Here we are. The draft is over, the lockout has begun, and rather than the usual lottery pick we have two former Georgia Bulldog early-entry second rounders.
Trey Thompkins is large, but not in the super-exciting tall way. We’re talking more in the 15 percent body fat way. There are more questions about his effort, and his scouting report reads a lot like that of a less-motivated Craig Smith. The good news is that he should have better range and overall back-to-the-basket capabilities than Rhino if his career college averages hold up, apart from his rough senior year outside shooting percentages. Jovan has covered more on Trey here. As a card carrying member of the Craig Smith fan club, I don’t buy that Thompkins can keep the attitude he became known for in college and play minutes, meaning I foresee the resigning of Rhino and/or Diogu (though, as I mentioned, I’m biased).
Speaking of which, it was Deeks’s mention of the Clippers in his breakdown of the first overall pick that got me going on the Clippers’ draft and offseason.
After having 38 days to decide who to pick first overall, Cleveland is given five minutes to finalise a decision, which obviously they completely need. Jeff Van Gundy goes out of his way to tell Cleveland fans not to compare Kyrie Irving to LeBron James . They weren’t. Jon Barry again cites the presence of Baron Davis as a hindrance. It isn’t. Indeed, Baron has been nothing but good for Cleveland – acquiring his contract, and the unprotected pick that came with it, is what got them Irving in the first place. And if they really want to get rid of it later on, the inevitable amnesty clause would allow them do to so. If only the Clippers had thought of that.
[Supposedly, a part of the Clipper logic behind the deal was to open up $6 million in 2012 cap room. If 2012 cap room was a big deal, why did they give Ryan Gomes $4 million guaranteed for 2012/13?)
… Due to Irving’s not-exactly-thoroughbred-but-it-counts Australian heritage, Australia is now one of only two non-US nations to have had two number 1 overall picks, the other being Nigeria, which can boast Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Olowokandi< . Michael Olowokandi was a bust, but drafting Michael Olowokandi would have been better than gifting the pick away for nothing, like the Clippers just did. I don’t think enough is being made of this. They traded the first overall pick in a salary dump. They didn’t even want the two players they got back, Jamario Moon and Mo Williams . This is much worse than the Otis Thorpe/Darko Milicic deal of 1997 and 2003. We must stress this more.
Deeks and a few other pundits have hit Neil Olshey hard in regards to his first season as GM of the Clips. We’ll start with something Mark alluded to: the free agent signing and re-signings in the summer of 2010.
Randy Foye: Signed to a 2-year $8.5 million contract in July of 2010
At first glance, this isn’t a bad deal.$4.25 mil per year is below the mid-level exception ($5.854 million, based on the average NBA contract in the 2010-’11 season) and not too lengthy. The only problem was that Foye had the worst season of his career (career low player efficiency rating (PER), tied career low true shooting percentage, career low assist rate, career low 3-point percentage) .
If we look at other limited shooting guards in the league who offer similar overall production, we see contracts in the $2-3 million range. But this deal wasn’t a bad one, considering Foye should have been entering his prime as a player this season and would be making similar money to league-average guards if he would have played even close to his career watermark. The Clippers had Eric Gordon at the 2 and couldn’t predict that Foye would be playing nearly as much as he did this season due to EJ’s struggling with injuries. Hopefully, EJ will be healthy next season and Foye will go back to being a mostly-average sub-20-minutes backup rather than fairly horrific occasional starter.
Ryan Gomes: Signed to a 3-year, $12 million contract
This deal was less agreeable than the Foye signing. Gomes was solid during the first three years of his career, while on his ultra-affordable second-round draft pick rookie contract. He finished out the final year of that deal in 2007-08 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who re-signed him to a 2-year $7.5 million contract. After signing that deal, his production promptly fell off, and he fell into the Clippers’ lap after being waived by the Trail Blazers.
Gomes (like Foye) just had his worst career season. He battled injuries at different points in the season and, despite solid play early, disappeared in more and more games as time went on. Of course, it’s easy to question a signing after it hasn’t worked out.
However, even without the benefit of hindsight, we know that Gomes hadn’t produced well for over two years, so paying him the richest and longest contract of his career probably wasn’t the best idea. At the same time, the Clippers did need someone to come in and start at small forward, and there weren’t many options from which to choose.
The fact is, this type of mediocre-to-poor production from “safe signings” seems to be a theme with teams like the Clippers. As I said, these deals weren’t killers. We aren’t looking at the Suns taking on Josh Childress for five years and $33.5 million, or the Bucks inking Drew Gooden to a 5-year, $32 million deal.
But, at the same time, the Grizzlies stumbled across Tony Allen and became the past season’s Cinderella story (and paying him less money than the Clippers did Gomes, for that matter), or one of the Spurs’ fantastic out-of-nowhere signings or draft picks.
Of course, sometimes this kind of thing is the result of confirmation bias. Gomes could have just as easily been the bargain for the Clippers that Tony Allen was for the Grizzlies if we look at their performances historically, before they were signed. Sometimes a guy just has an outlier-type season. Beyond that, it might be beneficial to get a little more out of the box with scouting. Organizations like the Spurs and Rockets and Thunder consistently stockpile assets and exercise patience until the right deal, pick, or free agent comes along. The Clippers should better aspire to these kinds of strategies.
In this case, though, Olshey may have been the victim of circumstance and bad luck more than a bad eye for free agent talent.
The Baron Davis Trade
It could be argued without much effort that Neil Olshey jumped too quickly at the chance to ditch Baron and his much-maligned contract for Mo Williams’s less-awful deal, along with an expiring Jamario Moon. Could the Clippers have protected the pick? Maybe. Maybe not .
However, what we know for sure is that Olshey stated after the lottery that “protecting the pick was never an option.” He also said that the Clips’ draft position would have been different because they wouldn’t have finished the season 11-11 without Mo Williams, and even though I’m not sure I agree, I’ll at least admit that there’s a chance things could have played out differently. Olshey also noted that there was “a 97 percent chance of sitting here … with Baron Davis, the eighth pick in a weak draft and no cap flexibility.” He went on to say that the extra cap money from moving Davis and the pick gave the team a better shot to make the playoffs this season than adding another player under 23 with no NBA experience. So there’s the explanation from the horse’s mouth.
But is it even more complicated than just protecting or not protecting the pick? Why not wait to try to move Baron on draft night? For one, he may have felt that this was the best deal possible or that waiting until after the lottery would be a mistake due to the high likelihood that the Clippers would end up with the 8th pick in a draft that had teams fearing a weak mid-late lottery, as he seemed to insinuate in the above quote.
But the Cavaliers certainly couldn’t have been taking on Baron’s deal and the Clips’ first rounder betting on a No. 1 pick. There was only a 2.8 percent chance of the Clippers’ pick becoming the No. 1 overall selection. But this argument goes both ways in that Olshey had only a slim chance of regretting not protecting the pick, right?
Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. The Cavaliers took on a cumbersome contract, no doubt. But they wanted a lottery pick for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. Even if experts think a draft is weak, you can’t allow yourself (or your lottery pick) to be taken in a moment of desperation. And not top three (or even just top overall) protecting that lottery pick can be taken as a sign of rushed judgment in the face of desperation to shed Baron’s contract. You have to take into consideration that it’s your shot at the number one you’re risking. The Cavaliers were risking less cap flexibility over the course of the next two seasons that they would have likely never used on a meaningful player. At the same time, they were getting an extra chance to speed up the rebuilding process post-LeBron. They in no way expected to get the first overall pick out of the trade. The Clippers aren’t a win-now team, but they aren’t just rebuilding either. The foundation is there, the rest of the house is waiting to be constructed. And that means decisions like these are harder, because your picks are still in the lottery and still plenty valuable, but you also want to always be ready to pounce with a big free agency signing, because the team could be one core piece away from the playoffs.
I say this because I don’t want to make it sound like I know for a fact what the right move was, or that I know for a fact that the trade wasn’t well thought-out. If Olshey really did feel as strongly as he indicated that there was no way to protect the pick and get the value he did, or that there was no way to wait until the draft to make a better deal, then the decision he made might have been the correct one. Best possible move or not, the Clippers saved some pretty big money and opened up plenty of room to re-sign DeAndre Jordan (currently an restricted free agent), and also Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin when their options come up .
And if the Clippers see an opportunity to take on one of those Gary Neal-type players in the next couple of seasons, they have guaranteed the cap space to take the risk and hand out a contract.
Beyond that, when Kaman’s contract expires at the end of the upcoming season (if he isn’t traded), the Clippers should have a shot to bring in a core contributor, be it through outbidding teams on an restricted free agent or even trying to lure in Dwight Howard. If that opportunity doesn’t arise, the Clips can use their flexibility to wait and see if they can get a peach deal on future draft picks for taking on a bad contract (unlikely as that may sound).
On the other hand, cap flexibility gained or not, the No. 1 overall pick was lost, and Kyrie Irving would have likely been a great addition. We have the benefit of hindsight, but when it comes to being a GM in the NBA, hedging your bets is practically required if you want to be successful. Especially when trading a lottery pick.
The Frontcourt Signings
Olshey gave Brian Cook (who hadn’t played 1000 minutes in his last three seasons combined) a minimum deal with a player’s option for a second year. This wasn’t some great GM mishap, by any means, because the pool of talent at the center position in the summer of 2010 was nearly completely barren and Cook can at least spread the floor — though Olshey could have had a far more productive stretch big like Anthony Tolliver. Still, I dislike the second-year player option just on the principle of assuring that the team has Brian Cook on roster two seasons in a row (there’s no way he declines, of course). I mean, we should have some legitimate regrets over passing over Tolliver. That’s how bad Brian Cook can be.
Of course, Olshey also brought in Ike Diogu mid-season to help deal with depth problems due to injuries, which turned out to be pretty wonderful. Craig Smith, too, was deservedly re-signed before the season and performed well (although, like many Clippers, he suffered from injury troubles). These two guys have probably been the only free agents to outperform expectations for the Clippers in recent seasons.
To put it vaguely, Olshey’s first year as GM was pretty average. The future will determine (through free agent moves, further trades and drafts, and also Kyrie Irving’s success in the league) if the Davis trade was a calculated risk or a rushed cost-cutting measure. Outside of the trade, he didn’t exactly hand out any undeserved contracts, but probably needlessly highballed the likes of Gomes and Cook when there were other options out there (not far better options in every case, but cheaper).
At the same time, he hasn’t had a real free agent class to go after with the top-heavy summer of 2010 free agent stock being his only shot so far, and he didn’t mess that up by handing out any terrible contracts to make an unnecessary splash. The only big move he made is a wait-and-see situation, depending on how that new cap flexibility pays off.
And I suppose that’s the real point. “Wait-and-see” is exactly the position in which Olshey wants the team. He has two players already in place to form a strong core in Blake and EJ, a solid center in Kaman that happens to have a fabulous expiring contract just waiting to be dealt for another core piece, not to mention three young guys in DeAndre, Bledsoe and Aminu that are still developing. Add he’ll have the financial freedom in the Summer of 2012 to continue to build the team and there’s no reason not to feel some excitement.
Now, does all this mean I’m not still upset about missing out on a talent like Kyrie Irving? Of course not. But there aren’t many teams that can deal the first overall pick in the draft for a salary dump and still feel good about the future. Fortunately, the Clippers are one of those teams.
Hopefully, this lockout business will get straightened up and we can see how Olshey handles himself in Year Two, this time with plenty of chances to make major impact moves via free agency, trades and, looking even further ahead, a draft in which the Clippers currently have two first round (likely lottery) picks.
Olshey has implicitly suggested – through words and deeds — that judgment on his administration should be reserved until he can capitalize on this flexibility. And so we’ll render that judgment … in due time.