During a trade deadline in which NBA superstars such as Deron Wiliams and Carmelo Anthony switched teams, it was an under-the-radar deal between two bottom-feeders that would change the course of NBA history. The L.A. Clippers ended up gifting the Cleveland Cavaliers star point guard Kyrie Irving for the sake of salary cap space that they ended up doing almost nothing with. Had the Clippers made the correct move in hindsight, how would their fates have changed?
At 21-37 entering the All-Star break, the Clippers needed to do something. They had a young star to build around in power forward Blake Griffin, but not much else. The rest of their roster consisted mostly of unproven young players who had plenty of potential, but had not lived up to it yet.
Al-Farouq Aminu, the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft, was a big part of LA’s future plans. Eric Bledsoe was taken 18th overall that year and provided solid play off the bench. Shooting guard Eric Gordon was in his third NBA season and would average a career-high 22.3 points that year. Veteran center Chris Kaman made his only All-Star team after averaging 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. And Kaman’s backup, a young reserve center named DeAndre Jordan, rounded out the team’s core.
Although the Clippers weren’t completely devoid of talent, they had a few problems. And one of the biggest was starting point guard Baron Davis. Before the 2008-2009 season, the Clippers signed Davis to a 5-year $65 million contract. Not a bad deal for one of the league’s top point guards. Unfortunately, Davis’s performance sharply declined, and it became clear that the young, rebuilding Clippers had no use for a now overpaid, aging, and injury-prone guard. So, they began to shop him around, but he wasn’t exactly a positive asset.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were still getting over the shock that was LeBron James’ departure, and they were feeling his absence. They would finish 19-63, and set the record for the longest losing streak in a single season. Their future looked bleak, as the James era had maxed out their salary cap and prevented the team from getting high draft picks. However, they did have one valuable player. Former All-Star Mo Williams was in the midst of a solid season, and at 28 years old, was still in the prime of his career.
The Clippers saw Williams as someone who would be an immediate upgrade over Davis right now, and provide a veteran presence to guide the young players as they matured. He had been to the NBA Finals and had plenty of playoff experience, so he knew how to win n the NBA. The Clippers made him their primary target and began to negotiate a deal with Cleveland.
The final trade was Jamario Moon and Mo Williams for Baron Davis and the Clippers’ unprotected 2011 first-round pick. It seemed like a win for both teams; the Clippers upgraded at point guard and shed salary, and the Cavs added a valuable asset for their rebuild. But the Clippers used that cap space to sign Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes, who, while decent, did not improve the team enough to make the playoffs. As a result, that simple trade had just netted the Cavs another lottery pick.
The rest is history; the Cavs won the first and fourth overall selections, drafted Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, and won the NBA championship four years later. Meanwhile, the Clippers quickly moved on from Williams in favor of superstar Chris Paul. The trade, even when taken in the context at the time, seems a bit odd for Los Angeles. Their pre-All-Star break record was among the NBA’s worst, and they were all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs. Was it really that necessary to shed Davis’s contract that they had to give up a lottery pick? Even if it were, they could have at least made it top-five or top-10 protected, as Cleveland, desperate for draft capital to jumpstart its rebuild, would most likely have still accepted. The pick could then have been made to convey in a later year when Los Angeles would most likely be a better team.
If they had done that, the Clippers would have found themselves with the first overall pick, and the best point guard prospect in years staring them in the face. Irving would have made the Chris Paul trade unnecessary, and the Clippers would have built around Irving, Gordon, Aminu, and Griffin. A solid group, especially if Gordon and Griffin don’t have the serious injuries that they suffered later on. A starting lineup of Irving, Gordon, Aminu, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan would have been lethal in a year or two. And if Jamal Crawford still signed with the Clippers, they could run a backcourt of two of the best ball-handlers in NBA history. On the Cavs side, maybe a player other than Tristan Thompson is taken fourth overall. A player who had the potential to develop into an elite two-way wing, but needed some development. Kawhi Leonard leading Cleveland’s rebuild is an interesting thought. If Irving isn’t there, perhaps LeBron James would never have returned. Or maybe he would have teamed up with the new leader of the team.
With solid depth, that prospective Clippers team would certainly have been a Finals contender by 2015-2016 if the core stayed healthy and remained together. Looking back, the Cavs certainly won this trade, but the Clippers haven’t had too bad of a run either. If Los Angeles had just protected that pick even a little bit, we would be watching a very different NBA right now.