No NBA team wanted to lose the season. Maybe some individual owners stuck with a high payroll and low revenues wouldn't have minded, but no team wanted it. No way.
Different teams have different reasons. For title contenders loaded with veterans like the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics, it's one more shot at a ring during a window of opportunity that will not stay open forever. For teams with a superstar in the final year of a contract like the Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets and New Jersey Nets, it's a chance to play well enough to convince their franchise player to stay. For emerging teams like the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder, it's a chance to build on the momentum of great playoff runs last year. And even for the bottom feeders of the league it's a chance to see young players develop and hopefully take a necessary step forward.
The Los Angeles Clippers exist on that list somewhere "bottom feeders" and "emerging". No team in the league outside of the Thunder has more young talent. And though the Clippers won only 31 games last season, if you toss out their dreadful start which included 13 losses in their first 14 games, the team was downright respectable for the final four months of the season, going 27-29 over that span.
But it's more than that for the Clippers - oh, so much more. You see, the Clippers have something they've never had before. They have a super-duper star. Danny Manning was a very good player. Elton Brand was a pro's pro. And who can forget Benoit Benjamin? But Blake Griffin is on a completely different level. After missing out on a full season of Griffin when he fractured his patella prior to ever playing in an NBA game, the Clippers were understandably loathe to lose a second season of Blake Superior.
So now that the league and the players have reached a handshake agreement to end the lockout the Clippers can breathe a sigh of relief. They will get a chance to build on the excitement of last season, to hitch their wagon their soaring lion eagle and see how far he can take them. But Griffin can't do it all alone; General Manager Neil Olshey has several action items to accomplish during what figures to be an absurdly frantic couple of weeks when camps and free agency open simultaneously on Dec. 9th.
The good news is that most of the roster is intact. Consider the Boston Celtics for a moment: they currently have six players under contract and when they open camp coach Doc Rivers is going to have them play three on three for a few days until Danny Ainge can sign some more bodies. That won't be an issue for the Clippers. Counting second round picks Trey Tompkins and Travis Leslie, Coach Vinny Del Negro should have a dozen signed players on the first day of practice, including eight of his top nine players from the end of last season. To give some credit where it's due, this is not entirely accidental on Olshey's part. Last off-season, when I questioned the wisdom of giving Brian Cook a player option for a second year, Olshey told me that he figured there would be a lockout, and necessarily a mad scramble to sign warm bodies when it was over; he was only too happy to have Cookie lined up for this season, given the situation.
Still there is a work to be done. Here are the "must haves" from Olshey's to do list:
- Re-Sign DeAndre Jordan. I said eight of the top nine from the end of last season were already signed: the ninth is Jordan, a restricted free agent. Olshey and the Clippers have given every indication that they consider Jordan a key part of their young core. Forced into a starter's role last season by injuries to Chris Kaman, Jordan responded with a break out year. Jordan is long and athletic and active, and still only 23 years old as he enters his fourth year in the league. A top tier rebounder and shot blocker, he's also a ferocious finisher around the basket who shot over 68% from the field last season. Jordan knows his range, and rarely shoots unless it's a dunk - he had the third most dunks in the league last year, behind only Griffin and Dwight Howard. As a restricted free agent, DJ can sign an offer sheet with another team if he likes, but even then the Clippers can match any offer (under the terms of the new CBA, they will have only 3 days to do so, as opposed to the 7 days from the last CBA). It's unclear what other teams have the cap space and the interest to make a run at Jordan, but size is at a premium in the NBA, and it's entirely possible that another team will be willing to pay dearly for Jordan's still untapped potential. When push comes to shove, can Olshey get owner Donald Sterling to sign a really big check to DeAndre Jordan? Stay tuned.
- Find a starting small forward. Four of the five starting positions are already determined for Del Negro. Griffin is of course the power forward. Eric Gordon is one of the best young shooting guards in the league and widely considered building block 1b to Griffin's 1a in Clipperland. Former All Star Mo Williams is the point, and even if something happens to Jordan, they still have Kaman to play center. But there's a gaping hole: small forward. Last season the job was split between Ryan Gomes, rookie Al-Farouq Aminu and Jamario Moon. Gomes and Aminu are back, but the Clippers need an upgrade to be competitive. The crop of free agent small forwards is intriguing if flawed. Olshey would like to get a veteran to help lead the young team, which probably means he'll be calling the agents of Tayshaun Prince, Andrei Kirilenko and Shane Battier around midnight on the 9th. None of those three are superstars - but any would be an upgrade over Gomes. If one of them can be had at the right price it would be a good signing. Having Aminu learn the position from any of those consummate pros would be an extra bonus.
- Conserve assets. The Clippers are in an enviable position right now. With Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams all rumored to be eager to leave their current situations, the question is what teams have the assets to complete the trade along with the appeal to facilitate an extension necessary to close the deal. The Clippers have two incredibly valuable assets at this time: Kaman's expiring $12M contract and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 draft pick. Starting from those two pieces, the Clippers can make a trade offer for any one of those impending free agents that other teams would be hard-pressed to match. Not to mention that Los Angeles is a big market, and a team with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon is pretty attractive as a destination. Olshey could try to plug the hole at small forward via trade instead of free agency, and assuming Jordan is re-signed, he can shop the somewhat redundant Kaman to try to do so. There was talk of a Kaman for Andre Iguodala trade a few months back, and that's certainly enticing. But teams are going to ask for that Minny pick, and Olshey's job is to say "No" for anything less than a bona fide mega star. Iguodala is a very nice player - but no way you give up the pick for him. If a major small forward upgrade falls into your lap, then you trade Kaman. Otherwise, you wait patiently to see how things are looking for the Magic, Hornets and Nets as the trade deadline approaches.
There you have it - three simple steps. No problem, right? Of course, the reality is that it will be wildly complex, especially as regards the small forward task. Deciding whether to fill the hole via trade or via free agency, and how much to spend in order to get a deal done will not be easy. Not to mention that plenty of other teams will be calling Prince, Kirilenko and Battier - it's entirely possible that all of Olshey's top targets will sign elsewhere. Then there's the complicating factor of the amnesty clause - another wave of free agents will be hitting the market on the 9th as teams release talented but overpaid players under the provisions of the NBA's new amnesty policy. The Clippers starting small forward on opening day might not even be a free agent yet.
So no, it's not going to be easy. But at least it's clear what needs to be done.