With one combination of four ping pong balls, the Clippers prospects, both in the short and the long term, changed dramatically. Imagine if they'd gotten the third pick or below. They'd be looking at choosing from a group of flawed NBA prospects, none of whom play the position where they need the most help. Even if they'd gotten the second pick, that pick would have raised as many questions as answers, even if you believe that Ricky Rubio is the real deal.
In either of those scenarios, LA would be looking at a 2009-2010 season with few good options. Do you try to trade Baron Davis, while his trade value is at rock bottom? Likewise neither Zach Randolph nor Chris Kaman would command anything close to fair value on the trade market from a basketball standpoint. The team would be compelled to make a move, any move, and the odds of improving the team significantly would be stacked against them.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, "The first pick demands a trade even more than the other picks, since the biggest log jam is at the bigs." Yes and no. Drafting Rubio leaves the team with two choices: trade Baron, or have the lottery pick play backup, leaving little reason to expect significant improvement next season. Rubio would certainly help in the long run if he's for real, but there's little immediate help. And if Rubio offers little short term improvement, the rest of the draft board promises even less.
But even though there's a glut of players on the roster mostly making big salaries at the four and five, the very fact that there are so many means there are more options. The team is not faced with 'Trade Baron or else.' It's 'Trade Zach, or trade Kaman, or trade Camby.... or not.'
Because Baron's deal runs four more seasons, he represents a $57M investment through 2013 to a potential trade partner. On the other hand, Zach Randolph, supposedly with one of the worst contracts in the entire NBA, is a 'mere' $33M over two seasons. It's a huge difference.
In fact, the potential for trades from among the Clippers many fours and fives is actually quite good. Marcus Camby is very tradeable; both because his productivity is well worth his relatively low salary, and because his deal is expiring, just in time for the free agency bonanza next summer. Chris Kaman is, as I've pointed out in the past, still a resource in very short supply in the NBA, and the right trade partner may be very interested. Meanwhile, the crazy logic of the NBA salary cap means that Randolph may not be quite the pariah you think. It's been pointed out that he's already been traded for essentially nothing twice - once by the Blazers, and once by the Knicks. But bear in mind - his mammoth contract continues to melt away. The Knicks acquired four years and $60M; the Clippers acquired three years and $47M. Now he's down to 3 and $33M. And don't forget that he remains an incredibly effective scorer and rebounder. A team with a need for a low post presence could acquire him and see how things go for a year. If he helps the team, great. If not, they've spent one year on him, and now he's the next best thing to a great player in the NBA - a massive expiring contract.
Likewise, if the Clippers choose to do nothing, Camby and Randolph simply aren't around that much longer. There's certainly no reason to feel pressured into making a deal that you don't really, really like. There are four massive trading opportunities between now and February 2011 - trade Camby now, trade Camby at the 2010 trade deadline, trade Randolph next summer and trade Randolph at the 2011 trade deadline. Who knows what kinds of opportunities will present themselves if the Clippers are patient. Certainly no one knew that Pau Gasol was going to be on the block when the 07-08 season began, but that changed very quickly.
The point is, once the stars, or rather ping pong balls, aligned, suddenly the Clippers went from having no good options to having no bad options.
It doesn't guarantee success in the short or even long term by any means. The situation in LA is really only so straightforward as I'm presenting it if Baron Davis is the undisputed general at the point guard. It simplifies life immensely to look at him that way, and it may even help him succeed if he's firmly entrenched in the role, not being dogged by trade rumors and uncertainty. But the fact remains that it may not work - he may be just as bad as he was last season. But I'm choosing not to think of it that way, and to hope that he has a bounce back season. And why not? The worst that happens is that you find out he really has fallen that far, in which case you deal with it then.
So for now, the Clippers can trade one of their bigs, or they can sit tight. A potential franchise player is being added to the mix, whether they can work out a trade or not. They can now approach trades from a position of power, looking for other teams who are desperate to make a move rather than being that team themselves.
All because of those four ping pong balls.