The Los Angeles Clippers just completed one of the most successful seasons in the 42-year history of the franchise. (We'll hold off a bit before commenting on what exactly it says about a franchise when a second round exit can compete for their best season ever.) Their 40-26 record over theshortened schedule represented the Clips' highest winning percentage ever, and their first round playoff victory over the Memphis Grizzlies was just the third playoff series win in franchise history.
The offseason brought individual accolades for the team's stars, as Chris Paul was the first Clipper ever named first team All-NBA (Bob McAdoo had achieved the honor as a Buffalo Brave in 1975) and Blake Griffin's inclusion on the second team gave the franchise two All-NBA players in the same season for the first time ever.
This offseason is vitally important to the future of the team. Paul and Griffin are the kind of young superstars that every NBA team dreams of having. As long as the two of them are in place as cornerstones, the Clippers will be competitive, and could be just a few smart moves away from championship contender status. But how long will they be in place? Griffin and Paul each have just one season left on their contracts in L.A. and this season and next are generally viewed as a sort of a prolonged courtship, particularly for Paul. The team may have to convince the stars that they'll have a chance to play for a title with the Clippers, or risk losing them to greener pastures.
Job one of selling Paul and Griffin on a long term future with the Clippers is to demonstrate to them that the bad old days of organizational dysfunction are a thing of the past. The Clippers by almost any reasonable measure have been the worst run, least successful franchise in all of American professional sports, particularly in the 30 years that Donald Sterling has owned the team. The Clippers have for the most part behaved like a grown-up NBA team for the last decade or so, re-signing free agents, hiring experienced coaches, even winning on occasion. But their first two moves of the summer of 2012 set eyes rolling and tongues clucking among many observers.
On May 29, the team exercised its option to retain head coach Vinny Del Negro for the third year of his contract. Back in March, as the team was slumping, Del Negro was rumored to be on the hot seat. They finished the season strong and had a solid playoff showing against the Grizzlies (if not against the Spurs), which cooled the seat considerably. Still, Del Negro was hired in 2010 when the Clippers were aspiring to simply compete and half the team was under 23; his job at the time was to develop and motivate young talent. With the addition of Paul, expectations for the team changed, and it's widely held that Del Negro is not the best choice to coach a team with title aspirations. With various experienced and successful coaches on the market, it seemed to many that the Clippers needed to make a move now. Instead, Del Negro was re-upped, a move that felt suspiciously reactive and frankly cheap, something the "old" Clippers would do.
A week after Del Negro was extended, the Clippers VP of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey was introduced as the new general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. The consensus opinion was that Olshey was very good at his job in L.A., and that Del Negro was not very good at his -- and within a week, the Clippers had kept the second and lost the first. Worse still, the whole Olshey ordeal smacked of good old fashioned LAC dysfunction -- on Friday the team prematurely sent out a press release saying they'd reached an agreement for Olshey to stay, only to have to backtrack on Monday when Olshey told them he was taking the Portland job. Yikes.
The events of the last few weeks have left many observers, including longtime Clipper fans, railing against the "same old Clippers" and predicting that these missteps will likely cost them dearly when it comes time for Griffin and Paul to sign new contracts. Then again, teams switch GMs all the time, and it rarely if ever has a major impact, so getting too upset about the departure of Olshey might be nothing more than an overreaction. Over at SB Nation's Clippers blog, Clips Nation, the community is split pretty evenly between the "Panic" and "Don't Panic" camps.
John O'Connor has this to say for the "keep calm" crowd:
Vinny Del Negro led the Clippers to their most successful season in franchise history. The Clips won a playoff series against a scary Memphis team that no one in the West wanted to face. He may not be the ideal coach, but the team certainly played hard for him down the stretch, a quality that can't be overstated. The great fear with Del Negro was that he is such a terrible coach, Chris Paul would not want to play for him and would not re-sign in Los Angeles. But with Chris Paul under contract for another season, doesn't it make sense to give Del Negro another season (with the opportunity to run a full training camp) before making a new hire? Why risk hiring the wrong coach a year before Paul has the opportunity to split? The Clippers were good this season. There is room to improve, and Del Negro has earned the right to try and accomplish just that.
And finally Mr. Neil Olshey. I have never seen a greater overreaction to a GM not returning to a team. Landing Chris Paul is a great thing for Olshey to put on his resume, but quite honestly I think this deal was happening regardless of who the GM was. Coming to the Clippers made the most sense for Paul, and the Clippers had the assets to pull it off. Not too many GM's are turning away from the chance to trade for CP3, it's a no brainer. I loved the Chauncey signing, and thought getting Nick Young for beans at the deadline was a great score and really strengthened the bench. But those were stop-gap signings, not long term moves. Let's not forget, this was the same GM who signed Ryan Gomes, Brian Cook, and Randy Foye. The truth is that having Paul and Griffin on the roster makes LA an attractive place to play for free agents, and there is no reason to believe that the Clippers won't continue to be successful in building this team in the coming years. Blake Griffin is going to sign a max deal, and there is no good reason I've heard to believe that Paul will be wearing anything other than the red white and blue for years to come.
John Raffo speaks on behalf of the panickers.
Suddenly, without warning, a cloud passed over Castle Clipper. A dark wind from the past made the Clipper faithful cower. Strange noises emanated from the throne room of Donald Sterling, the Clipper King.
Now it had been understood by many, even by head coach Vinny Del Negro himself, that he was a kind of placeholder. Hired before the acquisition of Paul, he seemed to be a temporary piece, a figure simply holding the reins until someone more able happened along. This was a coach who, rather famously, couldn't design an in-bound play, who's offensive playbook consisted of blank pages, who's in-game adjustments never worked or often never happened. Perhaps worst of all, Del Negro failed to help his young players develop. Young center DeAndre Jordan failed to improve and often griped from the bench. Blake Griffin, still raw after two solid years, relied on his (awesome) physical ability but only occasionally showed improvement in subtler aspects of the game.
With dozens of proven head coaches out of work around the league, retaining Del Negro's third year option would seem a foolish risk. But last week the door of the inner sanctum swung open and Clipper GM Neil Olshey (reluctantly?) raised his hand for silence and announced the Clippers had picked up Vinny's third year option. It was a baffling move that seemed only to have been driven by economics. It was a dark voice from the past. A reminder of the way things were.
Only slightly lost in all the excitement this year was the rise of the Clipper's young general manager, Olshey. Olshey worked for the Clippers for years before ascending to the side of the throne two seasons ago. And Olshey did well. He made some mistakes, but was a critical cog in the Paul trade, he filled out a woeful roster in a hurry this year with solid veterans, and he presented a face to the public that was fresh and charming. He was loquacious and clever, and he did something that seemed impossible, he managed Castle Clipper with grace and aplomb. He also had the most important skill a general manager can have... he knew how to whisper into the King's ear. He knew how to manage his owner.
But it seems that Olshey had been operating without a contract for the past year (an old Sterling move if there ever was one). There were noises that other teams were looking to steal Olshey away, and instead of making a quick, pro-active, and decent deal with his young GM, King Sterling made a low-ball, one year offer.
So Olshey left. Gone. Signed to a multi-year, multi-million dollar offer to the Portland Trail Blazers. The details of the falling-out are unclear. Was Olshey pushed or did he jump? Does it matter? No.
Now, the Clippers are left with two superstars on short contracts, a second-rate retread coach without a playbook, and no general manager at all. With the Clipper franchise dangling by a thread, the King ascends the throne, and we realize he has not changed at all. The crown is still tarnished, crooked, his smile and geniality is false, craven. He is the same as he always was. Unchanged. Uninterrupted. Castle Clipper lives on. The flag of infamy flutters in the black breeze. Ignominy waits.
The story is far from over. How the team goes about hiring a new GM, and who they hire, will shine a spotlight on the situation. If they work swiftly and competently toward hiring a qualified NBA executive, they can quickly quell the "same old Clippers" rhetoric. If they simply make the most convenient or least expensive hire (for instance if longtime Clipper employee Gary Sacks is elevated to the top job) then they'll deserve whatever criticism is leveled at them. So stay tuned.
And what of the impact on Griffin and Paul? Griffin is eligible to sign an extension on July 1, and there's every reason to believe that he will. The rules are very specific for players coming off of rookie contracts, and it's not just a question of keeping his options open if Griffin were to decline an extension this summer. The next step is restricted free agency, at which point the Clippers would have the right to match any offer sheet from any other team (at less money than they would offer in an extension, by the way). If Griffin's ultimate goal is liberation from Sterling, he'd have to play two more seasons in L.A., the second at his qualifying offer, leaving millions of dollars on the table. More significant than the money he'd be losing (and after all, Griffin will be making plenty of money between basketball and his myriad endorsements) is the risk he'd be incurring -- by signing an extension on July 1, Griffin can lock in his NBA salary for up to five more years. To go the full free agency route, he'd be playing two seasons in the last year of his contract -- a career ending injury in that time would cost him not just millions, but tens of millions of dollars. That's a lot of risk to incur over the course of two years for a player who has already suffered through a major injury in his career, just to get away from a team and a city that have been very, very good to him. He'll sign the extension.
Paul is a trickier question, but the simple fact remains that the summer of 2012 matters far less in the L.A. future of Chris Paul than the 2012-2013 season. To be clear, Paul has never so much as hinted at having any problem with Del Negro, and the Clippers certainly ran it by him before exercising VDN's option. To be perfectly frank, these moves don't matter one bit when compared to next season. If the Clippers have a successful season, then Paul will probably stay. If not, then he could decide to move on. What defines success, and to what extent the loss of Olshey or the retention of Del Negro affect that success, are different questions, but the game of wooing Paul was never going to be won or lost in the summer of 2012.
So don't panic Clips Nation ... yet.