The Los Angeles Lakers got trade season started on Monday by acquiring Rui Hachimura from the Wizards for Kendrick Nunn and three second-rounders, which could be the first of many moves ahead of the trade deadline on February 9.
Only 5.5 games separate the third-seeded Sacramento Kings and the 13th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the West, so just about 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 are willing to—or should—move both of their future first-round picks.
The rival Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, don’t face such a dilemma. They need to go all in to try to win the championship now. Why? They’ve got no other choice. With their future draft picks 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 progressively trended up and now resembles his pre-injury self. Over his last seven games, he’s averaged 29.9 points with elite efficiency and 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.9 steals to boot. It’s a small sample, to be sure, and he’s still at risk of getting hurt again. 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 urgency to go for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.
The talk around the NBA is that the Clippers are actively looking for an upgrade over 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 phony contenders entering the playoffs unless they make improvements.
Jackson hasn’t been very useful since the 2021 playoffs, and John Wall was a worthwhile offseason gamble but has proved 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 thought he would be traded to the Clippers before the season. The Jazz are hanging around in the playoff race, but they’re first-round fodder better off moving their remaining veterans so that they can fall out of the play-in and into the lottery, where they intended to be in the first place. No matter what other moves they make, it’s likely that Conley, who’s 35, will be moved to a team that’ll give him a better chance of winning his first title.
Conley is a good fit offensively for the Clippers because he’s a steady playmaker who can thrive off the ball as a shooter and cutter. And though he has declined on defense, he’s had some lockdown moments this season when he’s resembled his prime self.
In the closing moments of a tight win against the Pelicans last month, Conley poked away two inbound passes intended for CJ McCollum before snaking through three screens to halt 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 pursue Conley too, meaning that the Jazz will likely hold out for the best possible offer until closer to the deadline. So L.A. must scour the rest of the league. League sources say the Clippers are also interested in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Lowry makes $28.3 million, and his decline with the Heat has been even more apparent this season than Conley’s dip with the Jazz. Conley ranks 84th in our Top 100 NBA Player Rankings, while Lowry fell out entirely in the most recent update.
VanVleet, who is at no. 76, is overall the best target for the Clippers considering he’s only 28, he’s a relentless on-ball defender, and he was an All-Star just last season.
League sources doubt that the Raptors will move Pascal Siakam or O.G. Anunoby unless the return is enormous—think two or three unprotected first-round picks or young players of near-equal talent—but it’s more probable that VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. will be moved since 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 thrive off the ball or reliably run point. VanVleet should be the Clippers’ top target, but even if they land him, they’ll still need to add size before the playoffs.
Though Zubac was posting All-Defensive-caliber numbers earlier in the season, he is admittedly worn down from playing the most minutes of his career. L.A. had a top-five defensive rating over the first 30-ish games of the season before falling to the bottom five over the past 20 or so. Other than Zubac, the only 7-footer they have is Moses Brown, who doesn’t offer anything on the defensive end.
HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto reported on 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, though the price for the upcoming free agent wouldn’t be significant.
The Clippers are likely priced out of acquiring 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 dip 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.
L.A. tried to re-sign Hartenstein last summer, but he went to New York for more money and because he felt he was wanted there. But unfortunately, not all free agent decisions pan out the way you originally envisioned them.
The Knicks have blatantly misused 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 with only 5.1 percent with the Knicks. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t know how to get the best out of him, while Ty Lue has already proved he can. Getting back together might be in everyone’s best interests.
The Clippers don’t have many high-value assets to move in trades. But much like the Lakers were able to outbid other teams for Hachimura, there are deals to be made at an affordable price. The Clips have only their 2028 first-round pick to offer, but they still own all their future second-rounders besides 2027’s. 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 is looking like a go-to presence. Both of them have value that mirrors a high- to-mid second-rounder’s.
Stein says the Clippers “swat away external interest” in Terance Mann. It’s not surprising that teams would want him. Mann has established himself as a solid rotation wing, but he’s still only 26 and in the last 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 be a nice addition to any offer, too. But neither of them have star-level upside.
The Clippers also have a range of salaries to utilize and potentially combine to make just about any 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 along the lines of Kennard, Mann, Boston, a future first-round pick, and a second-round pick or two. Depending on the number of players involved, maybe the Clippers could 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 resemble a contender. The point guard and center positions are far too weak for the team to survive a competitive playoff series.
Even though they can’t bank on Leonard to stay healthy, they don’t have the rights to any of their first-round picks until 2027 and have no choice but to bet on Leonard’s best-case scenario. We’re seeing that 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 must address.
The Lakers made their first move, and maybe not their last. Other contenders in the West will be searching the market for upgrades, too. But few teams, if any, should feel more pressure than the Clippers; they have so much invested in this core, and both Leonard and George have the ability to become free agents next summer. Time is running out.