The Los Angeles Clippers are entering the 2012 NBA draft without a coveted first-round pick in their pocket. This marks the second consecutive season that the team will not make a selection in the draft's opening round.
As the Clippers are not in rebuilding mode their predicament may seem trivial, but a first-round pick is the best avenue to adding another impact player to a potential title contender's rotation.
Case in point: the 2012 San Antonio Spurs.
After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 2011, it was clear that the Spurs were missing something that held them back from competing for a championship. Instead of throwing a lot of cash at a big-name free agent in the offseason, the Spurs traded for the rights to the No. 15 overall pick in the 2011 draft—Kawhi Leonard.
As it turned out, Leonard was a perfect fit for San Antonio's system. He started for them all throughout the playoffs and was a big reason the Spurs were two wins away from making it to the NBA Finals for the first time in five years.
With a fairly young core on hand, the Clips may be just one piece away from making the leap to the NBA's elite.
One way to add that piece is to spend money on free agents. There is a bumper crop of talented restricted free agents hitting the market this offseason, but restricted free agency means that the Clippers would have to overpay by quite a bit to keep the player's current team from matching the offer and retaining the player.
Complicating the free agency option is the team's financial situation. The Clippers are already up against the salary cap with only eight players under contract. They just don't have the cash on hand to splurge on a top-notch free agent.
Not to mention, they're still owned by the notoriously stingy Donald Sterling—you know, the guy who decided to bring back a crappy head coach instead of holding out for someone who could lead the Clippers to a title.
Oh, and he let the general manager who swung the Chris Paul trade and assembled the best roster in team history go to Portland rather than pay him to continue building a title contender. I'd hate to be the peon to give Dictator Donald the news that Blake Griffin needs to be offered a max extension this summer.
So if free agency isn't the way to go, how about a trade? After all, the trades the Clippers made last season—not just acquiring Paul, but also snagging Nick Young basically for free—fueled them to their best season in franchise history.
However, that route may turn out to be problematic as well. As I said, the mastermind who pulled the strings on L.A.'s recent transactions now plies his trade 1,000 miles up the coast. Also, the Clippers parted with the majority of their assets in the Paul deal.
With the cupboard as bare as it is, it's unlikely that they could do better than taking a flier on a veteran on his last legs with a bad contract (think Richard Jefferson. Actually...let's not think about that).
The best way for the Clippers to get what they need is with a first-round draft choice. As organizations like the Thunder have demonstrated, first-round picks are one of the most valuable assets a team can own. They allow you to add a talented player for a fraction of their true value.
And with rookie contracts allowing a team to control the player for the first several years of his career, that value can skyrocket if the player improves at a greater rate than his modest salary a la Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Serge Ibaka.
The Clippers need to start shopping around for a first round selection in the upcoming 2012 draft. The clearest path to obtaining said selection lies in trading away Mo Williams.
Along with Baron Davis, it took an unprotected lottery pick (the pick turned out to be No. 1 overall. Too bad the Clips couldn't see that coming) to pry Williams away from Cleveland. After one season, surely the 29-year-old former All-Star's value hasn't fallen to the point where he's not even worth a late lottery or mid-first round draft choice.
Williams is in the prime if his career and is coming off a productive season as L.A.'s sixth man. He's also got an $8.5 million contract that expires after next season. That's $8.5 million of cap space in the summer of 2013 for any team that trades for him.
The Houston Rockets have the 14th and 16th overall selections in the 2012 draft, and their point guard situation may be in flux. Starter Kyle Lowry wants out and backup Goran Dragic is about to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps the Rockets can be cajoled into a Williams-for-the-No.-16-pick swap.
This year's draft class is deep with future solid starters and impact rotation players. The Clippers can extract an awful lot of value with a mid-first-round draft choice. They can use it to add someone along the lines of Tyler Zeller or Austin Rivers to their rotation and be that much more dangerous heading into 2013, without suffering financially.
If the Clippers want to continue their ascent into the NBA stratosphere, they must look to acquire a first-round draft pick as soon as possible.