With their sights apparently focused on a point guard they believe is worthy of the fourth pick in Thursday's NBA draft but not the second, the Clippers on Monday swapped picks with the expansion Charlotte Bobcats.
Rejecting a similar offer from the Atlanta Hawks, the Clippers picked up the fourth and 33rd picks from the Bobcats in exchange for the second.
The Bobcats, who begin play this fall, also agreed to take unwanted backup center Predrag Drobnjak in today's expansion draft, clearing from the Clipper books the $5.315 million Drobnjak is guaranteed over the next two years.
The Hawks also reportedly offered to take on Drobnjak's contract, plus send the Clippers the sixth and 17th picks, on the surface a more attractive deal for the Clippers, barring unnamed future considerations.
But the Hawks' offer may have been contingent on Atlanta high school star Dwight Howard's being available to them at No. 2, no sure thing, plus the Clippers believed that the player they want most might not be available at No. 6.
That player is thought to be Shaun Livingston, a 6-foot-6 point guard from Peoria Central High in Peoria, Ill., who originally committed to Duke.
Livingston, who worked out Sunday for the Clippers in El Segundo, has been identified by the club as one of the top three point guards in the draft, along with Ben Gordon of NCAA champion Connecticut and Devin Harris of Wisconsin. Gordon also worked out Sunday for the Clippers, Harris two weeks ago in Chicago.
One of the three is expected to be the Clippers' pick, with Livingston thought to have the greatest long-term potential despite his slight, 186-pound frame.
"This trade achieves a twofold objective," Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor said during a conference call, reading from a prepared statement. "First, we know we will get the player we want with the fourth pick, and second, it improves our salary-cap flexibility with regard to potential free-agent developments."
The Clippers, declining to take on salary, have been preparing since last summer to make a run at Kobe Bryant when the Laker star becomes a free agent July 1. Dumping Drobnjak's salary puts them in a better position.
And almost from the moment in last month's draft lottery that they moved up from the fifth pick to the second, they seemed intent on making a deal. The projected top two picks in the draft -- Howard and former Connecticut star Emeka Okafor -- are power forwards, same as the Clippers' best player, Elton Brand. Plus, the Clipper roster also includes power forwards Chris Wilcox and Melvin Ely, lottery picks two years ago.
The Clippers have little use for Okafor or Howard, and they don't think any of the other players available in the draft is worthy of the No. 2 pick.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, were eager to reach for a star.
"We would be pleased starting our basketball team with either one of those young men," Bobcat General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff said Monday in Charlotte, referring to Okafor and Howard. "I think they represent what we'd like to become in terms of the character, the competitiveness and the talent."
Some say Howard, last season's high school player of the year, could be the next Kevin Garnett. The Orlando Magic, which holds the No. 1 pick, has not yet revealed whether it will take Okafor or Howard.
"They say, 'Could be,' " Baylor said of Howard's potential. "I don't know. We do have one of the best power forwards in basketball: Elton.
"He's not better than Elton."
The Clippers' biggest need is at point guard.
Livingston is considered the most distinctive talent among the point guards available in this year's draft, with a nearly seven-foot wingspan, but he's rail-thin, inexperienced and won't be 19 until Sept. 11. Gordon and Harris each played three seasons in college, but Gordon is 6-1, Harris a shade under 6-2. Both are 21.
Although calling Livingston "very talented," Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said that the recently graduated high school senior "might not be as ready to play as other players in the draft" and described him as "very skinny."
Added Dunleavy: "There's going to be a big adjustment for Shaun. But I think somewhere down the road he'll do very well."
Neither he nor Baylor would commit to Livingston, or anybody else. Luol Deng, a 6-8 forward who left Duke after one season, is believed to be the Chicago Bulls' choice with the No. 3 pick, leaving the point guards to the Clippers.
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Shaun Livingston Profile
* Position: Point guard.
* Height/weight: 6-6, 186 pounds.
* Birthdate: Sept. 11, 1985 (Peoria, Ill.).
* High school: Peoria Central High School.
* College: Committed to Duke before making himself available for draft.
* It's a fact: Led Peoria Central to Class AA state titles in 2003 and 2004. Named Illinois' Mr. Basketball in 2003-04. Could become the fourth Illinois Mr. Basketball to go straight to the NBA from high school, joining Kevin Garnett, Darius Miles and Eddy Curry. ... As a senior, averaged 18.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists. Shot 51% from the field and 77% from the free-throw line.
* Strengths: Excellent court vision and ballhandling skills. Has the rare ability to read the play before it happens. Defensively, he uses long arms to disrupt passing lanes.
* Weaknesses: Needs to add some strength. Shot has improved over the last year, but still needs more consistency. Mechanics need some work. Sometimes prone to having the ball stolen because he stays too high, needs to get lower.
Sources: Times research / NBA.com