The 2010-11 season was one of the most fun in Clippers history. Even though the Clippers were still a lottery team, Blake Griffin was so electric in his debut campaign that the losing didn’t really matter. Knowing that the Clippers had a franchise-altering star moving forward gave an all-too-rare feeling of hope while rooting for the Clippers.
Then of course, the front office had to go and do something stupid to ruin the fun. At the trade deadline, the Clippers sent Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round draft pick to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams. The motive of the deal from the Clippers’ perspective was to get off of Davis’ contract, as he was still due another two years and $28 million. Williams became a backup guard after Chris Paul’s arrival, and Moon was essentially useless, so the Clippers executed a salary dump at the cost of what ended up being the no. 1 pick in the draft.
That begs the question: What if the Clippers didn’t trade Baron Davis in 2011?
Let’s break this down into a few pieces: what that would mean for Davis, what it would mean for the Clippers in the near term, and how it would affect the franchise’s future.
What happens to Baron Davis?
The NBA was headed towards a lockout in the 2011 offseason, and there were rumors that the new collective bargaining agreement would have a one-time amnesty provision to rid an unwieldy contract from a team’s books. Davis would appear to be the perfect candidate for amnesty, as a past-his-prime player still being paid as a star. His departure would enable the Clippers to give more time to their younger prospects, like Eric Bledsoe.
However, the Clippers decided to proactively dump Davis instead. My guess is that even if then-GM Neil Olshey was aware of the amnesty clause, there was no way Donald Sterling would be willing to pay Davis that much money to not play for his team. When the Clippers eventually did use their amnesty, it was to get Ryan Gomes’ $4 million off the books. That means Davis probably would have still been a Clipper through the life of his contract (until 2013) if he weren’t traded in 2011. It’s unlikely he would have contributed much, considering he only played 44 more games in his NBA career after leaving L.A.
What changes for the Clippers in 2011?
The Davis trade is so painful to look back on because the draft pick the Clippers sent away ended up being the no. 1 overall pick, which the Cavaliers used to select Kyrie Irving. Say what you will about Irving as a teammate in present day, but he was another electric young talent who would have paired marvelously with Griffin. At the time, Irving was essentially the consensus choice for the no. 1 pick, so the Clippers couldn’t have screwed it up. There was some talk that Derrick Williams might be a viable top pick; however, given that Williams was a power forward, the Clippers would not have selected him to back up Griffin.
That means the Clippers would have Griffin and Irving, and Lob City would still be in effect. Irving had an excellent lob partner in LeBron James in Cleveland, and Griffin at his athletic peak could do everything aerially that James could. We know Irving loves DeAndre Jordan, so that would be a boon for team chemistry. Griffin’s playmaking would be utilized a little bit more with Irving as more of a scorer than a pure point guard. That core along with Bledsoe, Eric Gordon, and Al-Farouq Aminu is tantalizing.
The Clippers made another pivotal move in 2011 however, one that sent Gordon and Aminu packing to New Orleans when they acquired Chris Paul. However, in this what-if scenario, I don’t think the Clippers would have traded for Paul. The team was trying to accelerate the rebuild by trading Davis to clear cap space and sign veteran free agents in the 2011 offseason. But in the timeline when the Davis trade doesn’t take place, that plan is on hold. The Clippers also have Irving, a projected All-Star at point guard, which mitigates the need for Paul. (A fun side effect of the Paul trade not happening is that the Clippers keep the 2012 Minnesota pick, which became Austin Rivers.)
How does this affect the Clippers’ future?
The Clippers earned the no. 5 seed in the 2011-12 regular season with Paul. Without him, they would be significantly worse at the point guard position, and having Gordon over Randy Foye at the two wouldn’t be all that helpful since Gordon only played nine games that season. Aminu was a better defender than Caron Butler at that point, but this still smells like a .500 team at best — a supremely entertaining one, but one that would not have made the playoffs. Numerous accounts of that season lauded Paul for being able to lead a young team. That skillset was assuredly not in Irving’s wheelhouse.
Without Paul and without consecutive postseason appearances, it’s hard to say that Doc Rivers would have wanted to come to Los Angeles, and that changes so much of what happened to the Clippers over the past decade.
Trading Baron Davis at that price was an objectively bad move at the time, amnesty or not, mostly because the Clippers put no protections on that draft pick. Even sending a top-3 protected pick to Cleveland would have been defensible, but that’s not what the Clippers did. They made a mistake, and the Cavaliers benefited handsomely.
But somehow, because that decision clumsily laid the groundwork for trading for Chris Paul, the Clippers are probably better off for having dumped Davis when they did.
What do you think would have happened if Davis remained a Clipper? How would a Griffin/Irving/Gordon core have performed going forward? Let us know in the comments.