Denouncing Doc Rivers' praise of the L.A. Clippers' roster building
Los Angeles Clippers head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has an almost unrivalled autonomy amongst NBA executives. Whereas there is often a disconnect to be found between a coaching staff and the front office above it, Rivers fills both of these roles for the Clippers, which means he coaches the exact roster he chooses to put together. Notwithstanding the obvious help he gets in compiling a roster, Rivers is the shot caller and the final decision maker.
Last week, in a podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski at The Vertical, Rivers anoints his and his team’s abilities to fill out their roster around the big three of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin using mostly only the minimum salary as ‘miraculous’. There have certainly been some successes with the minimum salary, some underappreciated, that lend his statement some credence.
However, this still is a rather grandiose claim. And while there is some evidence to support it, it does not take a whole lot of further scrutiny to realise the flaws in the Clippers’ and Doc’s team building approach that the grandiosity of this statement accidentally highlights.
The relative successes using the minimum salary of which Rivers speaks have in recent years included Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson. Aldrich, a long time underrated player who should never have been available for the minimum salary in the first place, posted 3.5 win shares and a 21.3 PER last year, which he has since turned into a three-year, $22 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Meanwhile, Johnson played the bulk of the (extremely) available small forward minutes for the Clippers last
Meanwhile, Johnson played the bulk of the (extremely) available small forward minutes for the Clippers last year and proved himself to be thoroughly reasonable. Also in there is Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, a friend to writers with minimum word counts to meet everywhere, who signed as an afterthought pickup late in the free agency season yet who wound up starting 61 games.
This year, the Clippers have re-signed both Johnson and Mbah A Moute, and have signed Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass and Raymond Felton to minimum salary deals. Speights and Bass are capable-to-good offensive big men who largely duplicate each other and provide little internal defence, once again leaving Jordan to do it all, whereas Felton is a journeyman second or third stringer whose best quality is being 'steady'. But this is the minimum salary – no one is going to be perfect, and all three should contribute.
In this respect, the Clippers do indeed have some successes under the belt with the minimum, perhaps with more to come. Moreso than most teams, even. The problem lies in the specifics of Rivers’s claim, and of what it overlooks. Rivers' exact words were thus:
“[...]we also only have the minimum to try to go out and get a three. I think it's been actually miraculous what we've done with just having minimum contracts.”
But the Clippers do not “only” have the minimum. They do not “just” have this one tool in the arsenal. Rather, it is the only one with which they have had any success.
Just like everyone else, the Clippers have had the draft to work with. But they haven't done this under Rivers. This is particularly striking given that the core of their team was achieved in this way.
Drafted 38th in the 2008 NBA draft, DeAndre Jordan has been one of the draft steals of a generation. The following year, Griffin was drafted 1st overall, and although you cannot give too much credit for a team making a really obvious first overall pick, the foundation was nonetheless built via the draft.
In 2010, Al-Farouq Aminu was drafted 8th overall, had an unremarkable rookie campaign, and then dealt to the New Orleans Hornets as the fourth-best piece in a four-piece trade for Chris Paul. (Aminu has since gone on to become a fine NBA player, yet not for either of these two teams.) And yet since that time, the Clippers have whiffed in the draft.
More importantly, they have whiffed on trying in the draft.
Consider some of the other players drafted by the Clippers in the Rivers era. Reggie Bullock was drafted 25th overall in 2013, barely played for two years, was traded along with a second round pick for Austin Rivers, and is now out of the league. C.J. Wilcox was drafted 24th in 2014, barely played for two years, and was last month dumped off to Orlando in exchange for Cleveland’s 2020 second round pick. Branden Dawson’s rights (56th pick, 2015) were acquired on his respective draft night, but he too was cut last month. And aside from Brice Johnson, David Michineau and Diamond Stone - acquired in this year’s draft - that is it for Clippers draftees under Rivers. Every other pick got dealt before it was made.
Combined with this draft indifference is an unsuccessful record in trades. The Lance Stephenson gamble, while thoroughly unsuccessful, was initially fine considering the tiny price paid – the Clippers bought extremely low, and thus lost nothing. But they then sold even lower, attaching a first round pick to Stephenson in exchange for a rental of Jeff Green, who has now left in free agency with no assets returning.
Doc may now be paying for Green through the 2021 season, the last year in which the first round pick might be conveyed. By no justification was this worth it. The gamble did not pay off, and just as gamblers have learned for generations, throwing good money after bad only made it worse.
Eric Bledsoe and a second round pick were traded for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Dudley himself was later traded along with a first round pick for the exact same second round pick as above, along with the salaries of Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica (the latter of whom should have been kept, but neither of whom were). A 2018 second round pick was given away to salary dump Byron Mullens onto Philadelphia (the pick received in return was never conveyed). And aside from a couple of ultimately meaningless deals in which assets were neither lost not gained (Josh Smith for unwanted draft rights, salary dumps of Antawn Jamison and Jared Cunningham), those are all the trades made in the Rivers era.
First round picks are far more valuable than minimum salary contracts. They are finite, for one – there should only be one per year per team, whereas teams can use as many Minimum Salary Exceptions as they have roster spots. Also, they allow for control over a player and their short/medium term futures in a way the minimum salary (normally one year in practice for veterans for reasons unbefitting of this space) does not. And then in trade, the picks carry (or should carry) far more value.
Signing a quality player for the minimum salary is a good move, but it does not create an asset – very rarely are these players traded. A first round pick, meanwhile, should carry great value. Particularly ones that haven't been made yet.
For the Clippers, it has not been that way. A first round pick was given up for Green, another one was given up along with Dudley, and two more were used on Bullock and Wilcox to no effect. That is four first rounders burned through. Even more second rounders have been burned, and unless the 2016 crop yields anything (which it might), the evidence points entirely one way.
It is here where the problem with Rivers's statement comes. It ignores the fact that the Clippers put themselves in a position where the minimum salary had to be so 'miraculous'. Their draft picks have not been good, their trades arguably worse, and their more expensive free agency signings (Paul Pierce, Jordan Farmar, Spencer Hawes) all varying degrees of unsuccessful.
The takeaway here is not that the Clippers fail to land good players. They do so, and often with the minimum salary. Doc is right that having a 'big three' (and, just as significantly, a prime ticket) allows them to do this moreso than most teams - even in a free agency boon, some players still get squeezed down undeservedly to the minimum salary, and the Clippers are a good place for them to land. But this exploitation of one market inefficiency is all done in conjunction with a misuse of other aspects of team building, and woefully inefficient performances in other areas. Slap yourself on the back at your ability to get out of the predicament as you wish, but know also what got you in it.