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The Clippers-Blazers Trade Is About the Larger Picture

Portland is beginning its rebuild in earnest while Los Angeles is retooling as it waits for its stars to come back. Friday’s five-player deal has immediate ramifications, but the long-term ripple effects are even more intriguing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You’d have forgiven the Clippers for treating this like a lost season. The hits started last July, when Kawhi Leonard underwent surgery to repair a torn right ACL that is “probably” going to keep him out for the entirety of the 2021-22 NBA season, then another came on Christmas, when we learned that Paul George had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which might keep him out for the rest of the season. Without the pair of All-NBA two-way destroyers that owner Steve Ballmer moved heaven, earth, five first-round picks, two pick swaps, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to get—and then paid a combined $352.5 million to keep—it seemed like there was little reason to believe the Clips could stay competitive in what promised to be a brutal Western Conference.

But then the West—outside the top three, anyway—wound up being a lot less brutal than anticipated and premier problem-solving head coach Ty Lue wound up turning the Clippers’ side dishes into a pretty tasty meal. L.A. has gone 10-12 since George went down, and sits at 27-27 after a thrilling last-second victory over the rival Lakers on Thursday night—in eighth place in the West, just three games out of fifth. That positioning made the Clippers a team of interest approaching next Thursday’s trade deadline: Would team president Lawrence Frank and his brain trust try to seize the opportunity to improve the roster for the stretch run? Or would they take a longer view, looking to strengthen the team for next season, when a healthy Kawhi and PG will re-enter the fray?

We learned Friday that the Clippers didn’t view the question as an either/or proposition. By pulling off a deal with the Trail Blazers to import swingmen Norman Powell and Robert Covington, the Clips answered yes to both.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that L.A. has agreed to trade Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, rookie Keon Johnson, and the Pistons’ 2025 second-round draft pick to Portland in exchange for Powell and Covington, a pair of veteran wings who bolster the Clippers’ perimeter corps. The 28-year-old Powell is averaging a career-best 18.7 points in 33.3 minutes per game on 46/41/80 shooting splits. The defensive-minded Covington, 31, lost his starting job in Portland amid arguably the worst shooting season of his career, but has seen his game bounce back some, averaging 9.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game over his last 14 outings.

After spending a year and a half miscast as a small forward alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Powell’s athleticism, physicality, and ability to get downhill off the dribble should play up in a move back to the 2. He’s not much of a playmaker himself—just 2.1 assists per game this season, a 1.24-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career—but he’s a knockdown shooter who can cash in on the shots created by Reggie Jackson and L.A.’s other table-setters; Powell has made more catch-and-shoot 3s this season than any Clipper besides Luke Kennard, and has shot a crisp 43.5 percent on more than 750 catch-and-shoot tries over the past four seasons, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

Covington’s value on the offensive end depends largely on whether his 3-point shots are falling. But his willingness to fire regardless and space the floor, combined with his ability to guard bigs and play disruptive team defense off the ball ought to help him fit in on a squad that likes to play small-ball and run five-out offense. (Just ask Utah.)

Both bring length, playoff experience, toughness, and versatility that should prove useful for Lue as he continues to tinker in search of the best iteration of a Clippers team that ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, but just 25th in points scored per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. In the short term, their arrivals should help fortify the rotation as Lue and Co. look to solidify their position in the Western playoff chase; entering Friday’s games, Basketball-Reference.com, FiveThirtyEight, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index all give the Clips about a 70 percent chance of making the postseason.

The Clippers’ real play, though, goes beyond this season. Powell is under contract through 2026 on the five-year, $90 million deal former Blazers general manager Neil Olshey gave him last summer. Covington will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but it’s unclear how robust his market will be in an environment in which only the Spurs, Magic, and Pistons are likely to have significant cap space. The Clippers now hold Covington’s full Bird rights, allowing them to go over the salary cap to re-sign him if they want to bring him back. (Or, if they don’t, to be able to sign-and-trade him elsewhere and acquire another player they might value more.)

It’s possible, then, that the Clips just added two playoff-rotation-caliber performers—Powell, you’ll remember, played alongside Leonard during the Raptors’ run to the 2019 NBA championship—for next postseason, when a hopefully healthy Kawhi and PG will be back to lead the Clips. It’s also possible that sliding Powell into a starting backcourt spot and inserting Covington into the rotation gives Frank and the front office the opportunity to see whether packaging up some other players—Kennard, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, breakthrough performer Amir Coffey, rookie Brandon Boston Jr.—could yield the playmaking point guard that this roster so desperately needs.

The price of those now-and-later upgrades and that additional flexibility was pretty steep: Ballmer just committed to writing a nine-figure luxury tax check for a team that’s sitting at .500 this season. That’s tip money to a member of the $100 billion club, though—and the cost of doing business after having gone all-in to acquire Leonard and George, and then extending their contracts to commit to keeping the franchise’s competitive window open through at least 2024.

To the extent that it was ever really open, the competitive window for Portland—or, at least, Olshey’s version of it—is now shut.

Both Powell and Covington were brought in by the former Blazers president as part of a yearslong attempt to build a championship-caliber roster around Lillard and McCollum. That never happened; Olshey was fired in December, with the Blazers sputtering below .500, following an investigation into workplace misconduct during his decade-long tenure in charge of basketball operations.

Olshey’s ouster sparked a slew of questions about the short- and long-term future in Portland—chiefly about whether perennial All-NBA guard Lillard would finally decide he’d been loyal enough and ask for a trade to greener pastures, but also about whether the other veteran players Olshey had imported might be on the move, too. Interim GM Joe Cronin recently told Mark Medina of NBA.com that he didn’t think the Blazers—in 10th place at 21-31 despite a slew of injuries—“have the appetite to tear it all the way down” with a fire sale … but he also said he’d “take a big-picture approach, knowing that one season is a small vacuum of a larger picture.”

That larger picture, it seems, continues to include the franchise’s centerpiece: Wojnarowski reports that the Blazers’ “plan is to continue to reshape the roster around” Lillard rather than ship him out. (Or, at least, to kick the can on that question until the summer.) It would also appear to include opening up more minutes and money for Anfernee Simons, the fourth-year guard who has shined since stepping in for the injured Lillard, averaging 22.8 points and 6.4 assists per game while shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range on more than 10 tries a night as a starter over the last month.

The 22-year-old will enter restricted free agency this summer; swapping the remaining four years and $74.5 million on Powell’s deal for Bledsoe (one year and $19.4 million, only $3.9 million of which is guaranteed), Winslow (one year, $4.1 million), and the rookie Johnson (three years, $10 million) should create enough financial flexibility for the Blazers to either tender Simons a sizable offer of their own or match any offer sheet an interested suitor might send his way. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether it’s wise for Portland to set itself up to lock in another smaller guard on a lucrative long-term deal, but with his play over the past month, Simons has certainly earned a spot in the franchise’s future considerations—and, along with them, its present-tense deal-making.

In a vacuum, Bledsoe (who I’d expect to be a buyout candidate uninterested in playing third wheel on a fringe play-in team … or, at least, not one with Klutch connections), Winslow (a solid two-way wing who’s helpful when healthy but has largely underwhelmed), Johnson (the 19th pick in the 2021 draft and an interesting flyer, albeit one who didn’t crack Lue’s rotation), and a 2025 second-rounder seems like a pretty disappointing haul—especially considering Olshey traded two first-round picks to Houston for Covington, and sent Gary Trent Jr. (who’s shooting 40 percent from 3 and just had five straight 30-point games) to Toronto for Powell. Unwinding the chain of assets is pretty ugly; there’s no way around that.

But sunk costs are sunk costs. Covington’s in his walk year and seemed unlikely to return to Portland. As useful a player as Powell is, he’s also a pretty-good-but-not-great guard who doesn’t average 20-plus and doesn’t create shots on a deal that pays him nearly $75 million through 2026. They were good pieces to add when the Blazers were trying to take a shot at the conference finals; on a team retooling for the future, they’re unnecessary luxuries. Might as well clean up the books a bit, see whether Johnson—a highly touted prospect out of Tennessee—can replicate the development of young players like Simons under Lillard’s wing, and move on with the business of building something new. (And hey, if you can get the team about $900,000 below the luxury tax line and enable Portland to be a team that gets a cut of the league-wide luxury tax payout instead of paying into it … well, so much the better.)

That, really, is the big question: Now that Cronin has started the process of disassembling the roster Olshey put together, just how far will he get by 3 p.m. ET on Thursday? McCollum, who’s averaged a shade under 21-5-5 on 42 percent 3-point shooting since returning from a collapsed lung, continues to be a hot name in trade rumors, with the Pelicans reportedly among the teams interested in adding him. Jusuf Nurkic, playing arguably the best ball of his career, is about to hit free agency; Cronin could position him as a nice rental for a team in need of a center for a playoff push.

If, that is, he’s really looking to do more than just get off of Powell’s salary, make room for Simons, and duck the tax.

“We think through some slight changes that aren’t necessarily drastic as far as a total teardown and a long-term rebuild, we think we can get over that hump in a different direction,” Cronin recently told Medina. “We still have players in their primes ready to compete.”

For now, anyway. The Clippers have two more of them now, too, and as a result, whenever their big guns get back—sooner or later—they will be in a better position to not only compete, but contend.