I wanted to do something special for the rematch of the Los Angeles Clippers vs. the Wizards, and something special I have done. Charlie Widdoes, the most passionate and knowledgeable Clippers fan I know and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate, ClipperBlog, corresponded with me for what amounts to an interview on his Clippers and your Washington Wizards. Charlie has been a long-suffering Clippers fan since the days of…well, before popular sports writers made it cool, and long before people started tuning in to see their prized rookie, Blake Griffin.
We have been discussing the two teams for weeks, and what follows are excerpts from our conversations, with topics including evaluation of the core players, the ownership/management, and where the two teams stand in their respective rebuilds. Most of the thoughts will be coming from Charlie, with a few of mine sprinkled in, as I’ll follow up in a future post on our conclusions about the Wizards. Without further adieu…
Wiz of Awes: This is an exciting time for the Clippers as they clearly have their franchise player in Blake Griffin, and he has proven to be more than just a good rookie and a walking highlight reel, but is already a star. Talk about the Clippers core as a whole though. How do you like it, and what, if anything, do you see them needing to add?
Charlie Widdoes: The past few years have set the Clippers up so well to surround their superstar. The complementary pieces are almost perfectly suited for the change in culture that the franchise has aimed to achieve, and it coincides beautifully with Blake’s literal and figurative arrival. Eric Gordon is an amazing second fiddle on the court, but he also sets the tone as the quiet, focused leader that the Clippers haven’t had. Their other young guys (DeAndre Jordan, Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe) all buy in and appear to be the type of people who work hard and understand what it takes to contribute to a winning team, on and off the court.
Their vets (Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes mainly) are the perfect fits for this group – smart guys with appropriate contracts and understanding of their responsibilities. I think Chris Kaman is actually a pretty important piece. He has accepted and seemingly embraced the role of coming off the bench, and I really can’t think of a team that can say they have a big like this as a backup. And Mo Williams is a better fit for the team than Baron Davis, with his shooting and willingness to defer to Gordon and Griffin.
It’s a drastic departure from Clippers teams of the past — traditionally a mix of individuals who just didn’t fit together — and allows the team to build on progress, even in losses. Before, with mostly players who weren’t sure of their place in the franchise’s long-term plans, losses had very little potential value, because most guys figured they would be around long. Now, it’s all part of growing together.
WoA: I like how you described losses as having “potential value” if the young core is developing through what they’re learning in those losses. Talk about the Wizards; do you see them as having that type of group core group that can find progress even though they are not winning?
CW: The Wizards, as it occurs to me, have the cornerstone in Wall (although I’m not sure anyone in the league has quite the potential of Blake), but the rest of the pieces just seem more like former Clippers than current ones. Nick Young and Andray Blatche are just the last kinds of players I’d want on a young team trying to build something, even though they have undeniable NBA talents. JaVale McGee has always intrigued me, but he doesn’t have the luxury that DeAndre has playing alongside not only a superstar, but an incredibly hard worker, like Blake.
WoA: Since you mentioned developing within a losing season, and since both teams are having losing seasons, how would you compare where the Clippers are with their rebuild to where the Wizards find themselves?
CW:If there are, say, five stages to developing a contender, the Wizards are past Stage 1 (because they got their star), but not yet to Stage 2. Wall is there; I really like the acquisitions of Booker, Crawford, Seraphin and the two picks this year. The problem is, I just don’t like the options with Blatche, Javale and Young. Javale, to me, is the one worth keeping, but at what price? Between the two teams, Griffin, Gordon and Wall are the stars, and everyone else, to me, is a world away. I love DeAndre, but part of that is because he is so aware of his limitations. He is, however, still so young. His work ethic is great, and he doesn’t try to do stuff he can’t do, which is the opposite of how I’d describe guys like Andray and JaVale. If they were younger and cheaper, they’d have value, but at this point I think Blatche and Young, in particular, are more valuable as trade chips than as part of a winning core going forward.
The Clips, I believe, are past Stage 3, because they really do have a roster capable of competing with the best, but now need to have everyone (or most everyone) healthy to make a playoff run (Stage 4), and then build on that the next year (possibly with a big free agent splash or just the true synergy of a great team) for championship contention. They have beaten essentially every good team in the league, and still have wild upside in Bledsoe and Aminu.
WoA: I would have to agree about the stages. You have to feel like the Clippers success over some of the best teams portends positive things for the future. It seems like you’re basically saying that the main contrast is that the Clippers best players, Griffin and Gordon, are already stars and clear cornerstones in the rebuild; whereas Nick Young and Blatche, and to a lesser extent, McGee, while they are the better players on the team, are not definite solutions moving forward.
CW: I think that what makes the Clippers so special is that they are set up so well for the future without having to make any sort of big move to contend. They have the pieces to make such a move, but contrary to popular belief, that move isn’t necessarily there. Could they have traded for Carmelo Anthony? Absolutely. But would that have really helped them? I’m not so sure, but that is really besides the point. Teams like the Knicks, or the Heat last summer, had very little as far as a core, and were forced to go “all in.” The Clippers, and maybe the Thunder, are in unique situations in that they don’t need to consolidate their assets to trade for a big name, they can afford to let their teams grow together and use the assets to supplement or, if the right deal comes along, pull the trigger. I’m all for going after Deron Williams, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard in two summers, but at this point, it’d be very difficult to convince me that it’d be worth it to give up guys like Aminu, Bledsoe or Minnesota’s first rounder next year (yes, they have that, unprotected, from the trade that netted them Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric…WIN), for any player short of that caliber.
No one blames the Heat for doing what they did, but that question gets murkier when it comes to the Knicks, and I could argue that in a few years, either team might be jealous of a team that brings Griffin, Gordon, the triumvirate of Jordan, Aminu and Bledsoe, and whatever comes of the Minny pick. Not to mention, they’ll still have money to sign a max free agent, assuming the new CBA doesn’t completely overhaul the league’s financial system. In other words, those teams had little choice but to strip down and build around a few max guys, whereas the Clippers have an enviable situation and should be in no rush to give that up unless the perfect situation comes along.
Guys like Young and Blatche are nice players, but if the timing isn’t right, they are exactly the types who you can move to get a player, or players, who you know will fit into the long-term plan. Obviously any Clipper fan can sympathize with the fear that comes along with thinking into the future, but that’s the reality of the NBA, and as long as they fully dedicate themselves to a vision, as a fan, you can accept that.
WoA:Yes, definitely. OK, now, you’ve spoken on the Clippers rebuilding situation vs. the Wizards and how you feel about the core of the two teams, and we both agree that the Clippers are further along in those areas. Now talk about the ownership; specifically, as a fan, how do you feel about rooting for a team with the worst owner in sports, as Donald Sterling has been called? Also, does his ownership worry you when it comes to attracting free agents, losing your players in the future, or any moves in general?
CW: In baseball, I have always said that i’d rather have good management than good players. In that sport a series of good decisions, a sound philosophy and execution of it, can lead a franchise to sustained winning if allowed the time to work. I think ownership can make a big difference in basketball, as well, the prime example in basketball being Marc Cuban. He invested in his team’s facilities, amenities and coaching staff, among other things, all of which can pay dividends — but only in the margins. What wins in the NBA is stars, and to a lesser extent the front office and coaching staff that supports them. Sterling has essentially been the anti-Cuban for many years now, but at the end of the day, he can only impact the game so much. He has never had a player like Blake Griffin, and having that type of player can be a very powerful thing. While he is a confusing, stupefying, and often offensive man, he owns a team that is built to win. I have heard from good sources that top agents would never let their top star clients sign with the Clips, but at this point, does it matter? I don’t necessarily know the answer to that, but the team I see on the court looks like it can compete with any team in the NBA sooner than later. Like it or not, the realities of the NBA’s salary structure make it very difficult for young players to move teams, and that becomes even more difficult if an owner is willing to pay to keep those players — which, contrary to popular belief, Sterling has shown he will do. If anything, his ability to attract a top-notch coach would be what I would question, but I tend to believe that Vinny Del Negro and his staff of Dean Demopolous and Marc Iavaroni can get by without tactical expertise if they can develop the young players sufficiently.
I don’t want to give the impression that the Clippers are “there,” but over the last few years, every single move has been made with this time in mind. It’s rare when a team can find all the complementary pieces and then incorporate its star at the exact moment when everything else is in place. Again, the owner may be the worst in sports (aside from maybe the owner of Los Angeles’ baseball team), but I do wonder what he can do to mess it up. Is Blake going to re-sign when his time comes up? Maybe. But that’s at least three years away, and if they can’t win enough games to keep in on board, then that will likely be the fault of the players and, to some extent, the coaches.
I grew up a Penguins fan, and although I pay almost no attention to hockey, I have certainly noticed Leonsis and the care he gives to his hockey team, and I know it’s the same with the Wizards. I am not qualified to judge the impact of an owner, but it has to feel good for Wizards fans to know that they have an owner who will do whatever he can do to give his team every chance to succeed. Like Sterling, he has his star, and that’s an important start. Unlike the Clippers, however, there is still much work to be done surrounding Wall with the pieces needed to take it to the next level. I know that Leonsis takes great pride in his teams and especially the role they play in the community, which is obviously something positive that cannot be said for his counterpart on the Clips.
WoA: Well, Wizards fans, at least we have that. Thanks, Charlie.
Stay tuned when later this afternoon, Charlie is a guest in our game preview; in the near future, we will have an follow-up post detailing our thoughts on the Wizards’ future as discussed here