Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fortuitous Signs

The last time the Clippers made the playoffs (1997), they did so with a losing record. At 10 games under .500, they had the worst record of any team that has qualified for the playoffs in recent memory. There were only 7 decent teams in the Western Conference that year. Why? Because a guy named David Robinson was injured the entire season, and San Antonio missed the playoffs for the first time since Robinson had arrived at the Alamo from his Navy post. So it is not inaccurate to say that the Spurs and the Clippers swapped places that year, with the Clippers taking the Spurs spot in the playoffs, while the Spurs sat in New Jersey during the draft lottery.

The Spurs won the 1997 Draft Lottery and used the number one pick to draft Tim Duncan.

The next year, normalcy returned to the basketball universe, and the Spurs and Clippers switched back. The Clippers ended up winning the 1998 Draft Lottery, and used the number one pick to draft.... Michael Olowokandi.

Bad timing and bad luck have had their roles in the Clippers' bleak LA history. Don't get me wrong - penny-pinching and stupidity have been a big part of the story as well. But it just so happens that the two number one overall picks for the Clippers were Danny Manning (a terrific player who blew out his knee his rookie year - good pick, bad luck) and Michael Olowokandi (good luck to get the number one, but a bad draft.) And sure, in hindsight there were better picks possible in 1998, but most GMs would have taken the Kandi man first. Hell, Raef Lafrentz went third. And neither of those picks were even close to the worst draft day move that year. Milwaukee traded their first pick AND Pat Garrity to Dallas for their pick, Tractor Traylor. And who did Dallas get in return? Some obscure German teenager named Dirk. That's right.... Dallas traded DOWN to get the best player in that draft.

So there's two kinds of luck here. The luck to win the lottery, and the luck to have a sure-fire superstar available. Just ask Michael Jordan and the Wizards what they think now about winning the 'Kwame Brown Lottery'. San Antonio missed the playoffs 3 times in 18 years, and on 3 trips to the lottery they came away with two number one picks that turned into David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The Clippers missed the playoffs 15 times in the same 18 years, and also got two number one overall picks, that turned into Danny Manning and Michael Olowokandi. That's pretty much the gamut on draft lottery luck right there.

But one gets the impression this might all be changing. For instance, in 1995 the Clippers traded the number 2 overall pick (Antonio McDyess) for Rodney Rogers and Brent Barry. Not exactly the kind of talent you want in return for the number 2 pick. Six years later, the number 2 overall pick (Tyson Chandler) plus Brian Skinner yielded Elton Brand. Now you're talking - I like the trend. Is that luck? Well, there's got to be some luck involved in finding a GM stupid enough to make that trade.

But here's my favorite sign. Anyone wondering why the Clippers don't have a first rounder this year? Way back in June 2000, the Clippers traded a number 1 pick for Corey Maggette (and Keyon Dooling and some other stuff). That number 1 pick was protected in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The 2006 draft was the first year it was unprotected, meaning if the Clippers had finished, I dunno, last, the Nets (which is where the pick eventually wound up) would have had a lot of ping pong balls last week. Instead, the Clippers had their best season in 30 years, and they give up the 22nd pick in the draft, 6 years later, for Corey Maggette.

Now, if only the T'Wolves can finish the 06-07 season a little stronger than they did this year, but not too strong. The number 1 pick the Clippers received as part of the Cassell trade remains top 10 protected for several more years. This year's draft will be weak, partly because of the NBA's new 19-year-old rule. Next year's draft could have Greg Oden and the other high-schoolers who couldn't come out this year. So we'll know for certain that our luck has changed if the T-Wolves end up with the 11th pick in the 2007 draft.

Now that would be some good luck.