It was August 12, 2005, nearly seven weeks into the offseason.
The Clippers had agreed to terms with guard Cuttino Mobley nine days earlier. And as the league headed into what is often one of the slowest months of the year, the Clippers’ roster was taking shape.
They had a promising nucleus of Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Chris Kaman. They had recent lottery picks Shaun Livingston and Chris Wilcox, and were adding Mobley to a group that improved by nine wins from the previous year.
Still, a piece was missing. The 6-foot-7 Livingston, who was chosen No. 4 overall in 2004, was clearly the future at point guard. But there was a sense the team needed a more immediate answer at the position, someone to command the offense as much as handle the ball.
That’s when the possibility of a mutually-beneficial trade emerged with the Minnesota Timberwolves, involving the swap of Sam Cassell and a protected first-round draft pick for former second round picks Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers.
The deal came out of Minnesota’s long-standing desire to pick up Jaric and move Cassell, who two seasons earlier led the Timberwolves to the brink of the NBA Finals. For the Clippers, Cassell, a two-time champion with the Rockets, provided instant gravitas and despite a perception that his better days were behind him, getting a player with experience, clutch shooting ability, and leadership credentials meant incurring limited risk.
“[The Cassell trade] was a great move by the Clippers,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Broderick Turner, who was covering the Lakers for the Riverside Press Enterprise at the time. ���I remember Sam was on those back-to-back teams in Houston playing great and he hit some big time clutch shots.
“He was a proven leader, which was exactly what the Clippers needed. He was basically a coach on the floor. [Clippers head coach] Mike Dunleavy totally entrusted him. Sam called most of the plays. He was in charge of the team.”
The Mobley signing should not be overlooked either. It helped Cassell feel comfortable with the direction of the organization and ultimately agree to the deal. It’s comparable to when the Clippers claimed Chauncey Billups off waivers in December 2011. Both guards were widely-respected champions who had doubts about joining the franchise originally, but were convinced to re-sign after a year in the fold.
Throw in the first rounder, which remained protected until this year’s draft, as a sweetener for taking on Cassell, who was in the final year of his contract, and the deal with Minnesota was tangibly weighted in the Clippers’ favor.
Hoops World senior writer and Clippers reporter Eric Pincus said, “When the Clippers traded for Cassell and there was a pick involved, I naturally thought the Clippers had given up a pick to get him. I remember being surprised to find out the pick went to L.A. and being especially impressed with the deal (from the Clippers’ perspective). Their time with Jaric was done. He was a solid player but he had run his course in L.A. so while he was an asset to the Wolves, he wasn’t a significant one for L.A.”
The 26-year-old Jaric, who started 103 games and averaged 8.6 points and 4.6 assists in three years with the Clippers, was the centerpiece from Minnesota’s perspective.
On the day the trade was finalized, then-Timberwolves head coach Dwane Casey said, “Marko is a big guard who can see over the defense, and he can defend both the point guard and shooting guard [positions]. We feel we've really upgraded our defense and our team with the addition of Marko. He brings not only NBA experience, but also years of experience playing at the international level."
THE CASSELL EFFECT
For Minnesota, Jaric was an investment in the future. But bringing Cassell to Los Angeles had far more immediate implications for the Clippers. They started Cassell’s first season 9-2, their loquacious new point guard going for 35 points and 11 assists in his debut against Seattle. The Clippers won more games than any season in team history (47), eliminated the Nuggets in five games in the first round of the playoffs, and ultimately lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Suns.
However, the Cassell trade had a far more lasting impact.
Six years after he propelled the Clippers to within a game of the Western Conference Finals, and with Jaric, Chalmers, and Cassell long out of the league, the last remaining asset from the deal, a finally unprotected first round draft pick became one of the centerpieces to the acquisition of another game-changing point guard: superstar Chris Paul.
Paul’s arrival ushered in another new era for the Clippers, an era of expectations. They won more than 60% of their games in Paul’s first season, a franchise first, and, again, thrust themselves into the thick of the Western Conference race.
While Paul and Cassell are vastly different, they both illustrate the importance of a great primary ball-handler, someone who commands all facets of the game when he’s on the floor. Still, the connection between Cassell and Paul is as much about culture change as it is tangible assets and on-the-court success.
“The Sam Cassell trade and that pick helped change the culture of the Clippers,” Turner said. “[Offseason acquisitions] Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, and Jamal Crawford are all branches as part of that process. It’s really amazing when you think about it.
“It has to be the best [trade] in Clipper history. It led to an All-Star point guard, the second round of the playoffs, and the current offseason.”
Cassell, now a Washington Wizards assistant coach, was in attendance on May 5, 2012 for the first playoff home game since he was on the roster (Game 3 against Memphis). It was somewhat fitting, because in a way he helped get them there.