These aren't your father's Los Angeles Clippers. The perennial NBA laughingstocks appear poised to secure a spot in the Western Conference playoff picture for the sixth consecutive year. To put that in perspective, the franchise had reached the postseason just four times over the previous 35 seasons. As if the simple act of losing wasn't enough for Clipper fans, there was the added embarrassment of living in the shadow of their Staples Center co-tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the tight-fisted reign of former owner Donald Sterling. But beyond one simple area of blame, to suffer through that kind of drought requires an on-going series of errors on multiple levels, including coaching failures, trade disasters, under-performing players and, of course, costly draft misses.
You'd figure that a team with the abysmal track record of the Clippers would be rewarded for their poor performance with plentiful top draft choices, and you'd be correct. Since moving to LA in 1984, they have selected in the top 10 on 18 different occasions, owning the No. 1 overall pick three times over that stretch. While some quality NBA players were taken with those picks, few ever really paid off for the Clippers. For every Blake Griffin, there are countless Michael Olowokandi's and Benoit Benjamin's, not to mention unfortunate injury situations (Danny Manning and Shaun Livingston) that highlighted the Clippers' status as a tortured franchise.
Things have grown rosy in Clipper Land of late, even if the natives are slowly getting restless over a team that can't seem to get over the second round hump. Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have helped turn the franchise into a perennial playoff contender at the same time as the Lakers' fortunes have taken a distinct downturn during a difficult, on-going rebuild. Still, even over their past 15 first round draft selections - a stretch that doesn't include the failed No. 1 picks of Olowokandi and Manning - there are some clear examples of missed opportunities to further add to that core and draft mistakes that have been just oh so typically Clippers.
Here is what the Clippers did, as well as what they probably should have done, with their past 15 first rounders:
1 Michael Redd (2000)
Original Pick: Quentin Richardson
In Quentin Richardson, the Clippers thought that they were drafting a dynamic scorer and three-point shooter who would serve as an offensive lynchpin to pair with Lamar Odom and Darius Miles (more on him in a moment). After all, Richardson was coming off a decorated two-year career at DePaul where he became the only player in school history to have 1,000+ points, 500+ rebounds and 100+ three-point field goals. But despite a respectable 13-year NBA career, he never quite realized that offensive potential.
The sharpshooter that the Clippers were hoping to draft in selection Richardson was actually taken 25 picks later. The Milwaukee Bucks happily claimed Michael Redd with the No. 43 pick, drafting the shooting guard that would lead the club in scoring for six straight seasons in the mid-2000's. Despite seeing his career shortened by injuries, Redd still earned an All-Star nod in 2004, won Olympic gold as part of Team USA in 2008 and reached No. 4 on the Bucks' all-time scoring list. Although Richardson stayed healthy enough to play more than 150 more games than Redd, it is Redd who holds an advantage of nearly 4,000 more career points.
If it weren't for infamous draft bust Kwame Brown, it might be Darius Miles who is remembered as the low point of the NBA's preps-to-pros movement. As part of the historically awful 2000 NBA Draft, Miles was taken third overall by a Clippers squad enamored with his potential as a long, athletic 6'9" teenager. After a reasonably promising rookie campaign, things just never got any better as Miles showed few signs of improvement and fewer indications that he was willing to work on his game.
There are precious few 2000 draftees still plying their trade in the league. Miles certainly isn't, having last played in 2009 and spending more time in prisons of late than in NBA arenas. One player who has stuck around, however, continues to play a major role - for the Clippers, ironically enough. Jamal Crawford, who was nabbed by Cleveland with the No. 8 pick, has been in LA since 2012, winning Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2014 and 2016. The career 15.3-point per game scorer is on the fringe of entering the top five in career three-pointers made.
Original Pick: Tyson Chandler (Traded)
Armed with the second overall pick in 2001, the Clippers and then-GM Elgin Baylor opted to flip it for the Rookie of the Year from one season prior, Elton Brand. The trade worked out spectacularly for the Clips, who saw Brand morph into a star while reaching two All-Star games and averaging 20.3 points and 10.3 rebounds while playing for LA. Although he bolted for Philadelphia in free agency under murky circumstances in 2008, Clippers fans still have fond memories of the power forward who led them to the second round of the playoffs in 2006.
For as good as Brand was, he wasn't Tony Parker. In true San Antonio Spurs' fashion, the franchise managed to land the player who was arguably the best player in the draft with the 28th pick. While the largely unknown Frenchman would never have been a realistic option with the No. 2 pick, he could have served as a long-term, homegrown fixture at the point, saving them from major investments in Baron Davis and then Chris Paul down the road. For a more realistic option, the Clips could have also selected Pau Gasol, who went to Memphis with the third pick and would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award.
There wasn't much star power to be found in the 2002 NBA Draft, what with just four All-Stars emerging from the draft class. So the selection of power forward Melvin Ely with the No. 12 pick wasn't quite as bad as his 375 games and 5.3-point career average might seem. Still, it was undeniably odd to use a lottery pick on a big man with Brand, Odom and Olowokandi established on the front line. Predictably, Ely struggled to find a place in the rotation and played less than 16 minutes per game over his first two seasons in the league before being shipped off to Charlotte.
The Clippers could have found a better fit in glue guy Tayshaun Prince, who was selected by the Detroit Pistons 11 picks later. With Detroit, he morphed into an integral puzzle piece alongside Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Ben and Rasheed Wallace and even won a title with the team in 2004. A defensive-minded wing with an impossibly long wingspan, Prince maintained value in the league as a veteran defensive specialist all the way up until last season while still holding out hope that he might catch on with a club for one more playoff push.
Back in 1999, still a few years before first round draft picks were protected as if they were general manager's first-born children, the Clippers actually pulled off something of a heist by snagging two first rounders from the Hawks in exchange for Lorenzen Wright. This could stand up as one of the more lopsided trades in league history were it not for the fact that Los Angeles didn't do much with the picks it was gifted.
Two years after the Clippers took Richardson with the first of the two acquired picks, they used the No. 8 pick in 2002 on Chris Wilcox. The drafting of the Maryland standout was a strange one, given their depth up front and their ensuing selection of the positionally similar Ely four picks later. As such, Wilcox averaged just 10.4 minutes of floor time during his rookie campaign. While that increased over his next few seasons, it was only after being traded to Seattle that Wilcox's career really took off. If they were so set on adding a frontcourt player, they could have had Amar'e Stoudemire or Caron Butler, All-Star-calber players taken with the next two picks.
Original Pick: Chris Kaman
The 2003 NBA Draft represented one of the greatest collections of incoming talent in NBA history. It also marked a classic example of the rotten luck experienced by the lowly Clips throughout their history. With four elite, superstar-caliber talents on the board, Los Angeles had the misfortune of drafting with the No. 6 pick, one pick after the last of the four had come off the board. To be fair, the Clippers did well to add a productive center and even a one-time All-Star to the club, even if his name doesn't quite carry the cache of a LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade.
In hindsight, it's tough to see how the Clippers could have made out much better than they did. Kaman played eight years with the Clips before being shipped to New Orleans in the Chris Paul mega-deal. Beyond his All-Star appearance in 2010, Kaman offered steady contributions of 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in Los Angeles. You could argue that No. 18 pick David West, who has had a better career statistically and continues to contribute as a veteran reserve for the elite Golden State Warriors, would have been a preferred choice, but the power forward would've faced a stiff challenge for minutes behind Brand.
Speaking of Clipper luck, we next move on to the sad case of Shaun Livingston. It was easy to see what Los Angeles saw in the fourth overall pick in 2004, a fluid, 6'7" point guard with a 6'11" wingspan. This size created match-up nightmares for opposing point guards and allowed the Clips to use him as the floor general or move him off the ball to the two-guard spot. Livingston's potential was being made increasingly clear over his first three seasons, peaking at career bests of 9.3 points and 5.1 assists per game in 2006-07. Then came the horrific knee injury that stopped his career in its tracks.
During a 2007 game against Charlotte, Livingston's leg buckled on a layup attempt, dislocating his knee cap and tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL. He would require a long road of rehab back to the NBA and would never play for the Clippers again. The Livingston story has a happy ending, with the point guard returning to health and resuming a career that has even included an NBA title as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Still, the injury ended any superstar aspirations he or the club had and, sentimentality aside, the Clippers would have been better off by taking a safe point guard choice in Devin Harris or the best player remaining on the board, Andre Iguodala, than getting two and a half years from Livingston.
There are draft successes and draft busts, and then there are the few who made so little of an impact that they generate a "who??" reaction from even the most dedicated of NBA draftniks. Yaroslav Korolev, the Clippers' No. 12 pick of the 2005 NBA Draft, is that type of player. Even amidst a pretty underwhelming draft class, only two first round draft choices (Fran Vazquez and Julius Hodge) wound up playing fewer than Korolev's 34 career NBA games. The 6'10" Russian power forward never scored more than seven points in an NBA contest and represented yet another case of a club being lured in by the promise of a mysterious European drawing vague Dirk Nowitzki comparisons.
If the Clippers were really coveting a forward with some offense to his game, they could have gone the safe route with Danny Granger. One of just five All-Stars in the class, Granger would go on to five seasons of scoring at least 18 points a game before his career was cut short at age 31 due to injury setbacks. Granger would actually join the Clips for the 2013-14 season, but the peak of his scoring prowess, including an All-Star campaign in 2008-09 that saw him average 25.8 points, was well behind him that that point.
In 2001, the Clippers missed on Pau Gasol. In 2007, they missed on Marc Gasol. To be fair, everyone in 2007 missed on the younger Gasol, who lasted until the 48th pick and was promptly traded to Memphis as part of a package for his older brother. But the Clips might feel a particular degree of sting stemming from the draft miss, as Gasol has come back to haunt the Grizzlies' rivals on multiple occasions. The Spanish big man has been firmly in the mix of some recent bad blood between the teams that has mainly involved Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin and played a key role in Memphis' 2013 playoff defeat of the Clips.
It's easy to say, with hindsight, that Los Angeles should have drafted the three-time All-Star and 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, but Gasol was probably never in consideration at No. 14. Realistically, Florida State University star Al Thornton was a far more reasonable pick and was even named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Thornton's career peaked when he averaged 16.8 points in his sophomore NBA season and he never even approached those numbers over the second half of what was just a four-year career.
On the surface, Eric Gordon looks like a successful selection as the No. 7 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. He has carved out a nine-year career as a consistent scorer who has averaged 16.6 points per game while shooting 43%. Still, for a club that was looking for a go-to No. 1 scorer to emerge, Gordon always left Clippers fans wanting a little more. Of course, the Indiana University star was never given much of a shot, seeing his career in LA cut short when the Paul trade came along. After five seasons in New Orleans that produced just one playoff appearance and no playoff wins, Gordon may have finally found his calling as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this season in Houston.
Drafting Brook Lopez or Serge Ibaka with the pick may have been the more prudent option in hindsight, but don't expect Clipper fans to bear too many regrets about 2008. While that's partly to do with Gordon being an integral component in the acquisition of Paul, a more significant reason came in their second round draft selection. With the No. 35 pick, they brought DeAndre Jordan into the fold, thereby beginning the formation of their current core.
Even when the poor Clippers get one right, they can't even really get it right. Griffin has come entirely as advertised since coming out of Oklahoma as the first overall pick in 2009. Even with his days of highlight reel dunks seemingly behind him, he remains a physical inside force who can run the floor and boasts an impressive mid-range game. After winning Rookie of the Year honors, Griffin has since been named to five All-Star teams and has led the Clips to the postseason in every year since 2011.
At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, you can't discuss Griffin without looking at the deficiencies as well. The injury issues he's faced aren't his fault, but the right hand injury sustained in a fight with a Clippers equipment staffer in 2016 probably is. There's also the fact that he has yet to lead Los Angeles past the second round of the playoffs, not to mention the trade murmurs that have surrounded him over the past year. Under other circumstances, these would be minor details. But having been drafted in a class that also produced superstar talent in James Harden and Steph Curry, it's difficult to see Griffin finishing any higher than third in a 2009 re-draft.
A flashback to 2010 in LA reveals a Clippers team that was approaching the cusp of some pretty exciting things, even if no one had yet to hear of 'Lob City.' Griffin was coming off of an explosive rookie campaign, Jordan was beginning to round into the interior force we now know him as and the team was amassing the assets they would use to land Paul about a year and a half later. The selection of a productive wing player here could have helped bolster their developing core over the long-term. Although a perfectly capable NBA player, Al-Farooq Aminu was not that guy.
The current Blazer failed to establish a clear role for himself in Los Angeles and averaged just 5.6 points in sparse duty as a rookie. Then came the Paul deal, which shipped him off to New Orleans. Yes, he was involved in a trade that helped the Clips land their franchise point guard, but Aminu was hardly the centerpiece of the deal and it may have still been able to work out without his involvement. A better scenario for the Clippers probably could have played out had they snapped up the local Palmdale product and California State University star Paul George, who would go two picks later to Indiana.
The Clippers sat out the first round of the 2011 and 2012 drafts after two trades that look very different in hindsight. The 2012 pick was a necessary casualty of the wildly successful Paul trade, but the 2011 selection, surrendered as the price of unloading Baron Davis' contract, turned into a first overall pick and Kyrie Irving. Ouch. By 2013, the success of the franchise had turned that first rounder into a late selection, leaving less of a shot at a quality player than they had enjoyed over their years in the lottery.
Reggie Bullock simply wasn't that guy. The UNC alum rarely got into games with the Clippers and didn't really wow anyone when he did play. He was dealt to Phoenix part-way through his second NBA season in a deal that brought Austin Rivers to the Clippers and hasn't exactly made Los Angeles regret their decision in nondescript stops with the Suns and, more recently, the Pistons. Although a miss with the 25th pick in a draft isn't uncommon and doesn't typically come back to burn a team, this particular draft happened to see Rudy Gobert go to the Utah Jazz two picks later.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but C.J. Wilcox wasn't afforded much of an opportunity with the Clippers and was traded early in his young career. Much like Bullock before him, there just wasn't much room for Wilcox to immediately contribute. But at least Bullock was shipped out in exchange for a helpful roster piece. Wilcox was quietly shipped off to Orlando last July in a minor deal for Devyn Marble, who was promptly waived, and a future second rounder. In other words, the Clip's 2014 first rounder was essentially turned into a 2020 second rounder.
Surely, the Clippers couldn't have missed out on another blue chip talent with a pick so late in the draft two years in a row, could they? Unfortunately for the Clippers, this season has seen the remarkable emergence of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who was taken with the 41st pick in 2014. Amidst Jokic's many eye-popping stat lines this year, there was a 24-point, 10-rebound showing at Staples Center in a road win over the Clippers. When he hasn't been recording triple doubles, he has produced 40-point scoring efforts and 21-rebound showings.
For all we know, Brice Johnson may be poised for a long, fruitful NBA career as a key cog for the Los Angeles Clippers. His three minutes of play time for the club this season doesn't offer much chance to evaluate him as a pro. Of course, the Clips' track record, particularly with late first round UNC alums, doesn't bode well. He has now played three games with the Salt Lake City Stars of the D-League, which is probably the right place for him, and has not looked out of place with averages of nine points and 6.3 rebounds in just 14.1 minutes per game.
It's just the luck of the Clippers that a second round pick is already out-performing his draft spot to make the selection of Johnson already seem unsatisfactory. No. 36 pick Malcom Brogdon has been a revelation for the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging around 10 points and 4.0 assists while earning 25.8 minutes of floor time for a playoff hopeful. Even the Bucks weren't anticipating on landing a potential Rookie of the Year candidate so deep in the draft, but it still has to sting the Clippers a little bit after they drafted a college senior with the idea that he'd contribute fairly immediately.
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