There are exciting acquisitions, which teams trumpet on billboards and their official websites, and then there are acquisitions that actually make teams better. The Clippers made a lot of splashes this offseason with the former, but they did little of the latter.
Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford may be names most casual fans recognize, and on paper a lineup that includes those three coming off the bench looks strong.
Those three have two Sixth Man of the Year awards and seven All-Star appearances (all Hill's) among them, and adding players with those resumes to a core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would appear to make the Clippers a dark horse contender in the Western Conference.
As exciting as those additions may sound, though, none of the Clippers' moves this offseason amounts to anything that truly improves the team's chances of contending this year or in the long-term. Long accustomed to losing the old-fashioned way through brazen disinterest, the Clippers made many mistakes typical of a newly respectable organization. Like the nouveau riche buying a gallery full of gaudy modern art simply because the artist is famous, the Clippers snatched up almost every available player they once saw on a Slam magazine cover.
Odom's well-worn saga began prior to last season. Upset over his inclusion in trade talks, the versatile forward requested a trade from the Lakers, which the team granted in sending Odom to the Mavericks. Once in Dallas, Odom fell into a funk, clashed with owner Mark Cuban and eventually was traded to the Clippers for pennies on the dollar. Now back in Los Angeles, the Clippers hope Odom can rediscover his game, albeit with a different franchise than the one he helped win back-to-back NBA championships.
If Odom is the infuriatingly gifted player who refused to fulfill his potential, Hill is one of his extreme opposites. After earning four All-Star invitations in his first four years in the NBA, Hill saw his once-promising career derailed by a series of ankle injuries, and considered retirement at 34 years old. After joining the Phoenix Suns and coming under the supervision of their respected training staff, Hill resurrected his career as a role player. No longer able to carry the scoring load he once did, Hill focused on once again being an all-league caliber defender. He played in 80 games or more for three straight seasons, including all 82 in 2008-09.
Crawford, like Odom, is coming off a disappointing season in an environment that was never the right fit. Paired with a bad point guard in Raymond Felton, Crawford's field goal and 3-point shooting percentages cratered while his offensive rating, reliably 105 points or above per 100 possessions for the last three seasons, toppled to 102.3. Crawford opted not to pick up his $5.2 million option with the Blazers and signed via the midlevel exception for roughly the same annual salary over four years with the Clippers.
One way to evaluate an acquisition is to project what reasonable contributions a player is almost certain to add in the coming seasons. The Celtics know they have a reliable shooter in Jason Terry, so they are willing to compensate for his shortcomings in other areas, for instance. Similarly, the Lakers are close to positive that Steve Nash will run an efficient offense, so they are comfortable with his defensive liabilities.
Odom, Hill and Crawford bring no certainty as to what they can contribute this season. That is not a good thing for the Clippers. In a perfect world, Odom, 32, and Hill, 39, could rediscover their youth and continue their runs of good health, while Crawford, 32, could go back to scoring like he was 28 again. Yet judging players based on what they can accomplish "in a perfect world" is dangerous. The production of all three players has trended downward in the last two years, which is never encouraging for athletes on their side of 30. The Clippers also retained shooting guard Chauncey Billups, 35 years old and coming off a torn left Achilles tendon, on a one-year deal.
A severe Clippers apologist might argue that within the team's payroll constraints, the Clips did what they could. They extended Blake Griffin's contract for the maximum allowable five years by utilizing the "designated player" tag, while Caron Butler and Jordan will cost the team more than $18 million combined over the next two seasons. Los Angeles also let shooting guard Nick Young go, after which he signed a reported one-year, $6 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Considering all this, as well as the fact that under the collective bargaining agreement, Crawford's midlevel exception prevented the Clippers from going more than $4 million above the $70.3 million luxury tax line, the Clippers' offseason was not a total failure. They added enough quality players to remain relevant and at least potentially keep the Pacific Division race interesting.
This was not supposed to be an era of relevance for the Clippers, however. When the NBA green-lighted the trade for Paul last year, the Clippers were supposed to be on the way to eclipsing the Lakers as Hollywood's team. A second-round playoff bounce in the first year of Lob City may have been acceptable, even encouraging. But with Paul eligible for free agency at the end of this season, the Clippers need something more than another quick four-and-out in the conference semifinals — or at least a sign that there is the potential for contention beyond this season — to convince Paul to stay. The moves the Clippers made this offseason will leave them hard-pressed to fulfill that goal.
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