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Why Clippers' Defense Of NBA Draft Pick Trade Doesn't Hold Up

As we reported late Tuesday, the Los Angeles Clippers almost immediately engaged in a full-scale ass-covering campaign once the Cleveland Cavaliers won the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft with a selection acquired from L.A. in the Baron Davis-Mo Williams trade. The Clips didn't protect their first-round pick in the trade; it ended up No. 1, and now Cleveland and not L.A. will enjoy the Kyrie Irving era.

Eric Pincus of HOOPSWORLD tried to further the Clips' self-defense by explaining that the team couldn't have legally protected the pick. But that's just not true.

The NBA has what's called the Stepien Rule, ironically (in this case) named after the disastrous former owner of the Cavs who repeatedly traded his first-round picks to bad effect. Now, teams cannot trade a future first-round pick if it would give them two consecutive years without one. If you have already traded your 2012 pick, for example, you can't trade your 2011 or 2013 picks ... unless you have already acquired another 2011 or 2013 first-round pick.

Because of trades made in the past, this is what L.A. had in terms of first-round draft picks before making the Davis deal.

  • 2011: their own pick and the Wolves' pick, if the Wolves pick landed outside the top 10
  • 2012: their own pick and the Wolves' pick, if the Wolves pick remained protected in 2011 -- BUT the Clippers would have to send the worse of the two picks to the Celtics via the Thunder because of the Eric Bledsoe and Kendrick Perkins trades.
  • 2013: their own pick

Here's Pincus' explanation of why the Clippers couldn't protect what became the Kyrie Irving pick:

The language of the trade (as relevant in February) set up a scenario where if the Clippers 2011 pick was protected and deferred to Cleveland until 2012, LA would then be responsible for a 2013 pick to Boston (via the Thunder). Since technically the Minnesota pick could arrive in 2011 (it didn't but at the time it wasn't official), a protection of 2011 set up a potential scenario where the Clippers wouldn't have a pick in consecutive years (2012 and 2013).

So basically, if the Wolves' pick would have came over in 2011, and the Clips' pick would have gone to Cleveland in 2012 because said pick won the lottery, and the Clips' owed their pick to the Celtics in 2013, the Stepien rule would have been violated.

Here's the way around it.

When the Clippers traded Davis, the Wolves had a 13-45 record, second-worst in the league (behind Cleveland). The Bobcats were the eight-worst team at that point with a 25-32. To make remotely possible a finish outside the top 10 in the NBA Draft order, Minnesota would have needed to catch Charlotte (and all the teams between them) in the standings. To do so, the Timberwolves would have needed to make up 12 games, or basically go well above .500 while everyone else struggled. (The Timberwolves instead went 4-23 to finish the season.)

The Wolves were virtually guaranteed of being the in top 10, thus deferring their Clips-owned pick to 2012. There was zero risk the Wolves would be sending their 2011 pick to L.A., thus causing the havoc that prevented protections.

The Clippers simply could have stipulated that if Minnesota conveyed its 2011 pick to L.A. (virtually impossible), the Cavaliers would have gotten the better of that and the Clippers' 2011 pick, protected in the top three. The Cavs would have gotten one 2011 pick either way. The results landed both the Wolves and the Clips in the top three. In that case, the Cavs would have taken L.A.'s 2012, and L.A. would have had Minnesota's 2012, meaning giving Boston its 2013 wouldn't be illegal.

There are ways around Stepien Rule technicalities. Trying to excuse a bad trade that looks worse by leaking false claims that protections would have been "illegal" is lame. The Clips thought it was a risk worth taking. Logic says otherwise. Own it.