway is to Ricky Rubio as Chris Webber is to Blake Griffin) would be Memphis sending unprotected first round picks in 2012, 2014 and 2016 to the Clippers for the right to trade places.  Think the Grizzlies are going to do that?  Of course not.  But you'd take it if they did, wouldn't you?  So, sure, the options are open.

What's interesting about the way that SI chose to present this particular rumor is that the bulk of the DraftExpress post is actually talking about the issues that Memphis will apparently face if they decide to draft Ricky Rubio.  Whether it is just posturing or not, Rubio's agent has apparently let it be known that his client does NOT want to play in Tennessee.  Now, agent Dan Fegan has tried this ploy before, trying to keep Yi Jianlin out of backwater Milwaukee in 2005 2007 - and it didn't work then.  But Rubio would seem to have a LOT more leverage than Yi.  The buyout on his Spanish contract is reportedly $6M, so that's a lot of coin for the privilege of going somewhere you don't want to go.  Moreover, staying in Europe - for his entire career if necessary - is a perfectly viable option for Rubio.  National team backcourtmate J.C. Navarro played one season for the Grizz before deciding he preferred Barcelona to Memphis.  And supposedly both Pau Gasol and Navarro have given Rubio less than glowing reports.  Add in the fact that the Grizzlies have been calling O.J. Mayo their 'point guard of the future' and that Mayo tends to need the ball in his hands even at the two, and you begin to see why Rubio and Fegan are less than enthused about the prospect of going to Memphis. 

From an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, here's the line that pricked my interest:  "Dan Fegan, Rubio's agent, wants Rubio in Los Angeles, where the Clippers hold the first overall pick."  Well, looky there. 

Now, I'm not entirely sure why Fegan necessarily wants Rubio in LA.  It's a big market, obviously.  But the DraftExpress article goes on to say that doesn't really matter: "The size of the market of the team that drafts him is apparently irrelevant, since his appeal will be on a global scale."  If indeed Fegan is targeting LA, it makes you believe that the Clippers have at least spoken to him about a plan to move Baron Davis, since it's clear that Fegan wouldn't be working to get Rubio to LA to come off the bench.  But does an LA solution necessarily involve trading the number one pick in this draft?  (We've already been through the 'Chris Webber scenario', in which Memphis would send a bunch of future first rounders for the right to swap picks.)  But if Memphis is really convinced that they could waste the pick on Rubio, that he is willing to stay in Spain, then they may have no choice but to trade the pick.  So what would they want?  Trading with Sacramento (apparently an acceptable destination for Rubio to Fegan) seems logical, although it remains to be seen what the Kings would have to use to sweeten the pot.  Interestingly, the Grizzlies glaring weakness at power forward happens to be a position where the Clippers find themselves with an extra 20/10 guy.  But as logical as it appears on the surface, Zach Randolph's contract and reputation mean that the Clippers would be the ones forced to throw in multiple future first rounders in order to get such a deal done. 

One last historical observation:  while Chris Webber is the only first overall pick I can think of to have been traded, there are several recent examples of second picks beign traded, three from Clippers history alone.  In 1995 the Clippers traded the second overall pick (Antonio McDyess) and former first rounder Randy Woods for the 15th pick (Brent Barry) and Rodney Rogers.  In 2001, they traded the second pick (Tyson Chandler) and Brian Skinner for Elton Brand.  In 2005 2004 it was the second pick (Emeka Okafor) for the fourth pick (Shaun Livingston) and a second rounder (Lionel Chalmers) (the Bobcats also agreed to take Peja Drobnjak in the expansion draft, at the time an important step in clearing cap space to make a run at Kobe Bryant).  So the Clippers themselves have lots of history with trading the second overall pick, and are essentially one for three in those transactions. 

So, what are the odds the Clippers are going to trade the number 1 pick?  Very slim.  What are the odds the Clippers will somehow end up with the number 2 pick as well?  Slimmer still.