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The Clippers Might Have Quietly Won the Trade Deadline

The franchise has positioned itself for a fruitful offseason without making any big sacrifices

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Doc Rivers’s press conferences before games often turn into half-hearted stand-up routines. He usually riffs on the opponent (on the Jimmy Butler–era Wolves: “They have a lot of distractions”), makes a joke about how he hopes their superstar isn’t so super on that particular night (on DeMarcus Cousins’s return: “I hope he’s awful”), and talks about his own team or to reporters in his preferred language: sarcasm. He loves it when the sessions are short, but also appears to be in his element as he talks up the reality of the Clippers’ egalitarian system and makes comments about whatever else is on his mind: poor scheduling, golf, other sports news, even politics. He’s a people person.

It’s been about a year and a half since the Clippers removed Rivers from the dual role of head coach and president of basketball operations and let him focus on just being the former. It was a change that likely helped him avoid the same fate as Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau, who also had the hybrid role and then lost both of their jobs, and allowed Rivers to zero in on coaching a team in desperate need of, well, a coach who could get the most out of a star-less group. But by the time the Clippers had decided to shift the front-office responsibilities to president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, they had already signed Blake Griffin to a max deal. It took only half a season for them renege on their “Clipper for Life” promise to Griffin and trade him to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Boban Marjanovic.

All three of those players are no longer Clippers, all of them traded away at this year’s deadline. Harris, Marjanovic, and Mike Scott landed in Philadelphia in exchange for Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, two first-round picks, and two second-round picks. Bradley and his $2 million partially guaranteed deal for next season was sent to Memphis for two expiring contracts—Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green. Whereas Harris landed in Philly as the proposed final piece of the Sixers’ win-now puzzle, to the Clippers he was just the means to a bigger end. If he helped them win while he was in Los Angeles, then great. But that was the icing, not the cake.

Case in point: The Clippers turned around and traded Muscala to a desperate Lakers squad that needed shooting. In return, they got a young center in Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley (whom they waived). Here’s the key translation: The Clippers turned Griffin into four picks (two first-rounders), Chandler, and three young players: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet, and Zubac. Eight assets in total. In the process, they brought the best out of Harris, who helped turn them into a respectable team that would overachieve its limitations, and have potentially set themselves up to create enough cap space to sign two max free agents this summer. The bigger picture is coming into focus now, and winning the trade deadline certainly helps.

Patience in the NBA is more than a virtue, it’s a skill and a team-building method. The biggest story line to emerge from Thursday’s deadline was the aggression displayed by the teams at the top of the East. It’s understandable. The East no longer features LeBron James, and for the first time in nearly a decade, there will be a team in the Finals that isn’t led by him. For a team like the Raptors, that’s like finding out that the kid who bullied you from kindergarten through middle school somehow ended up at a different high school.

Most of the West, meanwhile, stood pat, perhaps awaiting buyout candidates instead of gunning for a bigger move. The Clippers shied away from making a run at the 8-seed (and a forthcoming sweep at the hands of the Warriors) by selling. One conference knows that the Warriors exist because they see them every time they look at the standings, while the other is choosing to ignore them. Neither strategy is necessarily bad (being ready to pounce in the case of a Golden State injury is a strategy), but in this scenario, the Clippers are playing the role of the realists and biding their time as they slowly build under the Golden State sun.

The Clippers’ goals were clear even before their flurry of moves at the deadline. They have had Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant in their sights. They are the reported favorites for Leonard, whom they have been watching closely by sending Clippers representatives to a large number of games in Toronto, but they had planned to make room for not one but two free agents—whether the second guy is Durant, Jimmy Butler, or someone else—even before trading away Harris.

To even be able to open up two max-salary spots this summer, re-signing Harris was out of the question. Keeping him was merely the backup plan, so why not get something for him at his peak value? Though the possibility of their ending up with Anthony Davis in a trade is reportedly “unlikely,” it’s merely having the opportunity to do so that counts. You never know which free agent could want out next; you never know which free agent may prefer what Steve Ballmer is building instead of being LeBron’s second fiddle.

Two players have already proved that theory at least somewhat correct. Both Butler and Davis included the Clippers in their reported lists of preferred destinations. Think about that: This was a franchise that was considered cursed as recently as five years ago, a franchise whose glory days somehow didn’t even include them earning a conference championship berth.

Nearly all the Clippers’ steps since the end of the Lob City era have been productive, a testament to how much can change with good ownership. Giving Frank the keys to the basketball-operations side of the franchise has proved fruitful, and adding Jerry West’s presence has given the franchise a sense of legitimacy it previously didn’t have, not to mention the personnel advice he was hired to provide behind the scenes. And even when the franchise has stumbled (like with the Griffin contract), it has been able to recover admirably. These are not the Clippers of the early aughts or the early 2010s. Moves like the ones they pulled off around this deadline help prove that this isn’t all smoke and mirrors.

Through it all, Rivers’s presence on the sideline (and at the podium) has remained the one constant. He is the de facto face of a franchise that is aiming to find an on-court star to become the team’s marketing draw. So far, they look to be well on their way.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Clippers waived Wilson Chandler.