Maybe I should stop doing polls in advance of these themed posts. Last week when SB Nation's NBA league theme was Cult Classic players, I polled the citizens, who picked Steve Novak, but I wrote about Bo Outlaw because he was my favorite Cult Classic Clipper, and that's who I wanted to write about. To be fair, the vote was very close last week, and Bo was actually leading when I started writing the post. This week, the theme is Best. Trade. Ever. and the results are not close. The Chris Paul trade from last December has received about two-thirds of the votes cast making it the overwhelming choice of the citizens of Clips Nation as the best trade in franchise history. And once again I'm going to ignore that and write about what I want to write about. (And you guys thought Clips Nation was a democracy!)
Please note that your votes were not completely in vain -- since the choice was so conclusive, I've asked Raffo to make the case for the Paul trade later today.
But I'm going to focus on that August 2005 trade that brought Sam Cassell to the Clippers in exchange for a signed-and-traded Marko Jaric. That transaction has ended up being incredibly favorable for the Clippers, and while I think it's certainly reasonable to say that the Paul trade is more significant, there are a few reasons that I would argue that the Cassell trade is 'better' (a subjective word), at least at this point.
One obvious difference between the two trades is that we know with great certainty the results of the trade, and those results were astoundingly one-sided. In the case of the Paul trade, after just a single season, a season during which Eric Gordon, whom the Clippers gave up for Paul, was hurt, it's too early to say how one-sided the deal was. I was always of the opinion that you make that trade because you don't get too many chances to acquire a player at Paul's level, but the Clippers gave up significant assets to get CP3, and there are still a lot of ifs on the deal. If Gordon turns into an All Star, if Austin Rivers turns into an All Star, if Paul leaves the Clippers after this season -- all of these things could change the long term value proposition of the trade. So my basic feeling is that it's too early to place a final value on it.
Even if Gordon and Rivers (and heck, we'll throw Al-Farouq Aminu into the discussion as well) don't turn into All Stars, but just end up being nice players, the Clippers still give up value to acquire Paul. But from a return on investment standpoint, you'd be hard-pressed to beat the Jaric-for-Cassell deal -- they say you can't get something for nothing, but that's exactly what the Clippers did back in 2005.
When Marko Jaric first arrived in the NBA, he came with very high expectations. He had played for Virtus Bologna in Italy in the same backcourt with Manu Ginobili, and was considered by many to be as good as his Argentine teammate. Clearly that was incorrect, but Jaric did pass the eye test -- he had great size for a point guard, terrific length that allowed him to be disruptive on defense, good vision, and a solid handle that allowed him to get into the lane. Unfortunately, he couldn't shoot. He could get to the rim consistently where he would blow the layup with equal consistency, and his jump shot never proved reliable in the NBA.
Some players never get a chance to show what they can do, but that was not he case with Jaric in L.A. After the failed Andre Miller experiment, Jaric was handed the starting point guard job in his second season with the Clippers. Although injuries limited his productivity all three seasons he spent here, he still played in 174 games, starting over 100 of them. During that time, he shot right around 40%. By the end of his three year contract with the Clippers, it was clear that there was really no reason to re-sign him.
But apparently the Minnesota Timberwolves weren't really paying attention, and they still thought they saw value in Jaric. Sam Cassell was entering the final year of his contract with the Wolves, having suffered through a down season filled with injuries at the age of 35. Minnesota clearly thought Cassell was done, and agreed to a sign-and-trade for Jaric, awarding Marko a 6 year, $40M contract in the process (a contract that only expired a little over a year ago, FYI). But here's the amazing part -- although the Clippers had no interest whatsoever in re-signing Jaric themselves, they still managed to get Minnesota to agree to include a protected first round pick in the deal.
Jaric immediately became an albatross in Minnesota, a salary cap choking contract that proved almost impossible to move (though they did eventually trade him for, among other things, the almost equally terrible contract of Brian Cardinal, not to mention the pick that became Kevin Love). Meanwhile, Lionel Chalmers, the other Clipper included in the deal, never played another game in the NBA. In other words, the Wolves got a cap problem and nothing else in the deal.
The Clippers on the other hand got a point guard that led them to the best season in the team's history. With Cassell showing the way, the Clippers won
49 47 games in 2005-2006 and beat the Denver Nuggets 4-1 in the playoffs before taking the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the conference semifinals. To this day, it remains the only postseason in which the Clippers had a winning record (7-5).
If the trade had simply been Jaric for Cassell, it would have been a huge steal for the Clippers. But this was the trade that kept on giving. At the time of the trade, the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves were coming off nine consecutive seasons of 40 or more wins. As such, the protections attached to the first round pick in the deal were probably more of an afterthought than anything else. The Wolves would keep the pick provided it was in the top 10 of the draft, but the Wolves hadn't finished in the bottom third of the league literally since they drafted Garnett. So at the time the trade was made, everyone probably valued the pick around 15 in the 2006 draft -- a spot that eventually yielded Cedric Simmons.
Instead the wheels came off in Minnesota, Garnett forced his way out of town via trade the next summer, and the Wolves went into a deep funk from which the franchise is only now beginning to emerge.
Unusually (again, probably because no one really expected the protections to ever come into play) the draft pick had identical protections for six full seasons -- if it was a top ten pick, it would go to the Wolves, if not, it would go to the Clippers. But in the seventh season, all the protections dropped off, and the pick would belong to the Clippers free and clear.
As it happens, that is precisely the moment that New Orleans was looking for the best possible trade for Chris Paul. When David Stern vetoed a proposed trade of Paul to the Lakers, the "basketball reasons" were presumably a lack of blue chip young talent -- Luis Scola and Kevin Martin and Lamar Odom might keep New Orleans competitive in the near term, but the real goal was to be terrible in the near term in exchange for a chance to be great in the long term. In that discussion, the unprotected pick of the Timberwolves (a team that had averaged 19.5 wins over the previous four seasons) was a very valuable bargaining chip -- especially in advance of a draft that was predicted to be one of the most talented in years.
In the end, that's why to me, the 2005 trade for Cassell has got to be considered the best in team history -- because without it, the Paul trade doesn't happen. In a very real sense, Jaric delivered the Clippers the two best point guards in the team's history, both Cassell and Paul. Even if it's a stretch to say the Clippers got Paul for Jaric, it's not a stretch to say that trade was instrumental in the Paul trade. Put another way, the Clippers have had a winning record just twice in the past 20 seasons, and players acquired directly or indirectly from the Jaric trade led the team to those two seasons.
There's one last bit of fascination from the Jaric-for-Cassell trade for me. Sam Cassell is now 42 years old. In the final analysis, he was traded
for with the 20 year old Austin Rivers, a player less than half his age. At the time that this trade took place in August 2005, Cassell was 35, and Rivers had just turned 13. Cassell played seven career games against Rivers' father, Doc, and then was eventually traded for with the son. I'm going to guess that that's the first time in NBA history that's happened.