The Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers appear closer to making a James Harden trade than they've been at any point in the offseason thus far. On Thursday, The Athletic's Sam Amick reported that 76ers general manager Daryl Morey was prepared to accept a Harden trade in exchange for salary filler and three assets: one unprotected first round pick, one first-round swap and backup guard Terance Mann. The Clippers responded by informing the 76ers that they would not offer Mann in any Harden deal.
The wisdom of that decision is debatable, but there is some logic behind it. The Clippers already have the NBA's second-oldest roster and, by acquiring Harden, would only get older. Mann is the second-youngest player in their projected rotation behind starting center Ivica Zubac. To match Harden's salary, the Clippers would have to trade several big salaries. Many of those salaries, such as those belonging to players like Nic Batum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington, are attached to players the Clippers would prefer to keep for depth. Mann would be useful depth on a Harden team.
According to Amick, Morey's response to Mann's untouchable status was that the Clippers were being "unserious" in negotiations. Frankly, given the way the Clippers have used Mann, Morey has a point. Though Mann may be young by Clippers standards, he is already 27 years old, ostensibly in his prime right now and not a long-term developmental project. The Clippers shaved his minutes significantly last season down from 28.6 to 23.1 per game. Despite playing some of the best basketball of his career last season, the Clippers still benched him to make way for Russell Westbrook.
Though injuries would have doomed the Clippers either way, the decision itself played out poorly statistically. Lineups featuring Mann, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George but no Westbrook scored a blistering 129.3 points per 100 possessions last season while outscoring opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions. When Westbrook played with the star duo, the Clippers outscored opponents by just 1.8 points per 100 possessions and posted an unimpressive offensive rating of just 109.8. Mann offers the same pace-pushing benefit without Westbrook's detrimental lack of shooting.
Based on preseason play, it appears likely that, barring a Harden trade, Westbrook will remain in the starting lineup over Mann. After all, he only averaged only 21.9 minutes as a reserve once Westbrook arrived. If Mann were 19 and ascending into the sort of player that might one day replace Leonard and George as the face of the Clippers, keeping him out of trade talks might make some sense.
But he isn't. He's a 27-year-old player with some untapped potential that the Clippers themselves are refusing to tap. The Clippers have invested four years into Mann's development. They know him better than any other team in the NBA. If they view him as a starting-caliber player, they should simply start him. If they don't, they should trade him for Harden, who is a good deal better than both Mann and Westbrook.
If this is a negotiating ploy, it's a risky one. Morey is not exactly known for settling for lesser offers. If he was willing to wait eight months to trade Ben Simmons, why wouldn't he take the same approach on Harden? If it's a strategic acknowledgment that Westbrook makes no sense on a roster with Harden but that they need someone left over that can generate transition points, that makes a bit more sense. But with months of negotiations in the rearview and opening night looming, a hard choice is going to have to be made.
The Clippers, in their current construction, are extremely unlikely to meaningfully compete for a championship. Their pursuit of Harden is an acknowledgment of that fact. There is just rarely a reason to let a reserve stand between a team and the player they themselves know is a necessity for their title pursuit. If Mann is more than a reserve, the Clippers should prove it by actually using him like the untouchable player they are saying he is.