For the third time in my life, the Los Angeles Clippers won the NBA Draft Lottery. The first time I was just a pup, but the resulting selection, Danny Manning, helped form my appreciation for the perennially subpar club. Manning had just finished a stellar career at the University of Kansas where he led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national championship and won the Naismith and Wooden Awards as the country’s top player – a sure star at the next level.
Ten years later, coming off a 17-65 season, the Clippers again won the right to pick first overall, this time getting seduced by scouts’ whispers of a remarkably athletic behemoth from the University of the Pacific named Michael Olowokandi. Rather than using the pick on established college stars such as Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter or Paul Pierce, or even gambling on foreign sharpshooter Dirk Nowitzki or high school prospect Al Harrington, all of whom have enjoyed long, productive NBA careers, the Clips figured a Nigerian kid that was raised in England and had five years of basketball experience was fit to carry the franchise into the 21st century.
Obviously neither of those choices turned out especially prolific careers, and the latter may well be considered the biggest bust in draft history. So what makes the chances of success in this year’s draft any different? Well, this is the first draft since LeBron James’ professional debut in 2003 that the top pick is just about impossible to mess up. One player, University of Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin, so far exceeds his peers in skill, athleticism and preparation that coach/general manager Mike Dunleavy has already tagged him as their selection, if ever-so-nonchalantly: “Clearly, we’re taking Blake Griffin,” he told the LA Times on Tuesday.
Great, so that is settled. Now comes the interesting part. Griffin is about to join a team that already has three established forwards/centers on the roster, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby and Zach Randolph, whose contracts, if nothing else, will demand playing time. Also, the team likely regrets the five-year investment it made last summer in point guard Baron Davis, whose turbulent relationship with Dunleavy was highly publicized and effort on the court was often times little more than apathetic, and is looking for a more amiable floor leader to lead the team for years to come.
Enter Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old phenom that dazzled spectators in last summer’s Olympics and hopes to get drafted by a major market team like the Clippers. With Griffin already established as their clear-cut first overall pick, the Clippers have opened themselves up to a number of trade possibilities that could either alleviate the frontcourt logjam and make way for Griffin, or entice a team in desperate need of that explosive power forward and allow the Clippers to unload a bad contract or two while still drafting a point guard like Rubio. In essence, the Clippers have too much talent and must find a way to make it all fit well together – a high-class problem if I’ve ever seen one.
Team executives have already acknowledged that they are considering all of those trade possibilities, which is an encouraging sign after years of missed chances and misguided acquisitions. They have made it clear that young studs like Eric Gordon (drafted sixth overall last year), Al Thornton (No. 14 in 2007) and whoever is chosen during this year’s draft will be the anchors of the franchise, with veterans such as Kaman and Camby as guides along the way. More unpolished players such as DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor, both second round selections in the 2008 draft, will hopefully develop into steady contributors in the years to come, which leaves Davis and Randolph, two veterans with unquestionable talent but suspect dispositions and egregiously bloated contracts, left to be dealt with, and upon which the short-term fate of the organization undoubtedly hinges.
There has been a lot of talk recently of Davis’ renewed dedication to personal conditioning and the interpersonal health of the team. Randolph, likewise, was said to have text messaged team executives after the draft lottery with high spirits. Maybe it is all an early summer ploy to increase season ticket sales, and maybe it’s all actually true. Either way, the Clippers clearly recognize that a very special player was just dropped in their laps by the draft lottery gods, and they don’t intend on messing it up this time around.