Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Why the Clippers Didn't Protect Their 2011 Draft Pick

The Clippers traded Baron Davis and a first round pick to Cleveland for Mo Williams in February. On Tuesday at the NBA Draft Lottery, that pick became the first overall pick in the draft.

The NBA Draft Lottery was held on Tuesday. Now, usually, the lottery is the one May NBA event where you can expect to see the Clippers. Goodness knows you don't often see them playing basketball in May. But this year was different - no Clipper rep in Secaucus for the lottery. Of course, it wasn't because the Clippers finished anywhere near the top of the standings - nope, back on February 24th, the Clippers traded their lottery pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers, as sweetener in the deal that sent Baron Davis to Cleveland and brought Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to LA.

And of course that pick became the first overall pick in the draft.

Now, I've been writing the Clips Nation blog for over five years now, and I've seen the Citizens of the nation pretty upset several times. I mean, there's been plenty to get upset about during that time, including major injuries to Elton Brand and Blake Griffin. But the vitriol spewed in the wake of the lottery is probably only second to the day that Brand defected to Philadelphia. The first overall pick was gone! We coulda had Kyrie Irving! Watch your back, Neil Olshey!

The funny thing is, to me the lottery was pretty much a non-event in this process. The draft pick included in the trade was always unprotected, a fact that was widely known. So the Clippers had already lost their lottery pick, and some other team was going to pick first. Heck, might as well have been the Eastern Conference Cavs. Better than a Conference rival hitting the jackpot.

The obvious question that came next was why? Why wasn't the draft pick restricted in some way, say Top 3 protection? Isn't that pretty much standard operating procedure in the NBA these days?

When Ramona Shelburne asked Olshey that question, he responded along the lines of "It was complicated." Basically, Olshey reiterated what he has said all along about the trade - he doesn't think this is a strong draft, the Clippers already have six players under 23 on their roster, etc. He's thinks an impact veteran at the small forward is a much higher priority and the additional money saved by getting rid of Davis' contract can help facilitate a free agent signing and/or a trade. He wanted to make this trade, the Cavs weren't going to do it with protections, those protections would have been complex at any rate, end of story.

Eric Pincus put out a HoopsWorld post saying that NBA rules prohibited any protections on the pick:

The immediate criticism is protections.  Why didn't Olshey make sure the pick to the Cavaliers was protected? Answer - he couldn't, not legally.

Not so fast, posted Tom Ziller of SBNation - of course there were protections that could have, indeed should have, been placed on the pick.

Next, salary cap guru Larry Coon entered the fray with a piece on ESPN Los Angeles. His conclusion? Protections, while possible, would have been ill advised in this case. In the meantime, all of this back and forth online was accompanied by a running dialogue on Twitter between the writers.

So what's the truth? Could the Clippers have legally protected the pick? Should they have? And who the hell is Ted Stepien?

Let me first point out how unusual this is. Since the dark days of Ted Stepien himself, teams have learned the hard way NOT to part with high draft picks nor even potentially high draft picks. After James Worthy joined the reigning champ Lakers in 1982 with a pick that Stepien's Cavaliers had sent to them, most teams seemed to wise up, which is why the majority of these types of transactions do indeed have protections on them - for instance, the draft pick is deferred until the following season if it winds up in the Top 3 after the lottery. By my reckoning, there have been only two instances since Worthy, spanning the entire lottery era and a bit more, where a team received the number one pick as part of a trade. The last time before Tuesday? Unfortunately, it also involved the Clippers, when they sent their lottery pick in 1986 to Philadelphia for Joe "Jelly Bean" Bryant - that's correct, the Clippers traded away Allen Iverson Brad Daugherty for Kobe's dad. So for those keeping score at home, in the past 29 drafts, only twice has the first overall pick been traded in advance of the lottery, and both times it was the Clippers who lost out on the big prize.

So, what exactly was so complicated about simply protecting that lottery pick? Why didn't the Clippers do it? Did Olshey just forget? Here's the deal.

The Clippers have already traded away a future first round draft pick. They sent next season's first rounder to Oklahoma City in exchange for the rights to Eric Bledsoe on draft day last June. OKC has since sent the pick on to Boston as part of the Kendrick Perkins acquisition. That pick DOES have significant protections - it is Top 10 protected until the 2016 draft.

The Stepien Rule states that a team cannot devoid themselves of first round picks in back to back drafts. It was a direct result of Stepien's habit of doing just that, leaving the early 80s Cavs with next to nothing while helping to build a Lakers dynasty. The Baron Davis for Mo Williams trade in question would itself have been illegal under the Stepien Rule had it not been for the fact that the Clippers have Minnesota's first round pick in 2012 as part of the long-ago Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell trade (a great example of a one-sided trade in which the Clippers were the taker and not the taken).

But here's the thing - for all the talk of the Stepien Rule, it has little to do with the limited options the Clippers were facing in this case. It wasn't really fine print and legalese that made this tricky - just the simple fact that you can't trade the same thing twice. Think about it - the Clippers already had a first round pick committed to Boston with protections running from 2012 to 2016. They had the Minnesota pick as insurance through 2012, but they clearly couldn't place long term protections on the pick they sent to Cleveland. If they tried to protect that pick into 2013, what would happen if the protections on both of those picks were invoked beyond 2012 - they couldn't send their 2013 pick to Boston AND send it to Cleveland. So unless the protections were somehow mutually exclusive (which wouldn't have made any sense at all), the Clippers were prohibited from placing protections on the Cleveland pick beyond 2012, unless those protections were something extreme like "Sorry Cavs, you'll have to wait for two years after the Boston transaction is completed" which we can reasonably assume would not have been acceptable to Cleveland. None of this has anything to do with the Stepien Rule - just the common sense rule that you can't promise the same thing to two different trading partners.

But why, oh why didn't they at least place protections on the pick THIS YEAR? This is the only draft that matters right now, because right now we're missing out on Kyrie Irving, right? The answer is of course they could have - BUT since those protections could not run beyond 2012, they faced a dilemma. Draft observers consider the 2011 draft very weak - historically weak. It's weak in part because of the looming NBA lockout, which could impact all or part of the 2011-2012 season. Consequently, top NBA prospects like Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger chose to stay in school beyond their Freshman, one-and-done, season. That same phenomenon stands to make the 2012 draft very strong, since that draft will be supplemented by a group of players that stayed in college an extra season. The Minnesota pick was pretty much the only bargaining chip the Clippers had left, since a pick was already promised to Boston. (To be perfectly clear, the Celtics are owed the HIGHER - i.e. worse - of the Clippers own pick and the MIN pick, both top 10 protected, beginning in 2012.) The Clippers have waited seven long years for that MIN pick, while the Wolves had the worst record in the NBA this season and don't figure to be significantly better next season. So with longer term protections off the table, the only way to provide protections on the 2011 pick would have meant potentially losing the 2012 Wolves pick. Facing the very slight chance that they might lose a high pick in a really bad draft. they chose NOT to backstop it with a very good chance at a high pick in a really good draft. Which seems like a reasonable decision.

Having said that, the larger question is whether the Clippers should have made this deal at all. I personally was pretty lukewarm on it long before Tuesday's lottery. Baron Davis had certainly been a disappointment on the whole as a Clipper, and his contract was pretty ugly. But Mo Williams' contract runs for the same length of time as Davis' (assuming Williams exercises his options, which he will), and is scheduled to pay him $17M over those two seasons. So it's not as if this trade saved the entirety of Davis' deal.

It's disingenuous in the extreme for Olshey to speak of saving $8.5M:

The trade has played out well for both teams. We added a 28-year-old all star point guard [Williams] and $8.5 million in cap room and they have two picks in the top four.

The salary difference for next season is more like $5.4M. How did he come up with $8.5M? It appears he's lumping the salary of the lost first round pick in the savings - as if it's a good thing to not have to pay the first pick in the draft. Not to mention that the pick could always have been traded for a future asset. So the savings is clearly $5.4M, not $8.5M.

Davis, for all his flaws, was evolving into a pass first point guard that seemed like a very nice fit with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and some of the Clippers' other young athletes. I'll admit to perhaps being overly influenced by the highlight reel plays, but I think there was real value in those spectacular, pinpoint lob passes, which really dried up after the trade. Williams on the other hand is more of a shooting guard in a point guard's body. He's not a bad player, but beyond outside shooting, he's not going to give you a lot out there. He's certainly not the floor leader that Davis is.

Having said all that, the most important thing to remember about this trade at this point is that it's still not complete. The Clippers do have more cap space than they did before the trade, and they do have a gaping whole in their roster at the small forward position. If Olshey can use that space to actually fill the gap with a quality player - if he can swing a trade for Andre Iguodala or maybe sign Tayshaun Prince or even surprise us with some unexpected coup - then it will justify and maybe even vindicate his decision to include the draft pick and get the trade done. At the very least the lottery results increase the urgency of making a deal this summer.

Because if the Clippers don't sign a starting quality small forward this summer - let's just say someone several notches above the likes of Ryan Gomes - then it will be time to get really mad.

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