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Friday, January 20, 2012
The star-crossed Clippers and Timberwolves

By Kevin Arnovitz


Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Sam Cassell-for-Marko Jaric trade in 2005 set into motion a series of bizarre and historic events.

Almost seven years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers swung a trade on a sleepy August day.

The Clippers sent combo guard Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to Minnesota in exchange for 35-year-old point guard Sam Cassell and a Timberwolves first-round draft pick that was lottery protected for the next six years.

And so began an odd relationship between two teams whose fortunes became inextricably linked. For the next several years, the Wolves and Clips mysteriously ran into each other everywhere and got trapped in the same elevator more than once. Cassell retired nearly three years ago and joined Flip Saunders' coaching staff in Washington. Jaric married model Adriana Lima and was last seen in a Montepaschi Siena uniform. Yet that trade still has enormous implications today, as the teams prepare for a Friday night matchup at Staples Center that will be nationally televised on ESPN -- something that would've been unthinkable even a year ago.

Cassell led the Clippers to their most successful season in history in 2005-06, when his mouthy leadership took the team within a Raja Bell 3-pointer of the Western Conference finals. The Timberwolves won 33, 32, 22, 24, 15 and 17 games respectively over the next six seasons and, for a stretch, somehow displaced the Clippers in the Crapola Sweepstakes as the NBA's most ridiculed franchise, even after the Clippers fell back to earth.

The Clippers had historically stood as the team most likely to botch the NBA draft, but the Timberwolves were nipping at their heels. For a while, the Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye trade dogged the Wolves. Then, in the 2009 draft, the Timberwolves were mocked for choosing three point guards in the first round -- Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Ty Lawson -- Flynn and Rubio back-to-back at No. 5 and No. 6. Rubio's first reaction when Minnesota picked him? "It's cold there."  The Timberwolves kept Flynn while trading Lawson, chosen at No. 18, to Denver (as instructed by the Nuggets as part of a trade). Today, Flynn rides the pine in Houston, while Lawson is running point for an impressive team in Denver.

How did the Timberwolves score the pick for Rubio? They fetched Mike Miller from Memphis in an eight-player deal featuring O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love, but included Jaric. The Timberwolves eventually sent Miller, along with Foye, to the Wizards for the pick that became Rubio. Foye, of course, is now in his second season with the Clippers.

Before the Timberwolves cornered the market on first-round point guards in 2009, the Clippers took Blake Griffin at No. 1. While Griffin was the obvious choice for the Clippers, it's easy to forget that Rubio was leading many draft boards during the winter and spring of 2009, and there was a reasonable minority that felt he was the finest prospect in the draft. Sacramento was the odds-on favorite to win the first pick before the lottery betrayed the Kings, and many observers had the Kings selecting Rubio if they landed atop the board. Had the Clippers not had Baron Davis locked into an extended deal, Rubio might be in L.A.

After the Clippers selected Griffin, they began the process of rebuilding. In the two seasons following the 2009 draft, they recruited half the Timberwolves' roster. Craig Smith, a former second-round pick of the Timberwolves, became a fan favorite in Los Angeles, while Ricky Davis became a fan unfavorite. Sebastian Telfair, who came over with Smith in a deal for Quentin Richardson, served as Davis' backup for 39 games (before landing back with the Timberwolves a season later). Needing to fill out their depth on the wing in the summer of 2010, the Clippers signed Foye and Ryan Gomes to modest multiyear deals.

Lingering above all this is what became known in Los Angeles as simply "The Minnesota Pick" -- the one the Clippers acquired along with Cassell in 2005. The worse things got for the Timberwolves, the more excited Clippers fans and execs became at the prospect that the misery in Minnesota would outlive the lottery protection on the pick. If the Timberwolves could continue to be awful for just a couple more seasons, the Clippers could conceivably have a top pick in 2012! When Rubio opted to remain in Europe for two seasons, that possibility went from remote to real.

"The Minnesota Pick" ultimately became a centerpiece of the most fateful trade in Clippers history just a few weeks ago, when the team reeled in Chris Paul from New Orleans. The pick was the one asset that set the Clippers apart from other suitors, and the Hornets were adamant about its inclusion in any deal.

On Friday night, Paul -- hamstring permitting -- will face off against Rubio in a contest between two of the most telegenic teams in the league. Individual matchups are often overrated, but Paul on Rubio -- and Rubio on Paul -- has a marquee quality to it. In a league dominated by point guards who earn their livings on the attack, Paul and Rubio are throwbacks to a time when vision trumped speed. Prefer a big-man brand of basketball? Keep your eyes on the low block, where Griffin and Love will wrestle for supremacy.

The Timberwolves have been rewarded for their patience, the Clippers for their craftiness. Now two teams that have been tethered together in the Western Conference dungeon for the better part of a decade will get to show off their shiny new toys.