And the Last Shall Be First 

The stadium scene.
July 6 2000 3:00 AM

And the Last Shall Be First 

It goes without saying that the Los Angeles Clippers are the worst team in professional sports, a franchise with a record of unrelieved futility. In 1987, they took Reggie Williams ahead of Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller. In 1989, they passed on Glen Rice in favor of Danny Ferry. In 1990, they took Bo Kimble first, only to top themselves in 1998, selecting Michael Olowokandi, ahead of, oh, where to start: Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mike Bibby—all of whom, it is safe to say, could lose an eye and still have more game than Olowokandi. But a case can now be made that the Clippers are on the way back. In fact, that they have had two spectacular drafts in the row.

The key lies in the details of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which came into effect this past season. Previously, when a draft pick had served his time with the team that selected him, he became an unrestricted free agent. That's why Orlando lost Shaq: He wanted out, so he left. Unrestricted free agency essentially penalizes bad teams because any good player who senses his team is going nowhere will just leave. The best way to rebuild a franchise through the draft is to do it slowly, to make sure that your first lottery pick doesn't help your team so immediately that he penalizes your chances of getting into the lottery a second or third time. (As a general rule of thumb, isn't it safe to say that a team needs three all-stars to win a championship? Jordan, Pippen, Rodman. Robinson, Duncan, Elliott. Bryant, O'Neal, Rice.). But the old CBA meant that you couldn't rebuild slowly, because your picks would leave. You had to rebuild quickly in order to keep your lottery players, thereby jeopardizing your long-term chances of building a championship team. (Case in point: A Raptors team last year made up of their original draft picks—Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Jonathan Bender, and Tracy McGrady—might still have been green enough to have another shot at a lottery player this year. And two or three years after that, you could well have a title contender. As it stands, the hasty rebuilding job the club was forced to do, bringing in Charles Oakley, Antonio Davis, and Kevin Willis—Kevin Willis!—virtually guarantees that next year they won't be in the lottery, but they won't last beyond the first round of the playoffs either.)

But the new CBA changes everything. Now a first-round pick plays for the team that drafted him for four years and then becomes a restricted free agent—meaning his original team has the right to match any offer made by another team. If a bad team wants to keep a good player, in other words, it can.

The point is that all of a sudden you can rebuild slowly; in fact, you want to rebuild slowly. You want to draft great players who will be bad enough in the short run to allow you to keep drafting more great players. In other words, you want to draft raw but promising underclassmen. Jerry Krause in Chicago realized this, which is why he so badly wanted the high-schooler Darius Miles this year: Miles is a potential all-star—and, more important, he's an all-star four or five years from now, which, in the current climate, is the very best all-star of all. Instead, he had to settle for Marcus Fizer, who has the particular misfortune of being good enough to make a difference right away. And who got Miles? Why, the Clippers, of course. And who did they take last year, in the first season of the new regime? Why Lamar Odom, a raw underclassman who will also one day be an all-star but at the moment is distinguished chiefly by his 3.4 turnovers a game. And who have they traded for in the off-season? Corey Maggette—a player so green that he is almost certain to lose four or five games in the clutch next season. Meanwhile—and this is the most brilliant move of all—what are the Clippers doing with their best player, Maurice Taylor? Chasing him out of town. Why keep a polished, talented player on your roster who might screw up your chances of landing another untested teen-ager? 

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of David and Goliath.