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Why the Clippers Are the Trade Deadline’s Most Intriguing Sleeper

The Clips are flying under the radar with Kawhi and PG out, but the deadline may change that. Here’s why Los Angeles is one of the most interesting teams to watch in the next two weeks, and why they could be either buyers or sellers.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Before the Rams defeated the 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl on Sunday, Los Angeles got to watch its two basketball teams. The Lakers lost again, this time to the Hawks, to fall three games under .500. The Clippers won again, and now they’re 26-26, two spots ahead of the Lakers as the West’s no. 7 seed. It’s been a disappointing season for the Lakers, but a successful one for the Clippers considering Kawhi Leonard has not played all season as he recovers from surgery on his partially torn ACL and Paul George has been out since late December due to a torn ligament in his right elbow. Somehow, without their two best players, the Clippers are still fighting for a playoff spot, and in better position than their crosstown rivals.

With the trade deadline quickly approaching, the Clippers are one of the more intriguing teams in the league, as both potential buyers or sellers. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently reported that George could undergo surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Leonard isn’t scheduled to return until April at the earliest. And with no first-round draft picks until 2027, the Clippers don’t have any incentive to tank. So the Clippers are somewhere in the middle, serving as both a potential buyer or seller depending on the strength of the trade offer. That’s because every decision the front office makes is to prepare for the return of Leonard and George, whether that’s this season or next.

Right now, the PG-and-Kawhi-less Clippers look the part of a team ready to support its two stars. In their absences, Los Angeles has developed a staunch defensive identity; its defensive rating ranks sixth in the NBA. On Sunday, while Rams and 49ers fans were likely tailgating in L.A., the Clippers had a moment that captures the spirit of a supporting cast that’s fought tooth and nail to keep its season afloat:

It’s certainly not the flashiest play. It’s not even one of their smoothest. Yet, the effort is still there. It always is, whether they’re up big late or down 35 points like they were in their historic comeback last week against the woebegone Wizards. The Clippers, with or without George and Leonard, are resilient.

“We just fuck with each other,” said Justise Winslow after the team’s double-digit win over the Hornets. “We’re connected. We like playing together. We’re just out there having fun.”

Free is another way to describe them. The Clippers, at least for now, are free of pressure: free of the pressure to compete for a championship, at least until their stars return, and free of the pressure to tank. Ty Lue is able to experiment with his rotations. Everyone on his roster plays, and not just because of injuries or health-and-safety protocols. He has flexed his ability as one of the league’s top coaches at making midgame adjustments while managing a deep rotation featuring players with various skill sets.

Without two All-NBA players, most teams would be having a year from hell. But Lue’s entire staff has coached their asses off. The team is playing just as hard despite missing its two on-court leaders. And it has resulted in a respectable, albeit one-sided, team featuring a strong defense and an offense that’s puttering along near the bottom of the league but doing enough to keep it in the playoff race.

The schedule is getting tougher leading up to the trade deadline and All-Star Weekend. John Schuhmann highlighted on NBA.com that the Clippers have the NBA’s “toughest schedule over the next 22 days in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage (.570).” They’ll have games on the road against the Suns, Grizzlies, and Mavericks, and at home against the Bucks and Warriors.

If the Clippers dip below .500 it should come as no big surprise. But this isn’t a lost season without Leonard and George. Not at all. In fact, the Clippers found their identity on defense by examining their roster and trying to find out who will fit with their stars in the years to come.

Despite all the good vibes on the court this season, no team is ever fully complete. Change is inevitable. And the next step for the Clippers is to find a new point guard.

While Reggie Jackson currently mans the position, the Clippers see him as more of a scorer. What they want by his side is a playmaker. Someone like Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry for Kawhi in Toronto, or even like George Hill was for a young PG-13 in Indiana. L.A. wants a point guard on that level, someone who can both manage the game or provide a spark depending on the situation.

Eric Bledsoe, Serge Ibaka, and Marcus Morris are the players the Clippers are making the most available. No surprises there. Ibaka is on an expiring $9.7 million deal and he’s barely hanging on to a rotation spot, having been surpassed by Isaiah Hartenstein on the depth chart. Bledsoe doesn’t bring enough playmaking or shooting. He makes $18.1 million this season, but is guaranteed for only $3.9 million next season, making him slightly more movable. A team could easily absorb one or both of their deals. Morris, who is in the second year of a four-year, $64 million deal, comes at a reasonable price for a player who could immediately help just about any playoff team. Clippers fans know his value as a fearless knockdown shooter. He was central to their successful small-ball lineups in their playoff victory over the Jazz. The Clippers may keep him given that he’s their third-leading scorer and a versatile defender, but he’s also their best veteran to deal for a quality point guard.

The Clippers have no tradable first-round draft picks, except for first-round pick swaps in 2027 or 2028. But they do have seven second-round picks to sweeten potential deals. Nicolas Batum, 33, would appeal to many contenders. Then there’s the Clippers’ strong cast of prospects, between the ages of 19 and 25, including Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, Ivica Zubac, Jason Preston, Brandon Boston Jr., and Keon Johnson. Depending on the level of point guard the Clippers are targeting, one or more of them may have to go.

So, what kind of point guard can the Clippers reasonably obtain? Over the past few weeks, numerous reports have cited names like Jalen Brunson, Dennis Schröder, Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic, Spencer Dinwiddie, and John Wall as targets.

Brunson embodies what the Clippers really need. He’s selfless and tough. He makes quick decisions as a playmaker, limits mistakes, and he can score with confidence all over the court. The truth is the Mavericks should be trying to keep him. And he might realistically be out of the Clippers’ price range, unless he forces his way to Los Angeles in a sign-and-trade during the summer as an unrestricted free agent.

Other options are less inspiring. Kemba is well past his prime. The Wizards want to move Dinwiddie because he looks like a shell of his former self and his teammates don’t want him there. Schröder is fine, but he leans too far toward scoring and would be an awkward fit next to Jackson.

Dragic would be nice if the Clippers are able to get the old Heat version out of him again. The ball doesn’t stick when he’s on the floor. There’s flow because he’s both a quirky passer and a clutch scorer who can play with or without the ball. Dragic will turn 36 in May, but Doug Smith from The Toronto Star said the Raptors are “finding great interest in a myriad of differently structured deals” and it’s “almost certain” they will find one for Dragic before the deadline. For teams in need of playmaking, he’s the safest target. Could Dragic even be out of L.A.’s price range at this point?

So who does that leave? Wall is the player that intrigues me the most because he might also be the most attainable. Marc Stein reported last week on his Substack that the Clippers and Heat will have interest in Wall if he becomes a free agent in the event of a buyout with the Rockets. Kelly Iko from The Athletic reported two days earlier that the Clippers expressed “genuine interest” in Wall earlier this season.

With so much ink spilled (cough) on the potential of the Lakers flipping Russell Westbrook for Wall, maybe it’s the other Los Angeles team that’s the true threat and better fit. The Clippers would ideally want a buyout scenario, as Stein said. But if it is a trade, Bledsoe, Morris, and Ibaka combine to make $43.4M, which makes them a perfect match for Wall’s $44.3M salary. Ibaka and Bledsoe aren’t long for L.A. And while Morris is a good player, wouldn’t swapping him for Wall, a five-time All-Star who’s still only 31, be a reasonable gamble?

The upside: Playing a lesser role could lead to greater returns from Wall. Last season with Houston, he showed that he can still defend. He is still a good passer, too. Lue’s hands-on play-calling would help mitigate the fact that Wall isn’t much of a floor general. Wall could just help carry the load. He can also play without the ball; he’s made a quality 38.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s from above the break in his career. From the corners, he makes only 34.1 percent, which is below average but could improve with more looks from that spot as we’ve seen from plenty of vets.

The downside: Wall wasn’t close to his former self during his 40-game stint with the Rockets last season. After rupturing his Achilles and missing all of 2019-20, Wall is clearly past his athletic prime and now has a scary injury history hovering over his every move. He averaged 20.6 points, but did so on a scoring efficiency that was his lowest since he was 22. It wasn’t long ago Wall showed up out of physical condition at the Olympics.

Wall is not the same player he used to be. Whether it’s age, injury, or conditioning, there are plenty of red flags. Acquiring Wall would undeniably carry risk.

But sometimes risks get rewarded. It’s not like Wall was awful in Houston. He had his moments. The last time Wall played in an NBA game was actually against the Clippers. On April 23, 2021, he played 39 minutes in a 109-104 loss for the Rockets. He had 27 points on 22 shots and 13 assists with four turnovers. Houston outscored L.A. by six points when he was in the game. Wall kept the game competitive, and then he was gone for the rest of the season with a “hamstring tweak.” He hasn’t played for the rebuilding Rockets since.

Wall doesn’t have the Cooper Kupp acceleration that he did in his prime. But he still has skills that could fit next to a star. That’s why, if things keep going south for the Lakers, the idea of trading Russell Westbrook for Wall will continue to be a topic. But if they want to, the Clippers could offer the Rockets significant financial savings to avoid a buyout for Wall, who can opt in for a gargantuan $47.4 million next season. Acquiring Westbrook would keep them in the same cap mess, while the Clippers could save them millions.

Wall has shown the ability to help a team, and he was open about his desire to take a back seat before he was dealt by the Wizards. Leonard and George ideally would have some assistance running the offense when they return from injury. And the bar is high to win a championship. Risks need to be taken. Even if Wall fails or gets injured again, he’s signed only through the 2022-23 season. At that point, the Clippers would have more flexibility to seek additional moves.

Timing is everything for the Clips, and it might not be the right moment to roll the dice since their stars might not be back this season anyway. Wall could be had after a buyout. Dragic, too, will be a free agent this summer. Keeping Morris and the rest of the group to maintain the fun vibes this team has now built up would be a reasonable path to take. But the Clippers do need a point guard, and they should be monitoring the market to find one.

It’s easy to daydream about what the Clippers could be in full form, when Leonard and George return. The already elite defense would be even further enhanced by their abilities. The offense would have its main components back. Lue leads one of the NBA’s best coaching staffs. This team is near complete. Kawhi and PG will be back eventually, and then a point guard will be all that’s missing. The Rams acquired a new quarterback then made the Super Bowl. Can the Clippers find theirs?