When Baron Davis was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon, it marked the end of an era for the Clippers. It was an era that was much longer in promise than it was in results, but although Baron's time playing for his home town team has been far from an unmitigated success, and at times has been downright awful, there's little question that he will be missed.
The deal was not made for basketball reasons, not in the short term. Baron (although he has been slowed by a knee injury recently) was playing some of his best basketball as a Clipper since the beginning of the new year. He had clearly been rejuvenated by the presence of Blake Griffin, and there's little question that Davis was one of the three most important Clippers this season.
But therein lies the problem for Davis: with the emergence of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, 21 and 22 years of age respectively, Davis, who will be 32 before the season ends, was no longer the face of the franchise, and certainly not the future of the franchise. It's difficult to justify a contract paying $13.9 million next season, and $14.75 million the season after that for a third wheel - indeed, the Clippers had to include a lottery pick in the upcoming draft just to get the Cavs to do this deal. But with two superstars in their early 20s, the Clippers need to take a long term view - a happy, motivated Baron Davis throwing lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan was great fun this season, but his window of opportunity is out of sync with that of the team, and his contract was burdensome to say the least.
Back on July 1, 2008, when the Clippers reached a free agent agreement with Davis, there was pure jubilation in Clips Nation. Davis had been an All Star twice earlier in his career with the Hornets, and had played even better in his final two seasons in Golden State. His role in leading the Warriors into the 2007 playoffs and to a stunning upset win in a playoff series with the top seeded Dallas Mavericks established him as one of the best and most exciting point guards in the NBA. He had certainly had his issues as well, wearing out his welcome in New Orleans and clashing with coaches from Byron Scott to Mike Montgomery to Don Nelson. But when motivated, he had always delivered on the court, and why wouldn't he be motivated, playing in his home town, next to his buddy Elton Brand, who had facilitated the deal so that they could be on the same team?
And then a very strange thing happened: Brand left LA for Philadelphia, leaving Baron holding the bag with the Clippers after luring him to LA in the first place. We may never know all of the details of what happened there, but Brand's defection took what should have been the most eagerly awaited Clippers season in years and threw a wet blanket over it.
Moreso than most NBA players, Baron has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and the perceived betrayal that he suffered, combined with a terrible start to the 2008-2009 season, threw him into a season long funk. As a result, his first season in LA was a complete disaster. Never a high percentage shooter, he dropped to a dismal 37% from the field. His scoring average of less than 15 points per game was the lowest since he was a 21-year old sophomore in the NBA. The signing that had appeared to be a major coup for the Clippers just months before now looked like an anchor on their salary cap. How else can you describe owing $65 million to the worst shooter in the league?
Davis seemed genuinely embarrassed about that first season, and promised to be better in 2009-2010. True to his word, he was much more productive in his second season in LA - but still nothing like his All Star or Warriors years. It can't have helped that Griffin was lost for the season on the eve of Opening Night. We've all seen this season how Griffin has made basketball fun for Davis again. What people forget is that Baron and Blake played together for seven games in the preseason in October 2009 - and the Clippers went 6-1 in those games. Baron knew what Griffin could do, and for the second season in a row, he was suddenly and unceremoniously deprived of the running mate he expected to have.
Worse still, the team continued to lose games in bunches. During Baron's two and a half seasons in L.A., the Clippers posted a record of 69 wins and 153 losses. That's a winning percentage of just 31%, which is terrible by any standards. And much of that poor performance is on Baron.
Then, just when there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel, Davis is sent to Cleveland, where that team is currently in the longest tunnel in the world. You have to really feel for Baron in this situation, not least because he is being re-united with his old Hornets coach Byron Scott, with whom he clashed early in his career.
Baron came under intense criticism at the beginning of this season for reporting to camp out of shape. Then when he missed the month of November with an knee injury, many fans were ready to dump him and hand the reins to rookie Eric Bledsoe. But I maintained all along that this team needed Baron Davis, and I feel like that position was justified in December and January. The team went 12-5 from mid-December until Gordon went out with a wrist injury, and Davis was a huge part of that success. It's pretty easy to argue that this team could have made the playoffs this season if they had been able to stay healthy. But they didn't stay healthy, they dug a hole early, that hole got deeper when Gordon went out, and Baron isn't really part of the team's long term plans.
Neither is Mo Williams or Jamario Moon, per se, but the money ($5 to $6 million in cap space) the team saves in each of the next two seasons is. (Williams will make $8.5M in That extra money allows the Clippers to be an active player in each of the next two free agency markets. There's no guarantee of course that they'll be able to lure a free agent to the Clippers, but with Griffin in town, the Blake Effect may begin to change the perception of playing for the 'other' team in LA, which is still LA after all. Of course, no one knows exactly what is going to happen with the new collective bargaining agreement, but with Chris Kaman's contract coming off the books in 2012 and the savings from this deal, the Clippers could conceivably have enough cap space to be in the running for one of the huge potential prizes of that summer, which could see Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard hitting free agency.
In the end, the Baron Davis era didn't really end with this trade; it ended when the Blake Griffin era began, because you can't have two eras at the same time. It's against the era rules. Everything the Clippers do right now is about maximizing the opportunity they have with Griffin and Gordon. More cap space for the next two summers facilitates that goal - and Baron was collateral damage.
Which is a shame. Baron was finally having fun again, and when Baron is having fun, the fans are having fun too. More than once this season, court side microphones have caught primal yells of excitement from Baron - not when he was scoring himself, but when he was setting up Griffin for a monster jam. Or go back and watch some top 10 list of Griffin dunks - how many of them were on lobs from Baron Davis? In many ways he's been exactly the point guard the Clippers needed this season - a preternaturally good passer who was happier delivering a perfect lob than he was taking shots himself. There are plenty of Clipper fans out there who are convinced that they won't miss Baron Davis, who believe that anyone can throw the ball up near the rim and watch Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan go stuff it. They're wrong. This trade is probably for the best, but the Clippers will miss Baron, and the fans will too.