NBA

The Clippers must go all-in before the trade deadline

The Los Angeles Lakers got the trade season started Monday by acquiring Rui Hachimura from the Wizards for Kendrick Nunn and three second-rounders in what could be the first of many moves ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Only 5.5 games separate the third-seeded Sacramento Kings and the 13th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the West, so nearly the entire conference is still in the playoff hunt. The Lakers feel that if Anthony Davis can get healthy, they can make a run. But there’s still uncertainty about whether they’re willing to — or should — move both of their future first-round picks.

The rival Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, face no such dilemma. They have to go all in to try and win the championship now. Why? They have no other choice. With their draft futures mortgaged and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George potentially becoming free agents in 2024, the time is now.

It was a rocky start to the season for Leonard, but he has gradually improved and now looks like his pre-injury self. Over his last seven games, he has averaged 29.9 points with elite efficiency and 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.9 steals. It’s a small test, to be sure, and he’s still at risk of re-injury. But with Leonard looking like his old dominant self and George still playing at a borderline All-Star level, it’s obvious why the Clippers would feel an urgent need to go after the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.

The talk around the NBA is that the Clippers are actively looking for an upgrade to Reggie Jackson at point guard and a backup big man behind Ivica Zubac. Despite the play of Leonard and George, the Clippers will still look like fake contenders entering the playoffs unless they make improvements.

Jackson hasn’t been very useful since the 2021 playoffs, and John Wall was a valuable offseason gamble but has proven to be a much better interviewee than basketball player in 2023.

Marc Stein reported on Substack that the Clippers have interest in Jazz point guard Mike Conley, who believed he would be traded to the Clippers before the season. The Jazz are hanging around in the playoff race, but they are better off moving their remaining veterans so they can fall out of the play-in and into the lottery where they intended to be in the first place. Whatever other moves they make, it’s likely that Conley, who is 35, will be moved to a team that will give him a better chance to win his first title.

Conley is a good fit offensively for the Clippers because he is a stable playmaker who can thrive on the ball as a shooter and cutter. And while he’s turned down the defense, he’s had some lockdown moments this season where he’s looked like his best self.

In the final moments of a close win against the Pelicans last month, Conley swatted away two inbounds passes to CJ McCollum before weaving through three screens to stop McCollum’s scoring attempt. There were levels of speed and awareness on display that the Clippers haven’t seen from Wall or Jackson.

But other teams will also pursue Conley, meaning the Jazz will likely hold out for the best possible offer until closer to the deadline. So LA has to scour the rest of the league. League sources say the Clippers are also interested in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

Lowry is making $28.3 million, and his decline with the Heat has been even more evident this season than Conley’s plunge with the Jazz. Conley ranks 84th in our top 100 NBA player rankings, while Lowry fell all the way in the latest update.

VanVleet, No. 76 overall, is the best target for the Clippers considering he’s only 28, he’s a relentless on-ball defender and he was an All-Star last season.

League sources doubt the Raptors will move Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby unless the return is huge — think two or three unprotected first-round picks or young players of near-equal talent — but it’s more likely VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. moved as they are less talented and can become free agents this summer.

Leonard and VanVleet won a championship together in Toronto and would likely excel again in Los Angeles because of FVV’s ability to excel off the ball or reliably run points. VanVleet should be the Clippers’ top target, but even if they land him, they still need to add size before the playoffs.

Although Zubac posted All-Defensive caliber numbers earlier this season, he is admittedly worn down after playing the most minutes of his career. LA had a top-five defensive rating over the first 30 games of the season before dropping to the top five over the last 20 or so. Aside from Zubac, the only 7-footer they have is Moses Brown, who offers nothing on the defensive end.

HoopsHype‘s Michael Scotto reported Monday that Timberwolves center Naz Reid has drawn interest from the Clippers and Nuggets. I’ve heard from league sources that the Nets have also inquired about Reid, so there would be competition for him if Minnesota chose to move him, even if the price for the upcoming free agent would not be significant.

The Clippers are likely priced to acquire a big man like the Pacers’ Myles Turner or the Hawks’ John Collins. A cheaper option would be Magic center Mo Bamba, who has seen his minutes drop and who league sources say is readily available in a trade.

According to executives around the league, the Clippers are also interested in their former backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, who is now with the Knicks.

LA tried to re-sign Hartenstein last summer, but he went to New York for more money and due to he felt he was wanted there. But unfortunately, not all free agent decisions turn out the way you originally envisioned them.

The Knicks have blatantly abused Hartenstein as a rim roller more than a playmaker, his previous role with the Clippers. He had a 20.5 assist percentage with the Clippers compared to just 5.1 percent with the Knicks. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t know how to get the best out of him, while Ty Lue has already proven that he can. Getting back together may be in everyone’s best interest.

The Clippers don’t have many valuable assets to move in trades. But just as the Lakers were able to outbid other teams for Hachimura, there are deals to be made at an affordable price. The Clips only have their 2028 first-round pick to offer, but they still own all of their future second-rounders besides the 2027s. Former second-round picks Jason Preston and Brandon Boston have both excelled in the G League; Preston has shown off his steady shot creation and Boston looks like a go-to presence. Both of them have a value that reflects a high to mid second rounder.

Stein says the Clippers are “swindling away outside interest” in Terance Mann. It’s no surprise that teams want him. Mann has established himself as a solid rotation wing, but he’s still just 26 and in the final year of his rookie deal before a two-year, $22 million extension kicks in next season. Amir Coffey is on a team-friendly long-term contract and could also be a nice addition to any offer. But none of them have star-level upside.

The Clippers also have a number of salaries that need to be used and potentially combined to make virtually every incoming contract work. Wall ($6.5 million) and Jackson ($11.2 million) give the Clippers two expiring contracts to work with, while Marcus Morris ($16.4 million), Luke Kennard ($13.7 million) and Robert Covington ($12.3 million ) can become free agents in 2024.

For VanVleet, the Clippers could offer something like Kennard, Mann, Boston, a future first-round pick and another pick or two. Depending on the number of players involved, the Clippers might get someone like Juancho Hernangomez back in a deal or work it into a three-way to land a backup center.

As currently constructed, the Clippers don’t look like a contender. The point guard and center positions are far too weak for the team to survive a competitive playoff series.

While they can’t count on Leonard staying healthy, they don’t have the rights to any of their first-round picks until 2027 and have no choice but to gamble on Leonard’s best-case scenario. We’re seeing the best case scenario right now, and he looks like West Coast Michael Jordan again. George is a willing second option and the team has plenty of other good players. There are just weaknesses it needs to address.

The Lakers made their first move, and maybe not their last. Other competitors in the West will also look for upgrades in the market. But few teams, if any, should feel more pressure than the Clippers; they have invested so much in this core and both Leonard and George have the ability to become free agents next summer. Time is running out.

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