How Not to Draft, by the L.A. Clippers
A pathetic history, to say the least.
by Donnell Suggs
The old saying goes: Lightening never strikes twice. Don’t tell that to the fans of the Los Angeles “share the Staples Center with the back to back champion Lakers” Clippers. You can’t even describe the Clippers as ‘bridesmaids’ because they aren’t even invited to the wedding.
Since 1985, the introduction of the NBA lottery draft (Shout out to Patrick Ewing, the League’s first ever lottery pick), the L.A. Clippers have had 21 lottery picks. Out of those chosen 21 picks only one was ever named to the All-Star team as a Clipper, the first overall pick in the 1988 Draft Danny Manning. Manning only made two All-Star teams himself during a respectable career. Thus the curse of the Clippers. This year’s free-agent crop is the best the League has ever seen — with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson to name a few — but not one of those players gave the Clippers a real listen. Oh yes, the Clipper curse is real. Read on and see what I mean.
There is no exact science to selecting a college or high school player, putting that player in an NBA rotation, most times as a starter, and then expecting said player to deliver on the million-dollar salary teams pay them to play. Few teams get it right 50 percent of the time. San Antonio, for example, does well on a regular basis, but the Los Angeles Clippers took drafting in the lottery to new heights of mediocrity. Bought by current owner Donald Sterling in 1981 and moved to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984, the Clippers have only had three seasons over .500 since moving to L.A. In one of those seasons, ‘92-93, they finished 41-41 and lost in the first round of the Playoffs. It’s safe to say the Clippers are the worst organization in American sports. Here’s how they got there via the NBA Draft. Enjoy.
The brilliant minds down at the NBA headquarters in NYC decided too many teams were taking the second half of seasons off in hopes of bettering their draft status (see Houston and Chicago during the ’83-84 season) and came up with a surefire way to keep teams honest despite their losing ways: a lottery. Staring in the summer of 1985, the first for newly hired commissioner David Stern, has both helped build championship teams (see Spurs lottery pick Tim Duncan) and hurt teams for years with bad contracts to even worse players (see over No. 1 picks Pervis Ellison-Sacramento 1989 and Kwame Brown-Washington 2001).
In 1985, the draft lottery’s maiden voyage in which the New York Knicks , the League’s flagship franchise ‘received’ the first pick which became Georgetown All-American center Patrick Ewing. The trend was to draft big, after all you can’t teach height. Most general managers felt that a franchise center was the best way to a championship (see Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics and Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers) and after Ewing the next best available center was Creighton University’s Benoit Benjamin. Benjamin, a 7-0 true center had huge potential, so did a hard working power forward from little Louisiana Tech named Karl Malone. The Clippers chose Benjamin and the Utah Jazz selected Malone with that the 13th pick. The Jazz went on to two decades of excellence and two finals appearances.
The Clippers, on the other hand, drafted a conundrum in Benjamin. On again, off again, mostly off, Benjamin had a checkered 15-year career that in no way belied a No. 3 pick overall. Both from Louisiana, Benjamin and Malone are on opposite ends of the basketball universe. Malone will soon be inducted in to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, both as a member of the 1992 Olympic Basketball Team a.k.a. The Dream Team and as an individual. Benjamin played for nine different franchises, three separate times only playing in seven or less games in a single season.
The Clipper lottery curse began with a bang, then was spared a pick in the famous crash of 1986 Draft a.k.a. the Len Bias draft. In 1987, the Clip Show was blessed with two picks in the lottery and another top-20 pick, No. 19. There was no way they could mess this up, right? The top pick that year was center David Robinson of the Naval Academy, even though he was about to serve four years of Naval duty he was worth the investment to whoever got the first pick that year. The Clippers ended up with the 7th pick and selected Georgetown Hoya string bean swingman Reggie Williams.
The fact that he was the first of three ‘Reggie’s to be drafted in the ’87 1st round was rare, that he ended being the first selected but the worse of the three was classic Clipper luck. Reggie Miller selected 11th will be inducted in to the Hall of Fame for his clutch career as an Indiana Pacer and the late Reggie Lewis was selected 23rd by the Celtics and was on his way to a similar career before his untimely death in ’93. Both would have changed the Clippers fortunes. That Miller played four years in the Clippers backyard as a UCLA Bruin makes the Williams choice look more and more foolish as time goes by.
Taking draft risks are what changes franchises from bad to good to great, ask Utah about taking a skinny little guard out of Gonzaga with their first round pick in 1984. John Stockton is the League’s all-time leader in assist and steals, the Clippers could have had him too in ’84, two picks prior they drafted power forward Michael Cage out of San Diego State. Classic. That second pick in the ’87 Draft was used to select Joe Wolf out of North Carolina, who I’m sure was a nice guy but not a better player than fellow All-ACC contemporary Tyrone “Mugsy” Bouges of Wake Forest or St. John’s point guard Mark Jackson who went to the Knicks at No. 18 and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award. Double oops. The Clippers could have left the ’87 Draft with their backcourt of the future and used the 19th pick to take Lewis instead of Illinois forward Ken Norman. Triple oops.
Every dog has its day, though, and the Clippers came away with the No. 1 overall pick in 1988. The consensus and obvious pick would have to be NCAA Player of the Year Danny Manning. Manning led Kansas to the championship almost single-handedly and would be the perfect building block for the franchise. Twenty-six games in to an excellent ’88 season Manning tore his ACL and had to miss the rest of the season, he was averaging 16 points per game at the time. He came back to have two all-star seasons as a Clipper, the most in franchise’s history but it would be a while before a Clipper rookie played as well as Manning did. How did the Clippers reward the team captain and two-time All-Star? They traded him to Atlanta for an aging Dominique Wilkins. Once again a prime example of Clipper magic at it’s best but the best move was yet to come.
In 1989 the Clippers 21-61 and received the 2nd overall pick, rumor had it that Duke’s Danny Ferry wasn’t in love with Sacramento or the Clippers, owners of the first two picks respectively. Sacramento selected Louisville’s Pervis Ellison with the first pick and the Clippers selected Danny Ferry despite warnings that he would never play in a Clipper jersey. He kept his word and played a year in Italy instead, a year later getting traded to Cleveland for scoring machine Ron Harper. Instead of a disgruntled Ferry, Clipper management I.e. Hall of Fame forward Elgin Baylor, then Clipper General Manager, could have drafted Glen Rice, who went 4th to Miami or Shawn Kemp, who went 17th to Seattle. Both players becoming better pros than the overrated Ferry, that year’s 14th overall pick to Golden State would have been a good selection too, South side Chicago and UTEP’s own Tim Hardaway.
Over the next 20 seasons the Los Angeles Clippers would only have three winning seasons and a number of even more astonishing draft flops: 1989′s Bo Kimble (8th overall), 1998′s Michael Olowokandi (1st overall!), 2000′s Darius Miles (3rd overall) and quite possibly the worst of them all 2004′s 4th overall pick Peoria Central High School’s Shaun Livingston. A point guard of immense ability and confidence, he could barely stay on the court as a pro and was out of a Clipper uniform by 2008 having never played more than 61 games in a single season. After frequent knee injuries and subsequent surgeries he is continuing his career with the Washington Wizards, having played well for them in 26 games towards the end of the season. It would be the Clippers luck that Livingston comes back to become the League’s Most Improved Player. Recent pick Eric Gordon (2008-7th overall) has been a positive addition to an improving team behind the leadership of Baron Davis. Never too far away, The Clipper curse struck down No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin during the preseason in a meaningless game a few weeks prior to the season opener.
Griffin is said to be back in form and with both first round picks from the 2010 Draft, Wake Forest forward Al-Farouq Aminu and Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe signed and ready to go, the Clipper future has never looked brighter. That has got to scare the hell out of every Clipper fan in America. All seven of us.
Donnell Suggs is a sportswriter and reporter for The Atlanta Voice. The Brooklyn, NY native has also written for Black Enterprise. This is his first piece for SLAMonline.