The Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to be the embodiment of modern basketball. They entered the season with two of the best wings in all of basketball and supplemented their perimeter excellence with Marcus Morris at the trade deadline. They had one of the NBA's best pick-and-roll combinations ... and they didn't even start it. The Clippers may have lacked Golden State's overwhelming star power, but they supplanted the Warriors as title favorites through their overwhelming depth. In theory, any problem the Clippers could encounter should have been solvable somewhere on their roster.
Obviously, that isn't how it played out in practice. The Denver Nuggets found and exploited every hole on the roster, and despite building a 3-1 lead in the second round, the Clippers went home before their prophesied duel with the Lakers. Despite Paul George's proclamation that this is not a championship-or-bust season, the Clippers fired almost all of their bullets attempting to win this season. The Nuggets poked holes in a roster that lacks the resources to fill them.
Through their various trades, the Clippers do not control their own first-round pick until 2027, and because of the structure of their owed picks and swap rights, cannot trade the first-rounders they do own. Assuming the salary cap either holds steady or declines as projected, the Clippers will enter the offseason above it before even factoring in the free agencies of Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell. That doesn't even do justice to the financial issues they are likely to encounter.
Assuming the tax line stays where it is, the Clippers are only around $17 million short of it as it currently stands. Steve Ballmer has more than enough money to pay it, and giant tax bills don't create on-court obstacles, but they do restrict what the Clippers can actually do this offseason. For example, the mid-level exception is the one meaningful tool teams above the cap have to sign expensive free agents, but if the Clippers re-sign even one of Harrell or Morris, they are likely to be restricted to the smaller tax-payer option (starting at around $5.7 million last offseason) rather than the more valuable non-tax-payer version (just under $9.3 million).
Another roster-building tool that's off the table? Sign-and-trades. Acquiring a player through a sign-and-trade hard caps that team at the apron, which, this season, was $6 million above the tax line. Doing so would almost certainly cost the Clippers Harrell, Morris, or both depending on the target, and that's too hefty a price to pay with no means of replacing them. They could sign-and-trade one or both themselves, but don't expect the Clippers to have access to this season's top free agents, and their lack of picks limits what they can do on the trade market.
Still, the Clippers are going to be aggressive this offseason. No matter what George says, this team is in championship-or-bust mode. So given the restrictions they currently face, how can they fill the holes that knocked them out of the playoffs? Let's take a look at each and try to find some answers. We'll assume in this exercise than any player not named Kawhi Leonard or Paul George is movable.
A facilitating point guard
A quick glance at the Clippers roster shows a team full of individual scorers, and virtually every passing stat paints a similar picture. The Clippers finished 28th in total passes and 22nd in assists. Only 6.2 Clippers possessions per game ended on cuts, the fifth-lowest figure in basketball, yet their tracking data suggests that the players themselves are moving plenty, indicating that a lack of passers is the culprit here. It makes sense intuitively. Kawhi Leonard is an isolation player. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell score their points primarily through pick-and-roll, an intricate two-man dance they've mastered which rarely includes teammates. You could argue that, before Reggie Jackson, they didn't even have a point guard on the roster. Patrick Beverley is a point guard-sized shooting guard.
The question here is a matter of ambition. If the Clippers just need someone to keep the trains running on time, there's someone across the hall that Doc Rivers knows quite well. Rajon Rondo looked like a lock to pick up his minimum-salary player option prior to the postseason, but given his playoff success? He could consider exploring his options, and a reunion with Rivers makes sense for both sides. Rondo's regular-season misadventures would be problematic on most teams. The Clippers don't take the regular season seriously either. The playoff version of Rondo we've seen in the bubble would fix a lot of their problems.
But 34-year-olds are risks, especially ones that treat the regular season like a walkthrough. If there were ever a place for the Clippers to take a swing, it would be here, and there are a few names worth watching.
Technically, we should mention Chris Paul, though it's exceedingly unlikely. Making the numbers work would essentially deplete their depth, and the Thunder already have all of the Clippers' picks anyway. They can do better, and Paul might be more trouble than he'd be worth for the Clippers anyway. There's a middle ground between free agency and a blockbuster.
The Athletic's Shams Charania has reported that the Phoenix Suns are expected to pursue Fred VanVleet. They need cap space to do so, and the obvious way for them to create it would be to move Ricky Rubio into someone else's cap space. The Clippers don't have space, but they could borrow it from someone else. Landry Shamet would entice most young teams. The Knicks, with their endless flexibility, are an option, but may not cooperate considering their own expected pursuit of VanVleet. How about the Hawks? A package of Shamet, Lou Williams and Rodney McGruder would work under the cap, get Phoenix out from Rubio's deal and give Atlanta both another sharpshooter and a short-term backup point guard, a major problem for them considering their offense was a staggering 15.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Trae Young sat. Rubio fills the passing vacuum emphatically, helps on defense, and has become a passable enough shooter to survive crunch-time.
Though it would almost certainly be declined, calling Milwaukee and making a similar offer for Eric Bledsoe would make some sense for both sides. The Bucks could improve their shooting with Shamet, solve some of their late-game offense problems with Williams and duck the three remaining years on Bledsoe's deal in one fell swoop. Imagine Bledsoe and Patrick Beverley in the same backcourt defensively.
There are similar basic constructions here for Dennis Schroder and Derrick Rose, though neither fits the pure point guard model they'd like to fill. The lower-rent versions of this kind of trade involve players like Elfrid Payton, Tomas Satoransky and Patty Mills. Ball-handling redundancy suggests that the Clippers probably won't prioritize point guard, but if they do, there are options on the table, even if most are imperfect.
A defensive-minded center
Rim protection actually wasn't an issue for the Clippers during the regular season. They allowed the eighth-fewest shots in the restricted area in the NBA, and those shots went in at the 10th-lowest percentage. Their opponents scored only 0.846 points per possession on post-ups, the fourth-lowest figure in basketball. Not too shabby, but with the benefit of hindsight, those numbers are far more explainable. The Clippers had the best point-of-attack defense in basketball, making it so hard to get near the basket that scoring there was almost impossible. When they ran into a Nuggets team that was committed to operating out of the post, their lack of size defensively was their undoing. They had to double Nikola Jokic, who killed them as a passer.
As with point guard, the Lakers are the first place the Clippers will look for a replacement. Dwight Howard is a free agent. JaVale McGee has a player option (though he's likelier than not to pick it up). Both fared better against Jokic than any Clipper did, and both would be relatively affordable. There are higher-end options available, but the taxpayer mid-level exception probably won't be enough to get them. Derrick Favors, Marc Gasol and Aron Baynes would be ideal, but probably too costly. Tristan Thompson would be a name to watch here, though his best defensive trait is his ability to switch.
The major advantage the Clippers have here is the limited financial flexibility league-wide. If players expect a more bountiful 2021 offseason, they'd likely be more amenable to cheaper one-year deals. Mason Plumlee, Alex Len and Robin Lopez -- should he opt out -- make degrees of sense. There is going to be a game of musical chairs on the center market. There are plenty of them in the low-end starter range and few teams willing and able to pay them. If the Clippers choose to wield their MLE here, they should expect reasonable value.
There are better options on the table, but they won't be easy to come by. The Clippers likely won't be able to acquire players through sign-and-trades ... but that doesn't mean they can't send players out that way. That's their path to accessing a better center on the trade market. Harrell's market will likely be limited through no fault of his own. If he needs to accept a sign-and-trade to get the money he's earned, odds are, he'd be amenable. Younger teams would be interested, or those that can cover for him defensively.
The obvious target would be Steven Adams, assuming the Thunder move into a rebuild as planned. The finances are tricky. Adams is owed $27.5 million. Base-Year Compensation rules state that Harrell's outgoing salary only counts for 50 percent of its new total in the deal, meaning that a $20 million salary would count for only $10 million in the process of balancing the trade. Making these numbers work would be extremely difficult, but not impossible. Sign-and-trade contracts must be at least three years in length, but only the first year needs to be guaranteed. So long as Harrell and the two teams agreed, they could give him a big short-term deal for the sake of making a trade work. The Clippers would need to get to $22 million in outgoing salary to make such a trade work.
Let's say Harrell accounts for half of that with a starting salary of $22 million ($11 million for trade purposes). Some combination of Williams, Rodney McGruder, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green could fill in the rest of the gap. The deal falls apart if Oklahoma City demands further asset compensation, and considering the surprisingly small age gap between Adams and Harrell, they might. But Adams' trade market won't exactly be robust either. The Thunder might not be able to do better than this sort of package and a couple of second-round picks. Oklahoma City would have to shed some money to sell this deal to ownership after years in the tax, but a Chris Paul trade elsewhere would likely help on that front.
Center tends to be the easiest position to fill on the cheap. If the Clippers just want to keep Harrell and Zubac while adding a third name to the rotation, they should be able to do so affordably. There are lower-cost trade options as well, with Taj Gibson coming to mind off a rebuilding Knicks team (though Tom Thibodeau's affinity for his defense and leadership might render him functionally untradeable). It might even be worth calling Brooklyn to gauge its interest in a Landry Shamet-for-Jarrett Allen swap. If Brooklyn is really committed to DeAndre Jordan as the starting center, another shooter never hurts, though Allen is the superior player. There are centers available in every price range. It's up to the Clippers to decide which aisle they want to shop in. They could make a big play at point guard or one at center, but not probably not both.
This was an issue in the Denver series, but nearly got the Clippers knocked out in the first round by Dallas. The Clippers have a great defense in theory because they have three All-Defense-caliber players. The problem is everyone else. The Clippers played so many bad defenders real minutes that Kawhi and George hardly mattered. Playoff scouting reports made hunting for Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell so easy that the Mavericks (and, to an extent, the Nuggets as well) nearly rendered the defensive stars useless. A major goal for the Clippers this offseason should be cutting as many bad defenders out of their rotation as possible.
The simplest cut is Jackson, who likely won't be on the team. His friendship with Paul George was his most valuable contribution to the team. Shamet is their best remaining trade chip, so if they make a splash somewhere else, that problem likely solves itself. Harrell is young enough and good enough offensively to warrant protecting, especially if he isn't closing games.
That just leaves Williams, who turns 34 next month and is somewhat redundant on a team with two superstars. He could be salary filler in a bigger trade, but it's also worth exploring some smaller scale one-for-one swaps that would help balance their rotation. Here are a few options:
- The 76ers would love to bring back Williams, but don't have a veteran in his general value range to offer. Perhaps they could offer a first-round pick to someone else for one? Utah, whose bench was its undoing, is in the same boat if Jordan Clarkson leaves.
- Marc Stein of the New York Times reported in February that the Suns were fielding calls on Kelly Oubre Jr. Their offense fell off a cliff without Devin Booker this season, this sort of deal could save the Suns some cap space, and as little sense as this trade makes for the long haul, Robert Sarver is a notoriously short-term-focused owner. If Williams could help them make the playoffs next year, he might consider it.
- Injured Al-Farouq Aminu isn't good enough to net Williams in a trade. Terrence Ross is probably too good. Maybe Orlando could find a middle ground and finally bring in some shot-making.
- It would never happen, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Lou Williams would help both the Lakers and the Clippers. Someone needs to lead the Lakers bench offense when Rondo turns back into a pumpkin next regular season.
None of these deals are obvious slam dunks, but nothing about this Clippers offseason will be simple. This team wasn't built to need reinforcements after a single season. They depleted their asset reserves trying to a win a championship they've since lost. Navigating the fallout of that loss is going to be extremely tricky. It just doesn't need to be impossible. The Clippers have options here. Whether they overhaul their supporting cast or tweak it, there are paths for them to reclaim their favorite status entering next season, even if they're narrow ones.