Saturday, November 27, 2010

San Diego Clippers: Doomed From The Beginning

San Diego ClippersFor many years I’ve wondered why the San Diego Clippers never succeeded before Donald Sterling bought the team and moved them to Los Angeles. Tonight I decided to check out for the answers and it’s stunning how the former Buffalo Braves (what the Clippers were before 1978) franchise mismanaged their assets in the years before they left New York state for sunny Southern California.

Did you know the San Diego Clippers could have had a frontcourt in 1979-80 with Moses Malone, Cliff Robinson and Kermit Washington? Or a backcourt with Adrian Dantley? How about a frontcourt of Brad Daugherty, Charles Barkley, Terry Cummings and Tom Chambers seven years later along with guards Byron Scott and Danny Ainge? It’s all true. The Clippers could have been a successful NBA franchise in San Diego but the moves the team made years earlier killed any chance the team had of developing a fan base.

Here’s how it all went wrong, starting with Malone and Robinson:

October 18, 1976 - Buffalo trades their 1978 1st round pick to the Portland Trailblazers for Moses Malone. This was a win for the Braves but…

October 24, 1976 - Buffalo trades Malone to the Houston Rockets for 1st round picks in 1977 and 1978. So far, this is still a win for the Braves since they netted a first round pick for having a future Hall of Famer for six days, but…

January 17, 1977 - Buffalo trades Houston’s 1977 1st round pick to the Golden State Warriors for center George Johnson, who lasts until the end of the season. But it gets worse for the Braves. Much worse.

September 1, 1977 - Buffalo trades Johnson, Houston’s 1978 1st round pick and their own 1979 1st round pick to New Jersey for Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who played only 34 games the previous season due to injuries. Archibald tore his Achilles tendon and missed the 1977-78 season. Johnson would go on and lead the NBA in shot blocking three times as a Net and San Antonio Spur.

1978 offseason - Boston Celtics owner Irv Levin “trades” the team to John Y. Brown for the Buffalo Braves. Brown assumes control of the Celtics and Levin moves the Braves to San Diego where they become the Clippers.

June 8, 1978 - Portland trades the Clippers 1st round pick it acquired for Malone two years earlier plus Johnny Davis to the Indiana Pacers for their first round pick, which was the first pick overall in the 1978 NBA Draft.

That same day, the Nets trade Houston’s 1978 1st round pick it acquired for Archibald plus their own 1979 1st round pick to the New York Knicks for Phil Jackson and a 1978 1st round pick.

June 9, 1978 - The Trailblazers, with the first pick in the NBA Draft they acquired from Indiana the previous day, select Mychal Thompson. The Pacers, who now hold the Clippers 1st round pick, select Rick Robey third overall. The Knicks, who now hold the second of Houston’s 1st round picks the Clippers acquired for Moses Malone, select Michael Ray Richardson.

June 5, 1979 - The Nets use the Clippers 1979 1st round pick it acquired in the Archibald trade two years earlier to select Cliff Robinson.

To summarize, the Braves traded a still not yet in his prime Moses Malone for George Johnson and Michael Ray Richardson, then traded Johnson, Richardson and Cliff Robinson for Nate “Tiny” Archibald, a player that never played a game for them. Ouch.


If you thought that series of trades were bad for the Braves, check out this next series of blunders from the same era that helped rebuild a dynasty in Boston in the early 80’s:

September 1, 1977 - The Braves traded Adrian Dantley, who was their 1976 first round pick and a future Hall of Famer, plus Mike Bantom, whom they signed earlier in the day, to the Indiana Pacers for Billy Knight. Knight averaged 22.9 PPG for the Braves but…

1978 offseason - Boston Celtics owner Irv Levin “trades” the team to John Y. Brown for the Buffalo Braves. Brown assumes control of the Celtics and Levin moves the Braves to San Diego where they become the Clippers.

August 4, 1978 - The Clippers trade Knight, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Marvin Barnes, a 1981 2nd round pick and a 1983 2nd round pick to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks and Freeman Williams.

January 16, 1979 - The Celtics trade Knight to the Indiana Pacers for Rick Robey. In a bit of irony, Robey is the same player that was selected with the draft pick the Clippers traded for Moses Malone three years earlier.

June 9, 1981 - The Celtics draft Danny Ainge with the 2nd round pick it acquired from the Clippers in the Archibald trade three years earlier.

June 27, 1983 - Robey and the Clippers 1983 2nd round pick the Celtics acquired in the Archibald trade in 1978 were packaged together with the Celtics own 1983 2nd round pick and shipped to the Phoenix Suns for Dennis Johnson, Phoenix’s first round pick (which was later used to select Greg Kite) and a 1983 3rd round pick.

While the Celtics won a championship three seasons later, the Clippers had almost nothing to show for this trade. Wicks retired after three unproductive years. Williams, who was a productive guard and a fan favorite in San Diego, was traded during the 1981-82 season to the Atlanta Hawks for Charlie Criss and Al Wood. Both Criss and Wood were gone before the 1983-84 season began.

As for Kunnert and Washington, well…

May 13, 1979 - The Clippers signed Bill Walton of the Portland Trailblazers as a free agent. As compensation, the Clippers sent Kunnert, Washington, Randy Smith and their 1980 1st round pick to Portland. That first round pick was later traded to the New Jersey Nets, who selected Mike Gminski seventh overall in the NBA Draft and would have bridged the gap nicely between Malone and Daugherty later in the decade.


There were other stunningly bad trades that plagued the franchise for many years to come, such as how they traded the same first round pick twice, missed out on a five-time All-Star and were left with nothing when the dust settled:

November 27, 1975 - The Braves traded an aging Jack Marin to the Chicago Bulls for their 1977 1st round pick.

November 2, 1976 - The Braves traded the Bulls 1977 1st round pick to the Milwaukee Bucks for Jim Price, who was traded a month later to the Denver Nuggets for Gus Gerard and Chuck Williams, neither of whom played significant minutes for the Braves.

June 7, 1977 - The Braves reacquire the Bulls 1977 1st round pick plus Swen Nater from the Milwaukee Bucks for their own 1977 1st round pick.

June 10, 1977 - The Bucks select Marques Johnson third overall with the Braves 1st round pick.

The Braves trade the Bulls 1st round pick it reacquired three days earlier back to the Bulls for their 1977 2nd round pick.

The Braves use the Bulls 2nd round pick to select Larry Johnson, who played four games for the team and was waived twice in his only NBA season.


Earlier I mentioned how the Clippers could have had one of the best frontcourts in the mid-eighties if they had only hung onto their draft picks. While they managed to hang onto their 1981 and 1982 first round picks to select Tom Chambers and Terry Cummings, here’s how they let Brad Daugherty, Charles Barkley and Byron Scott slip through their fingers:

October 12, 1978 - The Clippers traded their 1984 first round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for World B. Free, who lasted two seasons in San Diego before he was traded to the Golden State Warriors for Phil Smith and the Warriors 1984 1st round pick.

October 5, 1979 - The Clippers trade their 1986 1st round pick to the 76ers for Joe Bryant, also known as Kobe’s dad. Bryant lasts three seasons before he’s shipped to the Houston Rockets in a swap of 1982 2nd round draft picks.

June 28, 1983 - The Clippers draft Byron Scott fourth overall in the 1983 NBA Draft.

October 10, 1983 - The Clippers, in need of a point guard, trade Scott and Swen Nater (yes, the same one acquired for Marques Johnson many years earlier) to the Los Angeles Lakers for Norm Nixon and his bad knees, Eddie Jordan and the Lakers 1986 and 1987 2nd round picks.

October 17, 1983 - The Lakers 2nd round picks the Clippers acquired in the Scott trade a week earlier are sent to the Detroit Pistons for Ricky Pierce. The Pistons flip both picks the same day to the Phoenix Suns for David Thirdkill. On the same day, Jordan is waived by the Clippers.

In effect, Nater and Scott are traded for Nixon and Pierce. The Lakers win three championships later in the decade and the Clippers are loading the moving vans and heading northbound on Interstate 5 to Los Angeles the following summer. But this story doesn’t end here…

June 19, 1984 - The 76ers select Charles Barkley fourth overall in the 1984 NBA Draft with the Clippers pick. The Clippers select Lancaster Gordon with the eighth overall selection. Barkley went on to the Hall of Fame and Gordon was waived by the Clippers after starting a whopping six games during his four-year NBA career.

June 16, 1986: The 76ers trade the Clippers 1986 1st round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson. The following day, the Cavaliers select Brad Daugherty first overall in the 1986 NBA Draft.

In the second round the Phoenix Suns select Jeff Hornacek with the Clippers 2nd round pick they acquired from the Detroit Pistons three years earlier.


With a trade history like this can you blame San Diego for not supporting an NBA franchise? It’s because we barely had one. First round picks were traded for next to nothing and whenever we acquired a star player via trade or free agency they were always over the hill or coming back from major injuries.

I only attended a handful of Clippers games, and the only reason why I showed up were the San Antonio Spurs. When they came to town, it was an opportunity to see George Gervin at his peak. Tickets were cheap, and since most crowds were less than five thousand a game (some were less than two thousand!), it was easy to move closer to courtside after the first quarter was over.

I miss those days but I sure don’t miss the Clippers. San Diego deserved much better.


Zebster said...

Awesome job, RJ. That's a who's who of my late teens and early 20s. And on the few occasions where they made the right move, they had monumental bad luck.
Are they really supported in LA either?
I don't recognize that logo. Is that supposed to be a ship's sails?

R.J. said...

That was the first San Diego Clippers logo. They changed to the current one when Sterling bought the team in '82. They're supposed to be sails with the sun in the top right corner of the sky within a circle.

They really had bad luck with Archibald and Walton but their drafts weren't anything special either.

poker affiliate said...

Donald Sterling is the worst owner in professional sports, and until the Clippers are sold to someone with an interest in something other than the bottom line..they will continue to struggle. To heckle your own players is pretty class-less, and should be done behind closed doors.

Anonymous said...

I realize that I'm WAY late to this party. But I'd like to post a few points in response to this fine, well-written article:

The Lloyd Free trade to the Warriors in 1980 - Simply put, the NBA's second leading scorer at the time (30.2 ppg)was certainly worth more than aging point guard and a first round pick several years down the road.

Free, more so than Freeman Williams, was a fan favorite, and I would say that this bad deal was the beginning of the end for the Clippers in SD.

The trade of Freeman Williams and the 2nd overall pick in the 1982 draft - I actually believe that unloading Williams at his peak for Al Wood was absolutely the right thing to do.

Williams quickly fizzled out, which is sad because he had the makings of a perennial All- Star.

As for the '82 draft, it's hard to argue against drafting Terry Cummings, who was rookie of the year. But as solid as Terry Cummings, who was already near his max as a rookie player, he wasn't the type of player that had box office appeal - yes, I realize that winning is the best box office appeal.

For that reason, I'm not so sure that Dominique Wilkins wasn't the correct pick, given the low attendance in SD at the time - which was still on par with what Indiana, Cleveland and Utah were drawing at the time; NBA sellouts were rare, let alone 3/4 full arenas, were rare league wide at the time.

Plus, a front line of Wilkins, Chambers and Brooks most certainly would have scored enough points to offset defensive shortcomings. They could have run teams ragged.

The last season in San Diego - Given the fact that the Clippers were having trouble coming to terms with Byron Scott and that Swen Nater was still a major injury risk on his last legs, I cannot fault Paul Phipps, the Clippers GM at the time, for dealing for Norm Nixon and later, for Ricky Pierce - both played well in their short stints in SD.

The trade of Tom Chambers and Al Wood to fellow divisional rival Seattle, even if it did net Michael Cage as a 1984 # 1 pick, should be questioned.

The Clippers, in addition to the pick, received Greg Kelser - who played one year as a Clipper and couldn't beat out Michael Brooks as starting SF - Center James Donaldson, who did provide an interior defensive presence, and SG Mark Radford, who was cut in training camp.

In short, Nixon played at all star levels for two years as a Clipper (one year in L.A) and Scott's absence provided Pierce and the late Derek Smith, who thrived after moving to SG, playing time.

But I'd venture to say that the loss of Chambers and Wood cost the Clippers at least five victories that 83-84 season, which, not even factoring in Bill Walton's freakish broken hand on a backboard injury, would have kept the Clips in playoff contention all season - resulting in significantly higher attendance.

On top of everything, the gawd-awful Cummings, Pierce and Hodges to the Bucks for the nearly finished Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings wouldn't have taken place if Terry Cummings hadn't requested a trade to the Bucks because he loved San Diego and didn't want to play in L.A.

In conclusion, no matter how well the Clippers are doing today, Donald Sterling's reign as Clippers owner and the ensuing orchestrated move to L.A remain a black eye on David Stern's era as Commish, at least to those who remember the San Diego Clippers.

Again, great article!

A.D in Indiana.