Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Los Angeles Clippers probably don't deserve the top pick in the upcoming draft, not after piling up 61 losses in disreputable fashion, but they need the pick just the same. It's not that the Clippers lack talent -- they don't. Nor do they have a hole at power forward, not with the immovable human millstone, Zach Randolph, entrenched for another two seasons and $33.3 million. The pick isn't about need.
People who don't follow the team haven't sensed the inertia Clippers fans and the organization felt in the years following 2001, but it was real. Ownership was spending money to retain talent, something that didn't happen during the Clippers' first 19 years in Los Angeles. They built a sleek, sexy training facility in Playa Vista, a gym Lakers' playoff opponents have raved about after practicing there this spring. The seasons immediately following the 47-35 campaign in 2005-06 were setbacks, but there was still an impression that the team's culture had turned a corner and that the Clippers were capable of respectability.
Things deteriorated after Elton Brand jilted the Clippers for Philadelphia last summer. The team stumbled out of the gate 2-13, and Baron Davis seemed disinterested. Then Mike Dunleavy bet the farm and dealt for Randolph, and little by little, the franchise started to take on an entirely different complexion. Gone were the gritty competitors who, for their many failings, always put in the work. Corey Maggette wasn't the headiest forward to put on a Clippers' jersey, but he never dogged a single possession. Cuttino Mobley, aptly described by John Hollinger as "the Steve Trachsel of the NBA," still gave you 120 pitches a night and 220 innings a season. Shaun Livingston, before his injury, desperately wanted to fulfill expectations, even as he fell short of them. Elton Brand's persona before he slithered out in the middle of the night exuded professionalism and class.
By January, the 2008-09 Clippers were careless and obnoxious. The old bromides were released, as the Clippers again became a punch line -- only this time it wasn't just the losing that fueled the ridicule. The Clippers displayed incompetence off the floor, and laziness on it. Basic basketball tasks such as inbounding the ball beneath the opponent's basket after a made field goal couldn't be executed. Davis fell victim to a few injuries, and rather than compensate with extra effort and a determination to stay in top form, Davis sulked at the inconvenient reality that he couldn't perform the way he wanted to. Meanwhile, Randolph's behavior was predictable, with a series of distractions ranging from a sucker-punch to Lou Amundson's jaw, to being arrested for driving drunk. In March, owner Donald Sterling unleashed an ill-timed tirade in the locker room that quickly became a public embarrassment.
Blake Griffin can't possibly rehabilitate the franchise on his own, and his addition presents some complications, given the money and bodies the Clippers have tied up in the frontcourt. In addition to Randolph's contract, the Clippers are carrying Chris Kaman for another three years and $33.9 million. They also have Marcus Camby returning for the final year of his deal. Moving Randolph is an impossibility. The organization would like to move Kaman, but Camby's reasonable expiring contract is far more attractive to suitors (as it is to the Clippers).
I'm not entirely sold on Griffin's prospects as a superstar because there are too many holes in his game to offer any guarantees. The NBA is now a point guard's league, and idea of Ricky Rubio igniting the franchise is exciting. That he presents a greater risk than Griffin makes him even more alluring.
Even if Griffin has a ceiling, the Clippers took their first step back to respectability in nearly a year. Griffin is a charismatic, appealing jokester with a wide-ranging presence. The inside-out threat he and guard Eric Gordon could present could be devastating. Griffin, unlike the stoic Gordon, has the capacity to make the team his, a responsibility Baron came to realize he didn't want to endure. And someone -- anyone -- needs to translate capacity into desire for the Los Angeles Clippers.