The small numbers that led to $2 billion

The $2 billion valuation for the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn’t be possible without the numbers 5, 3, 6 and 10. Those were the digits on the ping-pong balls that allowed the Clippers to win the 2009 draft lottery, the combination that led to them landing Blake Griffin. Steve Ballmer’s record-setting purchase price for the franchise makes that pick the financial equivalent of the enduring success the San Antonio Spurs enjoyed by winning the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.

Everything the Clippers have become started with Griffin. Without Griffin there’d be no Chris Paul. Without Chris Paul there’d be no Doc Rivers. And without Griffin and Paul and Rivers, would there be a $2 billion dollar sale?

We’ll never know for sure. Maybe Ballmer was just that set on getting a team. A league source said Ballmer had expressed regret about losing out on the Sacramento Kings and wished he’d kept going until the number got so high the NBA had to relent to his Seattle-based group. The source said Ballmer vowed to never get outbid again. Maybe all it took was the availability of a team in Los Angeles in a modern arena with a local television deal that’s about to make them free agents in the city’s most competitive sports TV rights market ever. Maybe those factors alone were enough for Ballmer to get to three commas, then quickly double it.

But the fact that it was a good team couldn’t hurt, right? It’s not the L.A. NBA team with the glorious past, but it is the more successful L.A. NBA team of the present, and the one with the more promising future.

And that all goes back to Blake Griffin. Sometimes I’ll look at him, off at the far end of the Clippers practice facility shooting free throws, and wonder how so much money – a mini-economy, really – can be tied to one person’s basketball ability. If he ever had those thoughts as well he just saw a clear example leap out of the headlines the way he soars to the hoop.

The bad part is there’s no way for him to be justly compensated. His salary remains the same no matter if the franchise value quadrupled during his time in uniform. It’s actually been worse for Tim Duncan. The salary cap rules have forced him to slash his salary in order for the Spurs to surround him with enough talent to keep contending for championships.

Here’s an idea for the next go-round of collective bargaining: what about allowing teams to provide shares of the team that vest upon retirement for players who have spent at least 12 years with the same franchise? Give the superstars some equity for the loyalty they’ve shown to the team and the value they’ve added to it. That way the Lakers could simply reward Kobe Bryant for what he’s meant to them, rather than simultaneously punish him by making it harder for him to chase his sixth ring because his salary eats up so much of the cap.

The side effect could be small market teams would be less likely to get LeBronned and watch a superstar draft pick depart to spend the prime years of his career elsewhere. The prospect of spending a dozen years in Milwaukee might be more appealing to a player if he knew he could reap the benefits the next time the team gets sold for a surprisingly high amount.

The way it stands now, the NBA is players’ league – until it’s time for the biggest checks to be deposited. That's when even the high-flying Griffin can only stand to the side and watch.