Doc Rivers is making trades exactly as you would expect a coach to. Trading future 1st for a chance to sign more veterans.
— Craig Freeman (@CraigFreemanNBA) August 29, 2014
That’s why I’m completely against having a coach making basketball decisions. They can have input, but shouldn’t wield all the power.
— Craig Freeman (@CraigFreemanNBA) August 29, 2014
With Friday’s announcement that the Los Angeles Clippers had waived and “stretched” the newly acquired Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica, the Clips have essentially exchanged Jared Dudley, between $950,000 and $1.58 million in cash and cap space over the next several years* and a protected 2017 1st round pick for a future 2nd, and the right to sign three veterans to minimum contracts. If that looks like turning a dollar into four dimes, it’s because that is an accurate description.
*at the time of this writing, it is not totally clear whether the released players salaries will be paid over three or five years
There are a number of problems with this deal. Though the purpose of the trade is clear, in terms of giving the Clips some wiggle room under the salary cap “apron” (essentially a hard cap imposed on any team using mid-level or bi-annual exceptions). However, even under those terms, this brief sequence of moves demonstrates some flawed thinking. Without going too deeply into any one fault, as reasonable minds can differ over the wisdom of any one transaction, here are the worst:
- With multiple teams having the cap space to simply absorb Dudley’s contract (Philadelphia, Utah, Orlando and even the Bucks themselves), did L.A. need to take on salary in return?
- Why stretch Raduljica, a big man who performed decently in limited minutes last year, simply to “save” about $200k on another minimum salary back up big? Especially since the relief offered by waiving Delfino gave them enough space to sign two minimum salary vets.
- Timing: why the rush? Minimum-salary level players will be available any time between now and the trade deadline. That first round pick could certainly fetch more later in the season than it is doing now.
The last point is, in a vacuum, slightly unfair. The Clippers couldn’t even invite enough players to have a real training camp prior to the cost-cutting and cap-clearing moves. Once backed into that corner, something obviously had to be done. Therein lies the rub, as the desperate situation calling for emergency action was completely foreseeable.
Signing Spencer Hawes for the mid-level exception and replacing the departed Darren Collison with Jordan Farmar were fine moves in isolation. Perhaps Hawes was overpaid slightly, but the Clippers’s lack of any productive reserve big men was a severe issue in 2013-14. Meanwhile, Farmar might not have been worth invoking the bi-annual cap exception for as he might well have been available at the minimum. However, he was certainly worth more than 40% of Collison’s salary. Unfortunately, both of these moves imposed a hard salary cap on the Clippers for this season.
Working backwards from that hard cap, it would be completely predictable that after signing first round draft pick C.J. Wilcox, using the full amount of both exceptions would cause the team to butt right up against that hard cap, with unfilled roster spots and unmet team needs still in place.
Coaches won’t look much past the next possession, much less examine the cap and tax implications two seasons down the line, so it’s not entirely surprising that Doc Rivers was more concerned with expediently solving the problems at hand at backup point and reserve big than strategic planning. In addition to his dual role as coach and GM, Doc’s had some things going on the summer.
While the particulars of the Clippers’s situation are unusual, the tension between the goals and responsibilities of the coach and the GM positions were completely predictable. The coach’s focus is primarily inward, preparing the team on a daily basis for the next opponent, with perhaps an eye towards long range internal improvements. The GM is certainly plugged into what the team is doing, but from a much greater height, using this elevated vantage point to survey the league as a whole and steer the team over the medium-to-long term.
Even in the mid-to-late 90s, doing both jobs well was a near impossibility. Rick Pitino the GM sabotaged a lot of good things Rick Pitino the coach did in Boston. The Clippers’s careening offseason follows up on some questionable moves in Summer 2013 as well, between the Eric Bledsoe trade and that offseason’s choice of minimum salary veterans for the back end of the roster. Stan Van Gundy, newly installed as overall czar in Detroit addressed that club’s glaring needs for perimeter shooting by pursuing deals of questionable (to be kind) value with Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler, buying at the very top of an inflated market for range.
Advocates of the dual role point to the success of Greg Popovich in San Antonio*. But Pop is the exception which proves the rule, as he’s consistently demonstrated himself to be a much longer-range thinker than more or less any other coach with his emphasis on resting stars and developing confidence in the entire roster over the course of the regular season. Of course, a prior track record of success is necessary for a coach to have the freedom to make those sorts of decisions, but the point remains that Pop is singularly successful largely because of his ability to see the forest for the trees, and to make decisions holistically rather than piecemeal.
*Though R.C. Buford has been the Spurs titular GM since 2002, Popovich by all accounts holds the final decision in most ‘basketball’ decisions within the Spurs organization. The two work well enough together that there has rarely if ever been reports of friction in terms of the San Antonio’s decision making process.
The situation in Los Angeles is a shame, because with Donald Sterling ousted, the Clippers have a real chance to gain ground on the floundering Lakers for city supremacy. A championship is more or less a necessity for a that discussion to be fully joined, and with every erroneous signing and future asset squandered, that likelihood dims, even as the clock begins to tick on the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan core.
At the very least, the organization needs a strong front office presence who can force the big picture to be considered, and put the breaks on hasty moves. Absent someone willing and able to offer dissenting opinions, and the short-termism inherent in a coach making these decisions will be a severe impediment to the club’s long term status as a top-level franchise.
(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)