Now that the dour cloud that was Donald Sterling has been lifted from the Los Angeles Clippers and replaced with Steve Ballmer, the comparative equivalent of stadium lights, there's one element still missing to assure the 17th banner raised in the Staples Center belongs to them:
A bona fide general manager.
That's not a knock on Doc Rivers, the resident coach, president of basketball operations and unofficial crisis counselor. Rivers distinguished himself holding the franchise together for several months while the league extricated The Donald. He has been, overall, a godsend for the franchise in a multitude of ways.
It's a knock on the notion that a team can win it all with one man both coaching a team and constructing it, now more than ever.
Look no further than Rivers needing to forfeit a first-round pick to move swingman Jared Dudley to Milwaukee, the same Dudley he acquired just a year ago along with swingman J.J. Redick for the hefty price of highly prized point guard Eric Bledsoe. Moving Dudley became necessary because Rivers also handed Matt Barnes—yet another swingman—the first multiyear contract of his career last summer, assuring someone would be unhappy.
For whatever reason, Rivers has received a full pass on moves that have made the Clippers marginally better yet significantly more expensive. You don't have to make more than a call or two to find someone in the league who, as one GM said, views Rivers' moves with Dudley as a "head scratcher."
"If [former Minnesota GM] David Kahn made those deals, they'd have been burning crosses on his lawn," said another NBA executive.
Several GMs said they would've put the brakes on all that for the sake of the long-term health of the team. One said he might have even traded Jamal Crawford in order to force Rivers to play first-round pick Reggie Bullock, who was a year-long afterthought (43 appearances, 395 minutes). In a sense, Rivers has spent two first-round picks to assure a few more victories last season, victories that still weren't enough to get out of the second round.
"He's always going to be a coach first," said the executive of Rivers, "and a coach is always going to be making micro decisions. It's all about the next five minutes."
That thinking never has been more costly than it is now. The consensus among the league's leading decision-makers is that under the league's increasingly constrictive salary-cap rules, the trick to chasing a title is maintaining as much flexibility as possible. There's nothing wrong with going for broke in a particular year as long as the option to scale back down is on the immediate horizon.
That's not where the Clippers are. They paid the luxury tax last year, and they will do so again this season. Do that three out of four years and the amount of tax paid increases to at least $2.50 per every $1 over the threshold starting in the 2015-16 season.
There isn't a tax that billionaire Ballmer can't afford, but that isn't the point. The penalty for being a taxpayer goes beyond a lighter wallet. It also erases the ways in which a team can land that one last piece that puts it over the top. Gone is the bi-annual exception or the ability to do sign-and-trade deals. Even the mid-level exception is reduced.
So while Ballmer's, uh, manic enthusiasm should be a welcome change from the gloom of Sterling's Scrooge-like visage, it takes considerably more than Up with People inspiration and throwing around bales of cash to build a champion.
"Having an unlimited budget isn't necessarily healthy," said one rival GM, "and it still doesn't make it easy."
A quick glance at the top NBA payrolls going into the season is proof that the Larry O'Brien Trophy is made of, not by, gold. The six most expensive rosters belong, in order, to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers.
And while the Clippers have a relatively young core in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, they're going to need flexibility to restock their wings. Redick is in the second year of a four-year deal, but Barnes and Crawford could be up after this season. Whatever space their departures might provide undoubtedly will be used to tie up Jordan, a pending free agent whose $11 million salary is sure to jump.
Rivers already had to spend yet more money this summer in an attempt to upgrade at backup point guard (Jordan Farmar replacing Darren Collison) and backup big man (Spencer Hawes replacing Ryan Hollins). Despite having the biggest payroll in the Western Conference, there's no reason to believe the Clippers are capable of getting past the defending champion Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder or even the Golden State Warriors should they have a healthy Andrew Bogut.
Don't blame the mismanaged roster and salaries on the influence or distraction of Sterling either. He actually showed uncharacteristic largesse in his last few years to allow Rivers to make those moves, and the discovery of his insulting view of African-Americans didn't come until springtime.
If Ballmer has any reservations about Rivers' personnel acumen, though, giving him an extension worth a reported $10 million a year on the heels of the Dudley deal is an odd way to show it. As of now, Rivers has placed Dave Wohl and Kevin Eastman, confidants from his days in Boston, alongside incumbent Gary Sacks to compose his front-office brain trust. Neither, however, has any experience in building rosters, and it's hard to imagine either of them having the wherewithal to tell Rivers he can't do something.
Then again, perhaps in Ballmer World $10 million is simply the going rate for a coach who has worked the magic Rivers has with Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Despite the fact that sources say Paul handpicked him to succeed Vinny Del Negro, Rivers convinced Paul to give up the ball and allow more of the offense to run through Griffin, much to the team's collective benefit. Jordan, meanwhile, evolved from a headache to a defensive backbone with Rivers' encouragement.
"He's coaching the hell out of their best players," the GM said. "Doc has changed the mindset of that team. They're playing for the right things. His greatest contribution has been creating an accountability to a style of play. You don't see them pointing fingers."
Perhaps Ballmer will take a more hands-on approach with roster decisions the way the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban and other owners have in more recent times. He certainly shares their hoops passion: He apparently didn't miss one of his son's high school or AAU games, and he considers himself a roundball junkie.
How that manifests itself with the Clippers, now that he's abandoned his responsibilities with Microsoft, is what most interests other GMs and executives. For all of Sterling's faults, he left the spotlight for his players and coach. Paul came to L.A. to stand in it and enjoy all the commercials and other accompanying opportunities; Griffin chose to stay in L.A. for the same reason.
"I don't know that that group there wants the attention on the owner," one GM said. "They have built something. They took center stage."
That's also where an independent GM and second voice of reason would help, since it's hard to imagine Rivers coaching the team, making executive decisions and serving as a buffer between Ballmer and the players.
"It'll be positive, no matter what," said a Western Conference GM of Ballmer's presence, "or at least it won't be worse than with Sterling."
But just how positive? How much better? It's hard not to look at how the battle for supremacy in New York has played out so far. The Nets' Mikhail Prokhorov has tried to buy his way to a championship, and while it moved him past the Knicks last season, the Nets are not anywhere close to winning it all. Similarly, the Clippers should remain the toast of Hollywood over the Lakers this season, but Ballmer's rallying cry was "I love Larry!" as in O'Brien, not "I love L.A.!"
If opposing GMs and executives are correct, it doesn't matter that the Wheel of Fortune studio is a stone's throw from Clippers headquarters—Ballmer can't buy those last three letters. He's going to have to think his way to getting L-A-R-R-Y. Or hire someone who can.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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