Commentary

Clippers keeping No. 1 pick a long shot

There's no way L.A. could have protected the pick and been better off as a result

Updated: May 18, 2011, 11:04 PM ET
By Larry Coon | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Blake GriffinNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Clippers struck gold with No. 1 pick Blake Griffin in 2009. Did they squander a chance at another top pick just two years later?
By now everyone has heard that the first-round pick the Los Angeles Clippers gave the Cleveland Cavaliers for taking Baron Davis off their hands turned out to be the Cavs' dream come true and the Clippers' worst nightmare.

With only a 2.8 percent chance of winning the lottery, the Clips were reasonably certain they were conveying a lower pick in a draft they didn't particularly like. But fate laughs at us all, and it seems to laugh loudest at the Clippers. Sure enough, the carrot they dangled turned out to be the first overall pick.

That's when the confusion began.

"Surely," everyone said, "the Clippers weren't foolish enough to not put some protection on that pick, just in case." HOOPSWORLD's Eric Pincus reported Wednesday that the Clippers' hands were actually tied. They couldn't protect their pick because doing so could violate the Ted Stepien rule.

The Stepien rule exists because of the ineptitude of its namesake, who owned the Cavs from 1980 through '83 and mortgaged the team's future by trading away first-round draft picks like they were candy. Remember the Showtime Lakers' dynasty in the 1980s? Stepien is partly to thank -- one of the picks he traded turned out to be first overall in 1982, with which the Lakers happily selected James Worthy.

The Stepien rule says teams can't trade first-round picks if they could be left without one in consecutive years. The rule looks only to the future -- teams that traded their 2010 picks can still trade their 2011 picks. But teams that already have traded their 2011 picks can't trade their 2012 picks. Once the 2011 draft is complete and a team's 2011 pick is no longer a future pick, it is free to trade its 2012 pick.

When dealing with pick protection, the Stepien rule is interpreted to mean that teams can't trade a first-round pick if it results in so much as a minute possibility that they could be without a first-round pick in consecutive years.

The Clippers were dealing with the Stepien rule when negotiating with Cleveland this past February, due to the pick they owe the Boston Celtics. Last year the Clippers traded their first-round pick in 2012 to the Oklahoma City Thunder for point guard Eric Bledsoe. This pick is top-10 protected for four years, meaning if it's in the top 10 in 2012, the Clippers keep it and give their 2013 pick instead. If it's in the top 10 in 2013, they wait until 2014, and so on until 2016 when Oklahoma City would get it unconditionally. The Thunder later conveyed the rights to this pick to Boston as part of their trade for Kendrick Perkins.

[+] EnlargeGilbert
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe opportunity cost for the Clippers to protect their pick that eventually went to Cleveland and 14-year-old Nick Gilbert was too high.

It gets even more complicated. The Clippers also are owed a first-round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves were slated to give this pick to L.A. this year unless it was in the top 10, in which case they instead would send their 2012 pick unconditionally. (As it turns out, Minnesota's pick is in the top 10, so L.A. instead gets the 2012 pick, but this was not yet determined when the Clippers and Cavs were dealing.) And for the cherry atop this draft-pick sundae, if the Clippers get Minnesota's pick in 2012 and owe their own pick to Boston in 2012, the Clips keep the higher pick and send Boston the lower pick.

The Stepien rule says teams must have a first-round pick, but it doesn't have to be their own. The Clippers are able to count the pick they are owed from Minnesota as one of their future picks. They just can't count on it being in any specific year. No matter how likely it appeared the Timberwolves would finish with a record that would guarantee their pick would be in the top 10, the Clippers couldn't count on having a 2012 pick. The Stepien rule lets you off the hook only if it's an absolute certainty.

So the real question is whether there's any conceivable way the Clippers could have protected the pick they traded to Cleveland, while avoiding any possibility of being without a first-round pick in consecutive future years. Any proposed trade would have had to pass muster even though the Clippers couldn't be sure whether they were getting Minnesota's pick in 2011 or 2012; didn't know which year, starting in 2012, they'd be required to send a pick to Boston; and weren't sure whether they'd have to send their own or Minnesota's pick to the Celtics.

As it turns out, there was a way -- but not a way that had any chance of actually happening. It was a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

The Clippers could have worded their trade with Cleveland so that if they got Minnesota's pick in 2011, they would send the lesser of the two picks to the Cavs. Since they would be keeping the better of the two picks, they wouldn't be sending the first overall pick to Cleveland now -- it would be protected. They'd keep a pick in 2011 and lose one (to Boston) in 2012-16, so Stepien would be placated.

If the Clippers instead get Minnesota's pick in 2012 and their own 2011 pick isn't the first overall pick, their pick goes to Cleveland, they have Minnesota's pick in 2012 and they lose a pick to Boston in 2012-16. Still OK.

But the trade also would have to specify that if the Clippers instead get Minnesota's pick in 2012, their own 2011 pick is the first overall and their 2012 pick is in the top 10 (I told you this was complicated), L.A. gives Cleveland one of the 2012 picks -- whichever one is lower. The Clippers keep their 2011 pick, keep one of the two 2012 picks and lose one in 2013-16. By now Stepien's head is spinning, but this still works.

Finally, if the Clips get Minnesota's pick in 2012, their own 2011 pick is first overall and their 2012 pick isn't in the top 10 (so it goes to Boston), the Clippers give Minnesota's 2012 pick to the Cavs outright. Los Angeles ends up keeping its own 2011 pick, has no pick in 2012, but reclaims its 2013 pick. Once again, no rules were violated in the making of this trade.

Got all that? Good, because there's going to be a quiz later. And to my discerning eye, this is the only way the Clippers could have protected that 2011 pick they sent to Cleveland.

Did this trade have even a glimmer of hope of happening in this manner? Not a chance. The cost of protecting their No. 1 pick in 2011 could have been losing both their own 2012 pick and Minnesota's coveted 2012 pick. One of the reasons the Clippers were willing to deal their 2011 pick is they weren't crazy about the 2011 draft class. The 2012 class is slated to be much stronger. There's no way the Clippers would entirely bow out of the 2012 draft for the sake of a 2011 pick -- even if that pick had a 2.8 percent chance of being the first overall.

So did the Clippers make an egregious error by tempting fate in this manner? It doesn't appear so. There's no way L.A. could have protected the pick and been better off as a result. The Clippers, for once, are vindicated.

Still, somewhere off in the distance, fate is laughing.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ.

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