James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series analyzing the Los Angeles Clippers.
Throughout the offseason, Basketball Insiders has been taking a look at each respective franchise’s roster after they completed the draft, the majority of their signings, trades, and after some of their former players moved on in free agency. In doing so, we look to analyze and determine how the team did as they prepare for next season and beyond. Looking at the moves each team made, or perhaps didn’t make, will provide a better idea of how the team is shaping up for next season.
There are numerous strategies teams can take when it comes to future planning. Some teams look to acquire various assets in exchange for taking on players with undesirable contracts. Several successful teams resist the urge to make any major additions or subtractions and take a bet on internal growth and continuity. Having cleared up cap space, other teams use the offseason targeting free agents with the hope of making a big leap going forward. This offseason was one for the ages with a few teams willing to take huge risks and spend a treasure trove of assets to build an instant contender.
And that leads us to the Los Angeles Clippers. Entering the offseason, the Clippers were reportedly looking to sign as many as two top-tier, max free agents. This offseason had no shortage of drama with major star players voluntarily leaving in free agency, such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, and others. With most other major free agent signings already complete and the Finals not far in the rearview mirror, NBA fans all over held their collective breath while impatiently waiting to find out where freshly minted NBA champion and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard would go.
In the end, the Clippers were able to follow through on their goal of adding superstar talent with the addition of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Any team that features Leonard and George as its top two players in 2019-20 is a team that should compete at the highest level. What makes this team particularly dangerous is the group of players surrounding Leonard and George.
The Los Angeles Clippers have spent the past two seasons making a series of smart, calculated transactions. Going into the 2017 offseason the franchise featured a big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan that had peaked as a group and threatened to hamstring the team’s cap sheet for the foreseeable future. That offseason, Jordan left as a free agent and Paul decided to move on and join the Houston Rockets. However, Paul, the Rockets and Clippers engaged in a sign-and-trade that netted several key contributors for the Clippers. Then after having just re-signed Griffin to a max-contract, the Clippers traded him away midseason to the Detroit Pistons. Then, at last year’s trade deadline, the Clippers traded away Tobias Harris (acquired in the Griffin trade) for several draft assets and sharpshooter Landry Shamet. These trades allowed the team to build a well-balanced, cost-effective roster while clearing nearly enough cap space this offseason to acquire two max free agents.
Based on the Clippers’ deals and new direction, most people assumed they were proactively looking to tank last season. That belief didn’t last long, however. The Clippers were one of the biggest surprise teams last season, winning 48 regular-season games and pushing the Golden State Warriors in the first-round of the playoffs. The Clippers benefitted from the resurgent and healthy play of veteran power forward Danilo Gallinari. Rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (traded to the Thunder, explained below) and Shamet demonstrated great potential both in the regular season and the team’s first-round playoff appearance against the Warriors. Veteran point guard Patrick Beverley proved he could reliably produce as a starting point guard who continues to cause headaches for opposing players through his defensive play and knockdown catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
Various NBA teams have taken guard Lou William’s off-the-bench production for granted throughout his career. One of the more savvy moves the Clippers made was signing Williams to a three-year, $24 million extension in 2018. The NBA took notice of the extremely effective bench duo of Williams and big man Montrezl Harrell last season. Coming off the bench together, the two developed into an extremely effective pick-and-roll tandem that allowed the bench units to thrive, producing the highest scoring bench unit in the league. Williams again won the Sixth Man of the Year, with Harrell receiving serious consideration as well.
After narrowly missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season, the Clippers were able to return to the postseason last year but drew an unfavorable matchup against the Golden State Warriors. Predictably, the Warriors ultimately prevailed. However, the Clippers at times were able to slow down Warriors not named Kevin Durant and showed a collective determination and hustle stealing two games from the Warriors along the way.
While the Clippers could have easily missed last year’s playoffs, the team appeared to use their playoff performance as a calling card to major free agents. The Clippers, without any obvious top-shelf stars at the helm, made the playoffs and had the pieces in place as well as the cap space necessary to compete for a championship if they could land two elite free agents. The franchise had been diligently managing their assets preparing for this offseason. And what an offseason it was.
On July 6, the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard, instantly making him, by far, the most high-profile acquisition the team has ever made via free agency. The signing took place only six days after the beginning of free agency. However, it may as well have been half a lifetime for anyone interested in the situation. Any sightings or rumors of Leonard’s whereabouts sparked speculation and at one point, Toronto media followed the airplane and then the car that Leonard was believed to be traveling in during his decision-making period and his trip to Toronto to meet with their front office. In the end, Leonard’s signing broke on late Saturday evening/early Sunday morning.
But wait, there’s more. Leonard’s arrival coincided with news immediately after that Paul George had been traded to the Clippers as well. The signing and the trade were essentially a package deal. The Clippers traded the proverbial farm for then-Thunder forward George and, in effect, Leonard as well. The Clippers traded Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, the Clippers’ first-round draft picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026, along with two first-round choices from Miami (2021 and 2023), and granted the Thunder the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025.
While the Clippers are thrilled to have Leonard, George and most of last year’s team ready to contend for a title, the trade came at a heavy cost. Reports are that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer balked at the notion of trading five first-round picks, which prompted Head Coach Doc Rivers to intervene to agree. Losing Gilgeous-Alexander stings as many fans already pegged him as the point guard of the future and a potential star. Also, there is a large issue looming: Leonard and George will both potentially become free agents in two years. This gives the Clippers a clear two-year window to contend for and win a championship before their two superstars can walk away without any recourse. Justifiably, the franchise has now lost or diminished their draft assets for the next half-decade. As a result, the team needs to jump up from plucky upstart to championship contender overnight. The Clippers fellow tenants made a similar gamble trading away multiple draft assets and players for Anthony Davis.
One less noticed move, the Clippers involved themselves in the Jimmy Butler trade and in the process acquired small forward Maurice Harkless and a future 2023 conditional first-round pick (later used in the George trade) in exchange for cash. In acquiring Harkless, the team has in place another versatile forward who can fill in for George and Leonard if and when they need they need a breather or are sitting out for a game or more. The team also re-signed Ivica Zubac, who is projected to be the team’s starting center for the foreseeable future.
PLAYERS IN: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Maurice Harkless, Mfioundu Kabengele, Terance Man, Derrick Walton, Jr.
PLAYERS OUT: Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Sindarius Thornwell, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, Tyrone Wallace
The next most important matter for the Clippers to manage is health. Leonard may miss games throughout the season due to load management, which helped to keep him fresh and healthy enough to lead the Raptors to the championship last season. George has had some time to rehabilitate his post-surgery shoulders but is still likely to miss a few weeks, at least, to begin the season.
Thankfully, the team’s depth is a great compliment to these two stars and will help offset missed games. Harkless can play in place either star forward. Williams and Harrell can again provide great value off the bench. Shamet, already a dangerous three-point shooter, should continue his development and prove a valuable counterbalance to any double teams thrown at other players. Should Ivica Zubac continue his development, his new multi-year contract may prove to be another savvy move for the franchise.
In the end, whether the cost to acquire Leonard and George is worth it will come down to how the team fares in the playoffs these next few years and how they manage either individual player’s possible departures. For now, the Clippers are a true championship contender in a suddenly wide-open NBA and that itself is worth the risk.
Offseason Grade: A
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