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Goodbye Baron, Hello Mo - Analyzing Williams for Davis

My first reaction to this trade was very negative. Put it this way, I was lukewarm about it when I had only heard the names involved - so when I saw that the Clippers were losing this year's lottery pick in the process, I was pretty ticked off.

But the NBA is a complex landscape, and you have to temper your initial reactions and look at all of the implications. And the more I reflect on it, the less I dislike the deal. I'm still not crazy about it, but I get it. I see what they're doing, I see a plan in place, and the plan may even make sense.

From a basketball standpoint, the Clippers clearly got worse in the short term. I've never been a big fan of Mo Williams, and he's been flat out terrible this season. Amazingly, after suffering with the worst shooting point guard in the NBA for two seasons, the Clippers somehow managed to trade Baron for someone who is shooting significantly WORSE. How do you take Baron Davis, who's shooting just 41.6%, and trade him for someone who is actually shooting 3 percentage points WORSE? It's as if Olshey is trying to corner the market on guards shooting under 40%, with Williams (38.5%) joining Rasual Butler (32%) and Randy Foye (37%).

Of course Williams has been a better shooter than that in his career, and hopefully he will be again. In particular, the Clippers assume he'll find his three point stroke again. For the last two seasons getting kick outs from LeBron James, Williams made well over 40% of this three pointers. This season, he's at 26.5%. So here's hoping that kick outs from Blake Griffin work as well as kick outs from LeBron.

And for all of his shortcomings, Baron Davis has been a very good fit with this team this season, and a very key part of what little success they have had. His ability to deliver the ball to the right place at the right time can't be overstated for this team. We got a stark reminder of that last night when he sat out against the Hornets: on two different occasions Griffin was open for a lob - the first time Eric Bledsoe missed him high leading to a miss, and the second time he missed him low, leading to a David West steal. Baron connects on lobs when the target isn't open at all - when they're open, it's been essentially automatic this season.

Oh, and don't talk to me about 'getting younger.' Sure, Mo Williams is three years younger than Baron Davis. But at 28, Williams is likely already on the decline. So if a 31 year old Baron is better than a 28 your old Mo, there's no reason to believe that a 32 year old Baron wouldn't be better than a 28 year old Mo, etc. Trading 31 for 24 is getting younger: trading 31 for 28 is either about getting better or getting worse.

So from a short term basketball standpoint, I don't like this deal (though I do like Jamario Moon, as it happens). But this trade wasn't about short term basketball considerations, was it?

With a single transaction, the Clippers became players in each of the next two free agency markets. Because the current CBA is expiring and a new one is not yet in place, we can't get into any details about exactly what this trade enables or doesn't enable. But under the current rules, and we might assume that the future rules will be at least similar, it does little good to be 'a little' under the cap. If you're $5M under the cap, you're still competing with all the other teams and their mid level exceptions. So if you're under the cap, it's almost always important to get further under the cap. And that's what the Clippers have done here.

Will the team be able to lure a free agent to LA? We'll have to wait and see. I think that the LA Clippers, one year into the Blake Effect, are a significantly more attractive destination than they were before. I hope this isn't just about the next batch of mega-super stars in 2012 - Chris Paul and Deron Williams and Dwight Howard - that's a long time in the future, with a million moving parts including a brand new CBA which for all we know will include a "Franchise" tag between tying those players to their teams indefinitely. But cap space is cap space, and a decent free agent is probably more likely to help the team next season than that number 10 pick they gave up. (Especially, as Neil Olshey has pointed out, in a very shallow draft.)

That's assuming they use that cap space to actually sign a free agent. Olshey's comments following the trade also referenced the importance of resigning DeAndre Jordan and extending Eric Gordon. That's all true, but to imply that this trade facilitates those things any place other than in Donald Sterling's pocket book is misleading. Under the current rules, Baron's contract was in no way impeding the future signing of either of those players. It's outside free agents that become options post trade. Speaking of Gordon though, it should be pointed out that if the goal is to maximize 2012 cap space, under current rules you would not want to extend Gordon. If they wait, then he'll be on the books for 2012 for his Qualifying Offer of $5.1M; if they extend him, he'll be on the books for his new deal, which will of course be significantly higher. In theory, they can wait, offer the QO to Gordon, sign a free agent, and then resign Gordon. But it's a high wire act.

[Note by Steve Perrin, 02/24/11 10:47 PM PST ] Citizen John R points out that Gordon will in fact be on the books for 300% of his salary, even if they don't extend him. (I had misinterpreted Larry Coon's Salary Cap FAQ, the relevant section of which is here.) Which means that any thoughts of a significant amount of cap space in 2012 to use to go after Deron Williams or another major star are probably unrealistic. The re-signing of DeAndre Jordan combined with the cap hold for Gordon ($11.5M by the 300% rule) would take a significant bite out of their available space, not to mention that they will no doubt have other players on the books between now and then. The trade still reduces salary commitments for 2012, and thus increases cap space, but I'm hard pressed to see how it would provide enough space to make a run at those players given the environment likely under a new CBA.

One benefit of this trade that you may not have thought about previously: the Clippers now have absolutely no incentive to tank the rest of the season. Many an economist would decry the NBA draft as a moral hazard, rewarding teams for performing poorly. With no 2011 draft pick, there is no moral hazard, no disincentive to winning as many games as possible, no incentive for losing games. Of course, with Mo Williams playing point guard, there may be other issues in winning games, but at least we know that Vinny Del Negro will be trying his hardest to get as many wins as possible done the stretch.

In the end, the most disappointing thing about this trade to a Clippers fan is undoubtedly the lost opportunity, as Citizen Zhiv alluded to in his earlier post. I vividly remember July 1, 2008, when the news broke that Baron Davis would be signing with the Clippers. It felt like the beginning of a new and glorious era for the Clippers. A week later, Elton Brand was in Philadelphia, and we're still waiting for that glorious era to begin.

Of course, we're probably closer to that glorious era now than we were then, only it's now called the Blake Griffin era. We should bear in mind that any moves are relatively small ball, as long as Griffin and Gordon are still here, and the Clippers still have the assets and flexibility to add the right pieces around them. I don't think this deal brought in particularly good pieces, but it added financial flexibility, which is a good thing. In the final analysis, the end of the Baron Davis era is helping to facilitate the Blake Griffin era.