Immediately after the Clippers won the NBA draft lottery, stories began appearing wondering "How will the Clippers screw this up." Our home town paper even called Blake Griffin the loser of the lottery. Some of the trade rumors being circulated would indeed fall into the "screw up" category if they were to happen, which of course they won't. The first pick and Baron Davis for the third pick and Jeff Green? Yeah, that would be a problem. The perception is not limited to this year's draft either - before last year's trade deadline, there were numerous rumors floating about, with the Clippers sending out the likes of Marcus Camby and/or Chris Kaman for the equivalent of a six-pack of tube socks.
The Clippers are dysfunctional in many ways. Owner Donald T. Sterling is rightfully considered the worst owner in the NBA, probably the worst owner in professional sports. His track record as an owner is incredibly bad, and his track record as a human being (which includes mistresses, sexual harassment claims and multiple active racial discrimination lawsuits) is arguably worse. But are the Clippers patsies in NBA trade negotiations? Let's look at a decades worth of trades.
For this exercise, I went back to the 1999 off-season and looked at every single trade transaction involving a starter for any team involved in the trade. Obviously, trades are only one way of building a team, with the draft and free agency being other significant tools in the NBA GM's toolbox. I'll touch on those aspects later, but the main purpose of this post is to objectively examine a decade of Clipper trades.
August 4, 1999 - The Clippers sign and trade Lamond Murray to Cleveland for Derek Anderson and Johnny Newman. Anderson was the team's second leading scorer that season at 16.9 points per game. Murray averaged 15.9 for the Cavs. I would say that Anderson was the better player, but the Clippers allowed him to sign with the Spurs as a free agent the next summer, so it ended up being a wash. Winner: tie.
August 8, 1999 - The Clippers trade Lorenzen Wright to Atlanta for two future first round picks. Those picks become Quentin Richardson (taken 18th in 2000) and Chris Wilcox (taken 8th in 2002). Wright never lived up to his lottery pick promise and although both Richardson and Wilcox are long gone, they were productive players for the Clippers. Winner: Clippers.
June 28, 2000 - The Clippers send a protected future first round pick to the Magic for Corey Maggette, Derek Strong, the draft rights to Keyon Dooling (first round, 10th overall), the draft rights to Dan Langhi (second round, 31st overall) and cash. The Magic were desperately trying to clear cap space to make free agency offers to Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, but even so, they took a bath on this one. Sometimes it helps to be lucky as well. The protection on the pick the Clippers sent to Orlando was top 21 in 2003, top 15 in 2004 and top 14 in 2005. The year the pick was finally unprotected in 2006, happened to be the best season in Clipper history - so they lost the 22nd pick in the draft, six years after acquiring Maggette. That pick was Marcus Williams (the one from UConn), who is playing in Puerto Rico last I heard. Winner: Clippers in a landslide.
June 27, 2001 - On draft day, the Clippers send the second pick Tyson Chandler and Brian Skinner to the Bulls for Elton Brand. Chandler became a decent player (for New Orleans) and Brand became an all pro. Winner: Clippers by a mile.
July 29, 2002 - In what appeared to be a great idea at the time, the Clippers trade Darius Miles and Harold Jamison to Cleveland for Andre Miller and Bryant Stith (Jamison and Stith are throw-ins). The Clippers needed a point guard, and Miller seemed the ideal candidate. Unfortunately, the trade didn't work out for either team, and Miller was in Denver a year later. Miller has been the better player, but there were no winners in this trade in retrospect. Winner: no one.
June 21, 2004 - Three days before the 2004 draft, the Clippers send the second overall pick to the Bobcats for the fourth overall pick and the 33rd overall pick in the second round. The Bobcats also agree to draft Peja Drobnjak in the expansion draft, part of the Clippers process of clearing salary to pursue free agent Kobe Bryant. The trade boils down to Emeka Okafor for Shaun Livingston, as Lionel Chalmers is out of the league by the next season (btw, Trevor Ariza was drafted 10 sports later at 43). It was a highly questionable trade at the time - the 2004 draft was widely held to be a two-player draft (Okafor and Dwight Howard) and the Clippers should have gotten more for the second pick. In hindsight it was of course disastrous given Livingston's injuries. Winner: Bobcats.
July 29, 2004 - In a theme that would repeat itself four years later, the Clippers find themselves far under the salary cap after being rejected by a superstar free agent (in 2004, it was Kobe Bryant). They use their cap space to trade a future second round pick (the 42nd pick in 2005, Chris Taft) to the Nets for Kerry Kittles $10M contract. The Clippers also got some cash in the deal. Kittles knees and back allow him to play only 11 games for the Clippers. Winner: New Jersey.
August 12, 2005 - In a trade that is already painful for T-Wolves fans, and will get more painful yet, the Clippers acquire Sam Cassell and a lottery protected first round pick for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers in a sign and trade. To make matters significantly worse, the deal Jaric signed at the time still has two more seasons and is considered one of the worst contracts in the NBA. Cassell was instrumental in leading the Clippers further into the playoffs than they've ever been, and they are still owed a first rounder, which remains top 10 protected for two more seasons, but is unprotected in 2012. Winner: Clippers in a landslide BEFORE the draft pick kicks in.
February 14, 2006 - At the trade deadline, the Clippers send Chris Wilcox to Seattle straight up for Vladimir Radmanovic. Both players were in the final year of their contracts - the Sonics re-signed Wilcox, the Clippers lost Radmanovic. But the Clippers won this trade, if only because Vlad was a player they needed and was useful in their playoff run. Winner: Clippers.
July 15, 2008 - As was the case in 2004, the Clippers find themselves with money to spend after Elton Brand bolts for Philadelphia. Denver wants to get under the luxury tax, and send Marcus Camby to the Clippers for the right to swap second round picks in 2010 (the Nuggets won 54 games in 2009, the Clippers won 19 - so it's likely that this 'trade' will end up being literally for nothing). Camby averages 11.1 rebounds (fourth in the league) and 2.1 blocked shots (3rd). Winner: Clippers (though Denver of course got what they wanted also).
November 21, 2008 - The jury is decidedly out on this trade of Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas to New York for Zach Randolph and Mardy Collins. Randolph leads the Clippers in scoring and averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds on the season - Collins is a surprisingly versatile player able to contribute at three positions. Meanwhile, Mobley retires with a heart condition, and Tim Thomas gets moved yet again. There's no question who won this trade from a purely basketball standpoint - the Clippers gave up very little, and got a lot of productivity in return. But the Knicks got what they wanted, which is 2010 cap space, and the Clippers of course had to give that up. Add in the non-basketball factors, and you could consider this a terrible trade for the Clippers. Ask me again at the beginning of the 2010 season, because until then the Clippers simply haven't given up anything. Winner: TBD.
There you have it. Eleven trades in the past ten years. And on my score card, I've got the Clippers winning six of them, three of those by a wide margin, and only losing two of them (so far). And yet every rumor out there has the Clippers sending out loads of talent for nothing in return.
What is particularly intereting about the reality of the situation is that the Clippers' reputation as cheapskates is not at all what you see in their recent trade history. Fully three recent major trades saw LA taking on significant additional salary - it was their trade partner, not the Clippers, who were in cost-cutting mode. As it happens, the Kittles trade was a bad idea, and the Randolph trade will likely end up being a bad idea as well, but these aren't bad trades because the Clippers are being cheap - quite the opposite.
I realize that everything in the NBA is interconnected. Looking at trades in a vacuum ignores to some extent the backstory. For instance, it's easy enough to say that the Clippers did well when they traded Lorenzon Wright because Wright wasn't that good - but the Clippers drafted the guy seventh in 1996 (six picks ahead of a guy named Kobe, FWIW), so it's a net loss from screwing up the draft pick.
Worse still than the Clippers draft history is their history of retaining free agents. This too is interconnected. Murray, Wright, Mo Taylor, Michael Olowokandi - all lottery picks who walked at the end of their rookie contracts in LA. And all unworthy of the contracts they signed (or didn't sign, in the case of Kandi). So while the Clippers can scarcely be criticized for not retaining that list of stiffs, if they'd drafted players worth retaining in the first place it would be better for all concerned. And this problem also colors the various trades above. Derek Anderson, Andre Miller, Vlad Radmanovic - all available partly because they were due to be free agents. The Clippers ended up renting them for a year or less in each case because they didn't re-sign them. But on paper, all of those were good trades.
Still, the perception that the Clippers are the team to call if you're looking for a trade partner to fleece is just not justified by the facts. Not that any GM is setting planning to be taken to the cleaners - but if you were to make that sort of comment about Memphis or Minnesota, at least there'd be some precedent on your side.