The biggest moment of the post–Lob City Clippers era came in the form of a news report. In mid-September, Los Angeles’s oft-forgotten franchise appeared on the short list of teams that Jimmy Butler gave to the Timberwolves when he made his formal trade request. The inclusion was a badge of honor — a sign that there was hope, even if it was slim, that a star wanted to play for Los Angeles’s other team. But before Butler could even learn how to spell Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he’d shifted his focus to the Miami Heat, a more plausible destination that would still ultimately get him out of Dodge. That trade hasn’t materialized. Butler is still a Timberwolf, Minnesota is struggling, and Miami is below .500. But the Clippers, on the other hand, are doing just fine.
After trading away Chris Paul and Blake Griffin over the past two seasons, and letting DeAndre Jordan go in free agency this summer, the Clippers have started anew with a starless roster and no clear no. 1 guy. That may not sound ideal, but it’s been working for them. The Clippers are 6–4 through 10 games, with all four of the losses coming against expected playoff teams. They have the sixth most efficient offense in the league and the eighth most efficient defense — only the Warriors, Raptors, Blazers, and Bucks can also claim top-10 units in both categories. Though their roster is basically the equivalent of a frozen yogurt store — all the flavors are fine, but none of them will ever be ice cream — their early success bodes well for the team’s present goals and future (free agent) aspirations.
Butler played at Staples Center on Monday night and watched as his team fell to the Clippers 120–109. Postgame, he deflected questions about his future, refusing to say whether L.A. was still on his trade list. The Clippers, however, may have their eye on bigger fish. Not only are they off to a better start this season than their Angeleno counterparts, the Lakers, they’re also reportedly ahead of the pack in the sweepstakes for free-agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers are in a fascinating place right now. Conventional wisdom said they should have blown up the team post–Lob City and collected all the assets (in the form of young players and picks) they could get as they sold off the talent that had brought them the closest they’ve been to a title. Instead, they merely rebooted their software. They got Patrick Beverley in the deal for Paul, Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris in the deal for Griffin, and Marcin Gortat in a deal for Austin Rivers. They signed Danilo Gallinari in 2017 and Luc Mbah a Moute this summer, and they retained Lou Williams.
For the most part, they were chided for their approach. None of these players were stars, and it seemed like all these moves would amount to was more mediocre seasons. In today’s NBA, which has basically evolved into a binary of tanking and competitive teams, those organizations in the middle are essentially in basketball purgatory. They’re not close to making a title run, but they’re also not looking ahead to future seasons. They’re stuck. And that’s where the Clippers were thought to be heading into the season. When reports surfaced over the summer that said they were planning on going after Leonard, the news was laughed off as a pipe dream. Why would he go to the Clippers? Doesn’t he want to compete for a title?
Now, just a few months later, this group of role players couldn’t be playing much better. Gallinari is — [knocks on all the wood] — healthy again and averaging 20 points a game on career-high 44.9 percent shooting from the field and a scorching 45.8 percent from 3. Harris keeps improving and is the competent wing the Clippers have been missing over the past six years. And rookie Gilgeous-Alexander looks like the team’s next great point guard, one who can already do things like this:
A rebuild may have given the Clippers a small chance to compete years down the line had everything turned out right (I’m guessing this guy didn’t like the idea of tanking), but it would have also made them even more unpalatable to free agents. This is a franchise that, after Lob City went up in flames, needed to show it was stable — enter Jerry West — and that it could win even without a star. The Clippers have achieved both goals so far this season, and in many ways they have the perfect sales pitch to a superstar who wants his own team in a big market: Come here and make us more than just a fringe playoff team. Thanks to savvy cap managing, they could have around $57 million in cap space next offseason, enough for at least one max contract — possibly even two.
None of that is guaranteed, of course. The Clippers may very well end up getting overshadowed yet again in their own city, finding themselves unable to attract free agents and getting stuck somewhere in the black hole between the 8-seed and the bottom of the West. Butler may be traded or may sign elsewhere this offseason; Leonard may stay in Toronto (the Raptors are currently destroying everyone in their path and look like the best team in the East). But the noise around this team is getting increasingly hard to ignore, and for the Clippers, that’s a moral victory in itself.
Lob City may have ended in disappointment, but maybe it needed to die so that the best version of the Clippers could live.