Clippers turning into a desired NBA destination
LOS ANGELES – The groundwork for whatever it is that the Clippers have become – relevant would be a start, a title contender their great hope – may have been laid 18 months ago in an office building in downtown Cleveland.
It was there that the Clippers went to make their pitch for LeBron James. It seemed preposterous at the time: the idea that James, who for years held NBA front offices hostage as they cleared cap space and waited for the summer of 2010, would even consider the Clippers.
The Knicks, Heat, Bulls and Nets all sold metropolitan visions – and the promise of enough cap space to lure a running partner – with charts and DVDs, and heavy hitters doing the pitching. The Cavaliers pushed the comforts of home and the promise of finishing business.
The Clippers were, well, the Clippers. They had no championship rings to flash like Pat Riley. They didn't even have a coach. So general manager Neil Olshey, four months into the job, and team president Andy Roeser made the trip by themselves, and their presentation barely lasted an hour. There was scant mention of endorsement opportunities in the entertainment capital of the world. They didn't promote their gleaming new $50 million practice facility.
Instead, their pitch was plain: if James wanted to win, nobody had a better cast to surround him. The Clippers had Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon – a pair of budding stars – and they had veterans Baron Davis and Chris Kaman, and a bevy of first-round picks. There was nobody out there with cap space who had that type of talent.
Dwyane Wade wasn't sure if he would go to Chicago. Chris Bosh knew he wasn't going to Cleveland. And the Knicks, who had pounced on Amar'e Stoudemire, had a roster full of question marks.
As it turned out, the most important pair of ears the Clippers' message fell upon belonged not to James, but to one of his team of agents, Leon Rose, who also represented one of James' close friends, Chris Paul.
"It was just the vision they had that they were trying to put together," Rose said. "They had a plan. Listening to the things they said about their vision definitely started a relationship between us, and it gave them credibility."
Rose spoke Wednesday night from a seat at center court at Staples Center, where he watched his two star clients, James and Paul, play prominent roles in the Clippers' 95-89 overtime victory, a game that carried the type of drama and intensity usually reserved for late in the spring.
While James' poor shooting from the field (he missed his last five shots) and from the line (he missed three free throws at the end of regulation) down the stretch rekindled questions about his and the Heat's ability to finish games, Paul marked the occasion by demonstrating just how transcendent his talent is.
He had 27 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, three steals and a single turnover in 45 minutes against one of the NBA's best defenses, often performing with sublime savvy.
It was easy to see why the Clippers gave up so much for Paul – Gordon, Kaman, last year's promising rookie Al-Farouq Aminu and a possible lottery pick. Just as he did with a cast of journeymen in New Orleans, Paul made everyone who joined him on the court better.
Caron Butler looked like an All-Star, DeAndre Jordan looked like a revelation (and made his $43 million contract look like a bargain), Chauncey Billups (a point guard by trade) looked like the perfect backcourt complement, and Blake Griffin no longer looked like the only Clipper with an iron will.
Asked whether the Clippers now resembled the vision their executives laid out for him, James did not seem to want to revisit the past.
"It's totally different," James said. "A lot of things would be different. This league would be totally different if I don't go to Miami. I'm here in Miami, they made the acquisition for Chris Paul, and that's what it's all about. We live in the moment."
The moment on Wednesday was somewhat surreal.
Celebrities dotted the crowd – Rihanna, Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, Clipper regular Billy Crystal, and MLB pitchers Jered Weaver and John Lackey (who was not seen with fried chicken and beer in hand) – and the arena rocked like the Lakers were playing. Yet, more substantively, there were players who wanted to be here.
In their history, it is hard to find anyone of note who wanted to become a Clipper. The list of significant free agents the Clippers had landed begins with Cuttino Mobley and ends with the oft-out-of-shape, past-his-prime Davis.
Now, there is Paul, who was a de facto free agent (he could opt out of his deal this summer); Butler, who saw the promise and the possibility of Paul coming; and Billups, who had some initial trepidation but has since been convinced after being claimed on waivers.
"For players, we all want to go places where we feel we have a legitimate shot at winning," said James Jones, Miami's 3-point shooting specialist. "For a lot of years for the Clippers, this wasn't a place that wanted to win. Now, they're at a point where they're a favorite destination for a lot of the league's players. This is a young up-and-coming team with a lot of potential."
That's precisely what Olshey had in mind, late in the 2010 season, when he moved up to replace the fired Mike Dunleavy. Olshey knew from his six years working for agent Arn Tellum, running pre-draft workouts, how agents and players viewed organizations.
Particularly stars, like James and Paul.
"When you've got a player with Hall of Fame potential, you're not going to invest that 10- to 12-year career with just anybody," Olshey said. "You want to make sure they're in an environment they can flourish in."
The pitch to James may have been too speculative. Griffin sat out his initial season with a knee injury, Jordan was more project than prospect, and rookies Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, another client of Rose, had yet to play.
But one year later, the speculation is reality.
"Being on that list said to us that we're ready to be a destination," Olshey said of the importance of the trip to Cleveland. "But we knew we hadn't done everything we needed to do to win these battles. So we asked what do we need to do besides being in L.A. and having a young star? The next time we do get into the red zone, we don't want to get closed out."