If the Washington Wizards and their fans want a reason for hope amid this bleak winter, they can look no further than Saturday night’s opponent. Head-scratching front-office decisions, warped organizational culture and awful win-loss records — that’s how the Los Angeles Clippers used to roll. For a long time, the Wizards and Clippers appeared to be twins living on opposite coasts.
But now, Los Angeles’ other team has become one of the NBA’s best. The Clippers finally realized they wouldn’t win with knuckleheads, couldn’t trade for difference-makers unless other teams also viewed their roster favorably and needed to work quickly to impress their franchise player.
In first place in the NBA’s Pacific Division, the Clippers make their only appearance of the season at Verizon Center on Saturday. While they’re here, the Wizards could learn a little something.
When the Clippers won the 2009 NBA draft lottery and selected forward Blake Griffin, they had a locker room full of blockheads (sound familiar?). There was no one to teach Griffin the right way to be a pro, and there were too many people who had no interest in learning.
The time had come for sweeping change “because we were in a race against the clock,” Clippers General Manager Neil Olshey said during a phone interview Friday.
“No matter what, we had to put together a team that had a chance to compete for a championship, at some point, in order to make sure we could retain Blake. Step one was to get him. Step two is to make sure he wants to be part of our organization long-term. If you want to be motivated, just look at what you might have the possibility of losing.”
When I met Olshey years ago, he had big ideas about what the Clippers could become. He was an assistant general manager with the team during my time on the NBA beat in Los Angeles, and I often thought he was crazy.
Olshey’s strategy was sound, but back then, the Clippers’ culture was as bad as the Wizards’ is now, if not worse. Few people in the organization seemed to understand what it took to create a winning environment. Olshey was determined to try.
He cleaned out the locker room. Of the players who preceded Griffin’s arrival, only center DeAndre Jordan remains on the Clippers’ roster.
“We said, ‘Look, we got this guy, and he’s a franchise player, so let’s make sure we surround him with the right people,’ ” said Olshey, among the candidates for the NBA’s executive of the year award. “We had to start moving people. And the guys we brought in had to be guys who, culturally, are not only the kind of people Blake wants to play with, but guys he wants to go to work with everyday.”
Remove people who haven’t helped the team win, and probably never will, and bring in players as highly motivated as the person around whom you’re building? Now there’s an idea. Dump players who could stunt the growth of the franchise’s hope for the future? Makes sense to me.
The Clippers also “put veteran pieces around Blake while still maintaining our real core youth for the future,” Olshey said. Olshey wanted tangible proof of progress, and victories provide the best information.
It didn’t make sense to have a roster of mostly inexperienced players, Olshey figured, while trying to convince Griffin the Clippers were going places in the foreseeable future.
“What we needed to do was get people who were on the same growth curve” as Griffin, Olshey said. “So in five months, when Blake has the ability to sign a long-term extension with us, he’ll realize that this organization is committed to only one thing — and that’s winning.”
Trading for all-star point guard Chris Paul drove home the point. The NBA is a league of stars. Elite teams usually have at least two. Acquiring productive veterans while retaining Jordan, a rising center, was a nice start. But the Clippers needed at least a Robin to Griffin’s Batman to make a statement.
In December, they sent a package of players and draft picks to the league-owned New Orleans for Paul. NBA Commissioner David Stern should be credited with an assist after killing a three-team trade that would have sent Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Clippers, though, had the pieces to make a move. That was key. Their secondary players were well-regarded by other teams. They were truly assets. Not a bunch of guys who were difficult to trade.
“When you get the right guy, you want to build the infrastructure to get them to stay,” Olshey said, “because they don’t come around often.”
Now Griffin, the league’s most exciting young player, has a reason to want to commit to the organization. He and Paul are a formidable duo, and it’s easy for them bringing success to one of the league’s long-dormant franchises.
The road map is available for the Wizards. They just have to follow it.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.