On the Clippers Trade, Two Months On

The Hornets announced yesterday that Eric Gordon will have surgery and sit out at least another six weeks. If this timeline somehow escapes the errancy of each that preceded it, Gordon would be in line for an April return with anywhere from 5 to 15 games left in the season. The alternative -- that Gordon played his last game of the season on January 4th, 2012 -- feels, at this point, just as likely.

What this means for Gordon's future is unclear. I won't speculate on it too much. Will he return to his previous levels of athletic ability? Can he? I don't know. I'm optimistic because of his age, the (as far as we know) relative lack of severity of the injury, the recovery history of professional athletes from similar (and more complex) surgeries, and, I'll be frank, a sense of vague desperation on my own part. But I simply don't know. Will gave the best summary I've seen of the situation on Twitter last night:

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Beyond those points, we don't know enough to talk with confidence about Gordon himself. But the timing is perfect to revisit the original Clippers trade, amidst the dozens of "ha ha, David Stern vetoed an awesome trade for this disaster, ha ha" jokes flying around Twitter since news of Gordon's surgery broke.

I was a big fan of the original veto. To refresh, the Hornets passed on this:

1. Lamar Odom
2. Luis Scola
3. Kevin Martin
4. Goran Dragic
5. New York's 2012 1st round pick (currently #13, but not lottery)

in order to pick up this:

1. Eric Gordon
2. Chris Kaman
3. Al-Farouq Aminu
4. Minnesota's 2012 1st round pick (currently #12, lottery)

Even though Minnesota will likely end up in the lottery and New York, in the lightweight East, will not, the picks won't be too drastically different. In terms of draft value, both the Lakers' and Clippers' deal offered New Orleans a very similar outcome. The trades really differed in terms of the long-term rebuilding plan the Hornets would end up with. It's true the Clippers offered the best overall player (factoring in age), but the Lakers' deal essentially gave the Hornets an immediately playoffs contending team. A lineup of Jarrett Jack - Kevin Martin - Trevor Ariza - Luis Scola - Emeka Okafor with a bench featuring one of the league's better backup points in Goran Dragic as well as the reigning NBA sixth man of the year in Lamar Odom probably would have made the postseason in a strange, strange year for the Western conference.

The problem, of course, was the ceiling of that team. Between Martin, Ariza, Scola, and Okafor, the Hornets would have locked in long term to a core with extremely minimal opportunity for growth. A 7th or 6th seed could have provided a shot at perhaps a wobbly Spurs team, maybe a fun revenge series against Chris Paul's Clippers. But come the summer, the Hornets would add something akin to the 22nd pick from the draft, nothing else (cap and tax considerations) and that would have been that. Off to 2012, maybe another 7th seed. Rinse and repeat. The Hornets would have been "competitive" but not competitive, the lamb that reigned supreme amongst its fellow sheep, elated to be satueed in its own juices for the NBA's lions.

It's always puzzled me why NBA fans are satisfied with this kind of existence. And I say this as a fan of a team that's never sniffed a Finals appearance. If a team's current 5 or 10 year road-map doesn't include at least a tiny opportunity to contend for a title at some point (any point!), blow it up. It's cynical, but as much as I want to replace "blow it up" with "switch to a road that works," the two concepts are synonymous in professional basketball. It's sad. It's what makes basketball below the uppermost level, below the HEAT and the Thunder and the Bulls and the other contenders du jour, so damn tough to watch. There's an enervating sense of emptiness that inevitably accompanies "competitive" but not competitive basketball; this is a sport that takes cinderellas, grinds them down into a powder, and smokes their remains, sneering in the knowledge that if Game 1 didn't do the trick, Games 2 through 7, and the next series, and the next series after that most certainly will.

The Clippers' deal didn't offer the raw talent of the Lakers' deal. In any sense of the word. The Hornets were getting more players, they were getting better players, and they were getting a better team. But they were also getting a team condemned to basketball purgatory.

The Clippers' deal offered a chance to vault past that purgatory in the best case scenario and a chance to put some devastatingly bad teams on the floor in the worst case. But therein lies the irony; the latter, for a small market, hilariously low budget team, is the only method of generating the former. A devastatingly bad team, in this comically warped league, is far more valuable than a merely good one if the end goal is a title. It's hardly a sure way -- the Hornets could strike out in 2012, again in 2013, again in 2014, fold in 2015, have all their former fans banished by the US government to North Korea in 2016 -- but it's the only way.

And it's why the most important aspect of the Clippers' deal was not Eric Gordon; rather, it was the opportunity to be terrible. To play painful basketball, to construct a .300 team and then take away its starting point guard, its starting shooting guard, its starting power forward, its starting center, and its backup power forward, to start players that came off the bench in the D-League, to make God himself turn away in horror.

The Lakers offered a mid-1st draft pick and a shot at being perennial first and second round fodder. The Clippers offered a mid-1st draft pick and, via Eric Gordon and the Hornets' own pick, a significantly lower shot at being something so much more. That hasn't changed today; if anything. it only enhances the original sentiment if Gordon is healthy in the long term.

David Stern's veto still makes perfect sense because his league decidedly does not.

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