The Los Angeles Clippers have spent the past two and a half seasons building two different rosters. There’s the front-facing contender led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George that might have come an injury away from the 2021 championship, and then there are the shadow Clippers. The same front office that was forced to part with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and virtually its entire cupboard of draft picks to land George in 2019 has quietly and fastidiously recouped a good chunk of the value lost in that deal by winning on the margins, assembling an enviable young core by contender standards.
Terance Mann, the standout from last season’s upset over the Utah Jazz, is locked into a contract extension signed in the offseason and averaging a career-best 10.6 points per game. Second-round pick B.J. Boston has been in and out of the rotation but has scored in double digits in eight of his 26 appearances. Not bad for a 20-year-old. Minimum-salary signing Isaiah Hartenstein grew into the team’s plus-minus king, a position that has been filled by two-way guard Amir Coffey since Hartenstein’s ankle injury, and ultra-athletic first-round pick Keon Johnson looms as the resident upside swing.
There have certainly been misses. The Clippers would certainly like the Mfiondu Kabengele pick back after it was immediately followed by Jordan Poole, Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr. and Nic Claxton, but on balance, the front office has done an admirable job under trying circumstances. With limited draft capital, cap space, roster spots and minutes, it managed to defy the poor track record most contenders have when it comes to player development and cultivate a promising group of youngsters.
The roster-building cynics among us might suggest that prioritizing those youngsters was as much a short-term necessity as a long-term play. The Clippers will be capped out until roughly the 24th century and needed an inexpensive source of role players, or perhaps even trade assets for the inevitable remodeling most super-teams need mid-stream. The Clippers might have gone into their stealth rebuild expecting to weaponize their youth this way, but a somewhat unique opportunity has presented itself in what is shaping up to be a lost season.
Leonard is still recovering from a torn ACL. George is dealing with an elbow injury and an uncertain timeline. As a result, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported that the Clippers could emerge as trade deadline sellers. There are obvious forms this could take. Dumping Serge Ibaka into one of Oklahoma City’s trade exceptions would save Steve Ballmer a small fortune, for example, and if someone wants to pick up the $3.9 million in guaranteed money owed to Eric Bledsoe for next season, well, the Clippers probably wouldn’t say no. But let’s imagine a more thorough approach.
The entire contending class of the NBA is eyeing Jerami Grant, for example, but only one team actually gets to land him. Where do the rest of those forward-starved GMs go when they miss out? How about Marcus Morris? Though somewhat inconsistent, Morris has in the past been the rare shooter capable of scaling up or down in both offensive and defensive roles. He can defend most forwards and most centers. He can catch-and-shoot and create his own shot, and as much as his contract was bemoaned when signed, the idea of paying him $33 million for the next two seasons doesn’t seem so crazy in a world in which that’s the going rate for Lauri Markkanen.
If that number is a bit high for deep-tax buyers, Nicolas Batum offers a rare alternative. He swung the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas as perhaps the definitive small-ball center of the 2021 postseason… but is making only $3.2 million on a Non-Bird raise from his previous minimum salary. He has the right to veto any trade, but if he wants to be in Los Angeles badly enough to take such a discount, he could simply return in the 2022 offseason.
Either could potentially net the Clippers a protected first-round pick. Reggie Jackson probably could as well, though his shooting regression might scare off suitors and his friendship with George might preclude a deal. Luke Kennard no longer looks like a horrific value on the four-year extension he signed after joining the Clippers, especially with the final year positioned as a team option.
Recouping some of the draft capital spent on George would be the primary benefit of selling, but it would hardly be the only one. The Clippers are miles beyond next season’s projected luxury tax, but shedding some salary now might give them the flexibility to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in a free agent class with very little available cap space. While resetting the repeater tax clock might be a pipe dream, it never hurts to save your owner a few bucks should you need to spend in a more competitive season.
But if you need proof of what the Clippers truly stand to gain, just head north a couple hundred miles and look at the Golden State Warriors. Only a year ago the Warriors were where the Clippers are now: a .500 team awaiting returning stars and trying to make the best of their situation in the interim. They could have emphasized the short-term above all else, but instead chose to allocate minutes to young players who had spent time in their G League orbit. Many flamed out. But Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Jordan Poole all emerged as viable rotation players this season, when the Warriors actually do have a chance to win the championship.
Mann leads the Clippers in minutes, but, due to a combination of circumstances in and out of their control, Hartenstein, Coffey and Boston are all below 600 total minutes this season. Johnson has played only 135, and there’s plenty of room for further experimentation with G Leaguers and younger free agents.
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Most of those players probably won’t amount to much, but the Clippers don’t need them to. The Warriors happily spent developmental minutes on players like Mychal Mulder, Nico Mannion, Alen Smailagic because that process is what got them Poole, Lee and Toscano-Anderson. Young players are inherently unreliable. Only opportunity can reveal what they’re capable of as full-time players. Injuries aren’t an ideal conduit for that opportunity, but pivoting into a mid-season youth movement could pay similar dividends for the Clippers next year if any of their cheap, younger players emerge as Golden State’s did.
It’s a rare opportunity for the two rosters the Clippers have been building to converge for a championship pursuit next season. Melding Leonard and George with battle-tested young players, whoever remains of their veterans and whatever assets they can bring in at the deadline might be this franchise’s best chance at finally reaching the NBA Finals.