When Baron Davis arrived in Los Angeles almost three years ago, he was supposed to be the harbinger of a new era for the Clippers. He had just taken the almost equally pathetic Golden State Warriors to consecutive winning seasons and with a real big man in Elton Brand, he would be the bearded and smiling face of that change. People would be able to look back in the annals of Clipper history and pinpoint exactly when it was that the Clippers turned it around. Baron still may be able to be that marker, that Black Swan event that everyone rationalizes post-facto, but it won’t be in the way that he initially hoped.
Baron’s first two years with the franchise were more than a disappointment, but a heartbreaking poke in the eye to the fans of the Clippers. Local prodigy returns home to do good stories twisted and inverted themselves to the point where he was the focal point for blame. Brand may have bolted for Philadelphia, but it was still Baron’s team to handle. There were still players like Kaman, Camby, Gordon, and Zach Randolph. All was not lost, and yet, Baron arrived to camp overweight and unmotivated. His play in the beginning of the season was so uninspired that the Clippers barely pretended to have the normal and unreasonable excitement on the year. They finished with only 19 wins.
Blame piled on his shoulders, but there was a measure of understanding and fingerpointing at Elton Brand, the good guy that ran out on the bad situation. And with the prospect of Blake Griffin, a then exciting but unknown commodity bounding around the Big 12, there was a source of hope. Baron arrived into camp the following year in shape, with some ready to declare his first year with the Clippers an aberration. After all, many Clipper fans had watched Baron play with their own eyes. They witnessed his talent when he played at UCLA in his two years there, they knew what kind of limitless potential and charisma that could still transform the Clippers into more than the Lakers’ sniveling little brother. He did documentaries on the life of the inner city, spoke out, helped kids, and there always seemed to be times when his bushy face and unbridled smile were in a magazine, online or in the paper. There was still hope for him, a precious commodity in Clipperland.
But his great shape didn’t transition into a great mental state. A huge blow to be sure, but as soon as Blake went down with the injury that no one could give a correct prognosis, Baron reverted back to a form of Bad Baron, hoisting up transition threes and driving fans crazy. Even though the Clippers hovered around .500 for the first half of the season, it was clear that in the competitive Western Conference the Clippers wouldn’t be able to compete. They traded off fan favorite Marcus Camby and that’s when the real, cutting blame set in. Baron not only wasn’t the team’s savior but he was the reason for the team’s failures. Every jacked up three pointer, every turnover signaled the wasted opulence of his talent, the clear arrogance and delusion of self, and at the heart of it all, the embodiment of the stereotype of what was wrong with professional athletes. He coasted on his talent.
Even with whispers of Blake’s full return to health and Eric Gordon’s rapid ascension with Team USA, there were still the articles proclaiming Baron to be the lynchpin to this season. And he was, but what was so telling was that very few believed his return to a high level of play could happen and they knew with his massive contract that he was untradeable.
At some point, there was just too much history with Baron in a Clippers uniform to believe that he could change and when he showed up to camp blaming a bad knee for what was probably more a lack of conditioning, it looked like another year without the playoffs.
Only those low expectations couldn’t have even foreseen the abysmal start to the season. Blake was a reason to watch, and Eric Gordon’s improvement wasn’t a mirage, but the Clippers lost games in a pathetically repetitive way. Holding close until bowing out in the third quarter, the Clippers lost every game with Baron in the lineup until both he and Vinny recognized and agreed that it was best for him to rest his knee for a while.
Vinny’s handling of the situation should be commended as he didn’t apologize to Baron or make excuses during that brutal 1-13 start, but expected that Baron work his way back. There was no protection, but VDN also didn’t throw Baron under the bus either. The Clippers beat the Thunder in their fifth game, but other than that continued the losing. Blake played better on a nightly basis, so did Gordon (especially in Utah) and the Clippers began to challenge teams, their brilliant performances showing an imperfect blend of the Harlem Globetrotters style with the Generals ability to always lose a game. Until they beat the Hornets, who were then the owners of the best record in the NBA. Murmurs spread of Baron’s return. The Clippers beat the Kings for a second win in a row. Two losses followed, but by this point, the rookie Eric Bledsoe garnered more attention as he ran the team the best all season.
Baron returned in a Clippers home win over the Spurs, with Bledsoe still playing well, but with Baron having his own show off the bench. He played the way that the Clippers had always wanted him to play, with measured aggression and the mindset to get the ball into the hands of those most capable of shooting. In 24 minutes of play, he only shot the ball 6 times, scoring 7 points but spreading out 10 assists.
And his evolved play didn’t appear as only a one-time gift in a rare underdog win over the more regimented Spurs. Nor did he hold back the up-tempo pace as the cantankerous old vet on the team, but helped foment that speed and the entertainment surrounding the team. Baron, if nothing else, is an entertainer. He began throwing alley-oops to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan that threatened opposing players to the point where Baron was no longer guarded if he ran with Blake on the break, because the opposing team didn’t want to give the Clippers the satisfaction and the momentum that comes with the alley-oop.
The Clippers were infectious and for the first time in his tenure with the team, Baron now seemed like the leader on the floor. The guy running the show. The remaining years on his contract weren’t viewed so much as complete dead weight, but as an immovable object. He couldn’t be traded, but at least fans could watch and enjoy him play.
And then January hit, those freak wins over the Thunder, Hornets, Spurs, and Bulls didn’t look so anomalous as the Clippers took down the Miami Heat and the Lakers in a 5 day stretch, they had a winning month. Blake beasted, Gordon took over, but Baron was adeptly running the show. Even his harshest critics had to admit that he was effective in that time. And he was having fun, enjoying the game. He saw playing with Blake as new life and for those of us watching, it made sense.
Baron was no longer fighting between the dichotomies of Good Baron and Bad Baron, but working on this New Baron, where he became the revered conductor for the Clippers mad circus, where he was the smiling teammate throwing alley-oops through the sun-roof of a car to the team superstar in a dunk contest. He cared immensely about being in LA, turning the team around and finally making good on his promise to get the team back into the playoffs and headed to a championship. He was, impossibly, an attractive player to have on a team again, because he was about the team.
And that’s why the Clippers could ship him off.
Along with an unprotected first round pick in this year’s draft, Baron Davis is headed to the Cavaliers in exchange for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. Not only does it give the Clippers a better outside shooter, and a capable defender at the small forward position, but it gives them more financial flexibility. Baron will make $28.8 million in the two years to follow, whereas the most that the Clippers would pay Jamario and Mo Williams is $20 million.
The Clippers no longer are geared towards Baron’s abilities and liabilities, as they have circled Blake, Eric Gordon and the other youngsters (DeAndre, Aminu and Bledsoe) as the foundations of the future. Baron was just expensive and poorly fitting.
Real, tangible improvement for the Clippers still exists only as a possibility, they have 16 more losses than wins, but a time could come when someone looks back to see where everything changed for the Clippers, and they’ll look to the 2010-2011 season and they won’t just see Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, but a clever trade that rid the team of one of its hampering assets. The move a harbinger for a new era for the Clippers.