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Clippers Success Contingent on Improved Play of Paul, Griffin, NOT Minor Roster Changes


For those lamenting the Jamal Crawford signing over Ray Allen or Courtney Lee, or the Mo Williams trade for Lamar Odom, or the apparent loss of Nick Young and Reggie Evans, consider: minor roster tweaks are never the difference between a champion and an also-ran. NBA championships are won with a combination of superstars and continuity. Teams advance to the Finals either because they add a "Big-Fish" to their roster (e.g. Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, LeBron James) or because their young players begin to develop into superstars.

In other words, there is NO team that is merely a Courtney Lee away from an NBA title. Teams either have the requisite superstar talent already in place, or they don't. Similarly, minor free agent signings are never the barrier to a team advancing beyond the previous season. There are no known examples of teams that would have won an NBA title had only they signed Courtney Lee rather than Jamal Crawford.

I repeat, minor roster changes never put a team over the top. History proves this.

Let's explore:

The 2012 Miami Heat made two notable roster changes to their 2011 squad that lost in the previous Finals. Those changes were Shane Battier and Norris Cole. Will anyone dare suggest that Cole and Battier were responsible for getting Miami over the hump? Or is it more likely that the improved play of LeBron James, and the improvement in chemistry thanks to another season together are what ultimately put Miami over the top? It is clearly the latter. LeBron's playoff explosion likely would have happened whether the Heat had signed Battier, or Caron Butler, or Tayshaun Prince in the off-season. And that explosion is the reason they won the championship.

The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder, having lost in the previous year's Western Conference Finals to eventual champion Dallas, made one notable roster change at the trade deadline when the added Derek Fisher. Was it the addition of Fisher that enabled OKC to break through and reach the Finals, or was it more likely the improved play of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and the continuity of having the same core players to build with?

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks provide the closest thing to an exception to this rule, but closer examination reveals that the notable roster change they made from the previous season was actually a fairly major one. Adding Tyson Chandler changed the entire identity of the Mavericks. Through that one acquisition, Dallas went from being primarily an offense-first team to a tough, gritty defensive minded squad. They also had the requisite superstar play (Dirk had a legendary playoff run in 2011) and continuity on their roster (Terry, Kidd, Marion). Chandler is not your typical superstar in the sense that he doesn't put up flashy numbers. But he is certainly a presence, and can change the entire culture of a team with his defensive intensity. The man who will be the starting center for the 2012 US Olympic can hardly be considered merely a role player. Adding him to the Mavs was far more than a roster tweak. They wouldn't have reached the Finals without him.

The 2011 Heat are a no-brainer. They reached the Finals by making the most major of major roster changes when the added LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Trust me, it wasn't the Mike Miller signing.

The 2008 Lakers were not on a Finals trajectory until they acquired Pau Gasol, which we can all agree was a major roster move. Gasol fit into Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense like a glove, and helped lead the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals. It is quite possible that he was their most important player during that run. During that stretch, their only significant roster changes were the loss of Trevor Ariza and the addition of Ron Artest. They won titles with both small forwards. Their success was contingent on their core group of Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Coach Jackson.

The pre-2007 Boston Celtics weren't a even playoff team until they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, both major roster moves. Since that time they have reached the Finals twice and were one game away from a third Finals appearance this past season. They won in the Finals in their first season together, bucking the continuity trend. However, this is largely due to the fact that Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce were each 10-year veterans that had had their share of heartbreaks, and "paid their dues". Their recent success has been the product of their roster continuity and the development of Rajon Rondo into an All-Star. Despite a variety of reserves and role players, the Celtics have been remarkably consistent. Again, this is due to their core group, rather than whomever it is that they give their mid-level exception.

The Spurs teams of the last decade won three non-consecutive NBA Finals with a great degree of role player turnover. Their core group of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Gregg Popovich has kept the Spurs competitive from 2003 to the present. No matter who they bring in to surround their Big 3, they always manage to remain in contention. San Antonio should be Exhibit A for the continuity argument.

The 2006 Miami Heat won the title based largely on the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal the season prior. That would constitute a major roster move. They had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the previous year. Notable roster moves included Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Patyon. Their roster had great chemistry due largely in part to the number of veterans brought in by Pat Riley, which is why they were able to win despite a mid-season coaching change, an event that would adversely affect a younger team. They mostly benefited from an epic Finals explosion by a young, remorseless Dwayne Wade, and a fragile opponent in the Dallas Mavericks (and, some would argue, egregious refereeing, though I reject that theory).

After having been swept in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals, the 2004 Detroit Pistons made two major changes. They fired coach Rick Carlisle and hired Larry Brown, and they acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline. Both of these moves enabled the Pistons to reach the NBA Finals, where they were able to defeat a wholly dysfunctional Lakers team. Detroit lost in the Finals the next seaon, and then lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the next three seasons. The Pistons are Exhibit A(a) for the continuity argument.

Lastly, the Shaq/Kobe three-peat Lakers didn't reach the Finals until they hired Phil Jackson as coach. Once that major move occurred, the Lakers won three straight titles. Sometimes they had Glen Rice, sometimes they had Mitch Richmond. But as long as they had Shaq and Kobe (and Phil), the chances were good that they would be in contention for a title.

What is the point of all this? To illustrate that minor roster tweaks, like Jamal Crawford or Courtney Lee, do NOT take a team from pretender to contender. Reaching the next level is the product of roster continuity and superstar play by superstar players. If the Clippers are going to reach the NBA Finals, it will be because of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, not the guy getting the mid-level exception.

There is little room for Paul to improve. He is already one of the top 5 players in the NBA, and arguably the best pound-for-pound player in the league. It would be hard to expect him to play much better.

Griffin, on the other hand, still has lots of room for improvement. And he is already a superstar. As Blake improves, and as he and Paul develop even better chemistry, the Clippers will transition from 2nd Round playoff team to NBA Finals contender. It won't be because of Jamal Crawford, or Courtney Lee, or an aging Ray Allen.

Are role players important? Certainly! And the annual free agency signing period the best time for GM's to fill holes and find the best fits to surround their stars. But superstars are much more important. So let's not overly concern ourselves with who will be playing shooting guard off the bench. If the Clippers stars dominate, the Clippers will be a contender. If one of our stars is less than dominant, no amount of $5M per year players will make any discernible difference .