Monday, February 28, 2011 Updated: March 19, 6:55 PM ET
Clippers advance on road to respect
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
There will be other hurdles to clear in the near future.
Tests of organizational mettle, like re-signing promising young center DeAndre Jordan this summer or doing right by Eric Gordon when that time comes after next season.
The Clippers' handling of promising young center DeAndre Jordan this offseason will be another telling sign.
The Los Angeles Clippers have too long of a history of not doing the right thing, or at least are too entrenched in that reputation, for anyone to simply trust them.
But lost in the unceremonious goodbye to mercurial point guard Baron Davis and the annoyingly delayed hello to Mo Williams and Jamario Moon -- which should finally come Monday against Sacramento -- was one of the most important tests of character the L.A. franchise has ever passed.
The Clippers willingly traded away a lottery pick.
And (take a deep breath before this next part) the Clippers willingly traded away a lottery pick, otherwise known as a guy who would be under their control on a rookie-scale contract for four years, because they intend to build through free agency and with veterans.
On the long road toward respectability, it was a small step. But it was a serious step, and it dropped jaws around the league.
General manager Neil Olshey played it straight when I asked how he persuaded Clippers owner Donald Sterling to agree to such a monumental organizational milestone.
"A third of our roster is 22 years old and under," he said. "That's enough.
"Now we need some guys that have been to the playoffs, that know how to win, that are veterans. So a guy like Mo Williams, who's been to the playoffs everywhere he's played, is a guy that can give directions to our younger guys.
"Had we not drafted well, you're reluctant [to trade a lottery pick] because you're hoping the next draft is where we'll get the guy. But we've hit home runs four years in a row, so now it's time to add a veteran piece to this group."
Which brings us to the next paradigm shift this trade revealed:
The Clippers see themselves as a place free agents would want to come to. The lion's share of the credit for that goes to Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, but this isn't about credit. It's about reality, and the Clippers -- as constructed -- actually look like a destination team.
The days of Clipper Darrell organizing a parade outside Staples Center to show LeBron James how much Clipper Nation wants him are over. The days of Olshey using credibility earned by working for agent Arn Tellem in another life to land meetings with James or Mike Miller are over.
Looking back on last summer, Olshey admits the team's odds of actually landing James were long.
"Everything that I said in that meeting with LeBron was true, but I had no empirical evidence to prove it," he said. "We said Eric Gordon was on the verge of being a star; he is. We said DeAndre Jordan was on the verge of a breakout year, and he has. We said Blake Griffin was a superstar. We were right.
"There's a lot less risk in the room when you're talking to somebody. I don't have to say 'trust me' anymore. I can say, 'Look.'"
In other words, Griffin and Gordon have given Olshey a much better product to sell.
The challenge going forward will be selling Griffin and Gordon.
On Saturday night, Griffin and his group of talented 22-year-olds got beat by a group of seasoned veterans from Boston.
Griffin shrugged off the loss, knowing his young, shorthanded team had long odds of winning on the second night of a back-to-back. But it was obvious where his head was.
"I think we're plenty young enough," he said, when I asked what the Clippers' trading a lottery pick signified.
"We can keep drafting every year, but after a while you can only have a certain amount of 22-year-olds. I think that might be the direction we're trying to go."
Trading a lottery pick for the flexibility to sign a key free agent was a good first step.
An important step, but still only one in a series of credibility hurdles the Clippers need to clear in order to live in this new reality for longer than Gordon and Griffin's rookie-scale contracts.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.