The most productive offseason in the NBA began when the Los Angeles Clippers decided to take on the contract of the league's biggest underachiever the previous season. Next, the player whose signature was the Clippers' top priority immediately became damaged goods. The only new addition to the starting lineup is now scoring at a career-low rate.
Somehow it has all combined to rank the Clippers among the NBA's elite teams.
The risks have paid off. The misses haven't set them back. Their team has more chemistry than Dow Corning. It would warrant NBA executive of the year honors for the Clippers' general manager -- if they had one at the time. Neil Olshey had left to become the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers on June 4, three days after the Clippers had announced they had reached an agreement in principle to retain him. That hadn't stopped Olshey from continuing to negotiate with the Trail Blazers, who made a better offer that he accepted.
Twenty-four days before the draft and less than a month before the beginning of free agency, the Clippers had a void in their front office. They decided not to fill it immediately.
"As a company, we already had a plan," Clippers president Andy Roeser said.
So they stuck with it, rather than bring in someone at the last minute who might have his own ideas. Gary Sacks, the Clippers' director of player personnel, took on a bigger role. So did Vinny Del Negro, the head coach whose job status was considered shaky after a three-game losing streak in March. Only under contract through the 2012-13 season, Del Negro was asked to make decisions affecting the long-term future of the franchise.
"I always feel my job is to put the organization and the team in an area for consistent and long-term success, and all the other things take care of themselves," Del Negro said.
He also could draw upon his experience and connections with agents from his short stint as the assistant general manager of the Phoenix Suns. He was there for Grant Hill's first year in Phoenix, a relationship that helped the Clippers bring in the veteran forward last summer.
There wasn't much need to focus on the draft -- the Clippers had already traded their first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for the draft rights to Eric Bledsoe in 2010, and they sent their rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves' pick to the New Orleans Hornets as part of the Chris Paul trade. But with only seven players under contract, they had to get busy filling out the roster they had cobbled together in the hectic, lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
"I thought it was very important that we address our depth," Del Negro said. "I thought that was a major concern for us. Obviously, the flexibility moving forward, you always want to keep. But the depth factor -- how we could get a nice balance on our roster with our younger players and some guys in their prime and then some veteran guys."
Bit by bit, the pieces came together. By themselves, they didn't warrant SportsCenter updates. Together, they have the Clippers competing for the best record in the NBA. Here's the story behind some of the key transactions from the summer:
June 29: Traded for Lamar Odom
They knew they had to move Mo Williams, who was stuck behind Paul, would deprive Bledsoe of minutes and wouldn't be happy about the situation. And speaking of unhappy, the Clippers weren't daunted by Lamar Odom's waste of a season in Dallas, where he languished in the aftermath of his trade from the Los Angeles Lakers and was eventually told to stay away from the team.
The question for the Clippers was whether they should trade for Odom and take on his $8.2 million salary for 2012-13, or wait for the Mavericks to cut him so the Clippers could sign him for less. The Clippers decided to go the trade route for two reasons: It would solve the Williams issue, and it would allow them to obtain Odom without using their mid-level exception.
On June 29, the day before Odom's salary became fully guaranteed, the Clippers sent Williams to the Utah Jazz and received Odom in a four-team trade that included the Houston Rockets. The Clippers wanted Odom's size and versatility. They figured a return to Los Angeles would make him happier; the problem was it seemed to make him content.
He showed up to training camp out of shape, which led to some nagging injuries and limited his contributions to the "negligible" category for the first month of the season. But as he rounded into shape, he started becoming an asset -- rebounding, pushing the ball upcourt and scoring (as an afterthought). Things just seem to go better when he's on the court -- he was an astounding plus-25 in 33 minutes in a win at the Memphis Grizzlies last week -- and Del Negro often keeps him in the lineup to close games.
The Clippers' first priority, though, was getting Blake Griffin to sign an extension. Griffin is, quite simply, the most important player in Clippers history. This whole ascension to contention is based on him. Well, that and the combination 5-3-6-10, the winning numbers for the Clippers in the 2009 draft lottery.
"If you look at the whole thing, it started with luck," Roeser said.
Without Griffin, no way Paul would ever consider a trade to the Clippers. But having Griffin to lure Paul wasn't enough. They needed to keep Griffin to keep Paul. With Griffin eligible for an extension as he entered the final year of his rookie contract, the Clippers were in a rush to get the deal -- worth up to $95 million across five years -- solidified.
Griffin had indicated a desire to stay, but with qualifiers, such as, "If we're really committed to winning" and "Things have to be on the up."
The Clippers committed. Things were up. They matched a $43 million offer sheet from the Golden State Warriors to Griffin's buddy DeAndre Jordan. Then, they landed Paul. They won a bruising, seven-game playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies.
On July 10, Clipper representatives flew to Las Vegas, where Griffin was training with the United States Olympic basketball team. The window for signing him began after midnight Eastern time, and Griffin put his signature to the contract within the first hour.
"Almost everything that we as a group, as players, have wanted to see happen, has happened," Griffin said recently. "I think we've shown that this is a place that's capable of winning. But now, we have to solidify ourselves as a team that can contend for championships. That takes belief
"I couldn't be like, 'Well, we can win games and get to the playoffs, but I don't know if we can win championships.' It takes buying in. And that [contract extension] was my way of buying in and saying, 'I'm all in.'"
They all went out to dinner after the signing, with Roeser bringing the contract with him for safekeeping.
Next, there was some final paperwork to take care of while Griffin went to practice.
"The insurance got approved by noon," Roeser said. "And he was hurt by 1."
Griffin had torn cartilage in his left knee, the same knee that he injured and sat out his entire first season with the Clippers as a result. Eventually, the fear dissipated, and Griffin has demonstrated he can still elevate to throw down lob passes as if nothing ever happened.
Griffin's signing didn't change the outlook for this season -- he was already under contract for it. But it signaled a new era for the Clippers. They represent not only a place where stars come, but a place where stars stay.
July 11: Signed Jamal Crawford
With their mid-level exception intact, the Clippers were then able to offer Jamal Crawford a $5 million starting salary for a four-year, $21.35 million contract he signed on July 11. It has proven to be their impact signing of the summer. Crawford quickly emerged as a top sixth man of the year candidate (he had Kobe Bryant's vote two games into the season), and has come off the bench to lead the Clippers in scoring nine times.
The Clippers were undaunted by Crawford's 14 points per game and 38.4 field goal percentage with the Portland Trail Blazers last season, which were some of the lowest numbers of his career. They saw a guy who could get his own shot and provide another late-game scoring threat for an offense that had a tendency to become one-dimensional (that dimension being Paul) in crunch time.
"CP was the first person to call me, then Coach Del Negro, Blake [Griffin], and they all told me I was their first option," Crawford said. "When superstar players and coaching staff and an organization tell you that, it makes you feel good.
"When I went on my lunch date with them, I told them they were my first option. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I was just being honest."
July 11: Re-signed Chauncey Billups
In its own way, the Clippers getting Chauncey Billups to re-up for one year at $4 million was just as symbolic. He had gone from being reluctant to join them when they won the bidding process following his "amnesty" waiver from the New York Knicks to eager to be a part of what the Clippers were building.
"My thing is, I want to win," Billups said. "I felt like they put the pieces together to win. We talked about the pieces that we need at the end of the year. They attacked that. I was watching with eagle eyes. I felt like we could, and we had opportunity to contend for a championship. Things went well. It's looking that way right now. We should contend this year."
The Clippers wanted him even though they knew he would not be available at the start of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered in February. His perspective is invaluable; he's like the sage martial arts expert dispensing wisdom while the young practitioners go through their drills.
July 30: Sign-and-traded for Willie Green
The Clippers brought in Willie Green to hold Billups' spot in the starting lineup, and it doesn't even matter that Green is averaging a career-low 6.5 points per game while Billups has missed all but three games. Green didn't complain about not getting off the bench when Billups came back on Nov. 28. He didn't say, "Oh, now you want me again?" when Billups suffered another injury and Del Negro called on Green again.
"[Chris Paul] was not shy about sharing his opinion. He was very enthusiastic about the things we wanted to do and took it upon himself to help out.
”-- Clippers president Andy Roeser
The most significant part of Green's presence? Paul wanted his former New Orleans teammate, and Paul got him. Paul got a lot of what he wanted this summer. According to one agent, the Clippers had interest in a client of his, but said they couldn't make him an offer because they were beholden to Paul's wishes. With re-signing Paul when he becomes a free agent the top priority in 2013, you better believe Paul has a lot of say these days.
As one Clippers source put it, "It's Chris' team."
Said Roeser: "He was not shy about sharing his opinion. He was very enthusiastic about the things we wanted to do and took it upon himself to help out."
Sept. 14: Signed Matt Barnes
After Matt Barnes played like a defensive maniac and kept winning pickup game after pickup game in the Clippers' practice facility last summer, Paul was stunned to learn that the Lakers weren't bringing Barnes back.
"Chris was like, 'You're going to sign here,'" Barnes said.
Paul notified the Clippers front office. Within a week, they signed Barnes to a veteran minimum contract.
"I came in here and had a talk with Vinny before I signed," Barnes said. "He said, 'There's a lot of guys at your position. I can't guarantee you minutes.' I said, 'Just give me a chance to compete. That's all I ask.' He said, 'You can have that.'
"I just knew if I had a chance, I'd be able to get on the court and play."
Barnes has not only played, he's been the game-high scorer three times. His defense is one reason the Clippers are fourth in points allowed. He's a reason the Clippers have thrived even though Grant Hill is just now able to play again after missing the season's first 36 games.
Barnes is part of the Clippers' minimum brigade, along with Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins. The three are players the Clippers picked up for around a million bucks each, and they've all contributed. Hill also came aboard in mid-July after signing for two years at the bi-annual exception of $1.9 million per season.
In September, Sacks was rewarded with a promotion to the GM position (his official title is vice president of basketball operations). Del Negro has yet to receive an extension, but a deep playoff run with the roster he helped assemble would probably lock it up.
The Clippers did it all while remaining just under the luxury tax threshold. Signing Paul to a maximum contract will probably take the team into the tax, but it plans to remain within the "apron" that would effectively serve as a hard salary cap.
While the Lakers grabbed the headlines with their acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, it was the Clippers' mostly small-print moves that have produced the more successful team in Los Angeles this season. They say sometimes the best moves are the ones you didn't make. In this case, the best moves were the ones that didn't make noise.