While the crosstown Lakers grab all the negative publicity, the Los Angeles Clippers are disappointed in their own 2021-22 campaign.
After a first-time trip to the conference finals last season, the Clippers are sitting at just 22-24. Even though a top-four seed is almost certainly out of the question, LA’s spot in the play-in round is beginning to look secure. And that’s what makes the Clippers such an interesting team to project ahead of next month’s NBA trade deadline.
The Clippers are scuffling without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the franchise’s two best players. Without the two stars, LA doesn’t have a chance to compete for an NBA title. But their return to action could easily elevate LA back into the championship discussion, even if it enters the postseason via play-in round.
So should the Clippers make moves in anticipation of Leonard and George’s arrival or stand pat? Or better yet, should they become sellers?
Neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George have set return dates
LA has been forced to navigate through the season without both of their stars on the court together. Kawhi has missed all 46 games, while George has missed 20. But it’s a mystery when — or if — either will return to action.
Starting with George, the seven-time All-Star was in the midst of a great season. PG-13 averaged 24.7 points through 26 games, the highest since his 2018-19 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, George suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow and has been out since December 22.
As of now, LA’s plan is to let George rest for a few weeks and see how his elbow heals naturally. Ideally, the extra time will allow the 31-year-old to suit up later this season. However, there’s a possibility the elbow takes longer to recover on its own, or surgery is required. Either way, those two scenarios would effectively end his season.
Meanwhile, Leonard has been on the shelf since suffering a partially torn ACL during last year’s Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. At the time of his surgery, there was no timetable for the five-time All-Star to return to action, leaving many to wonder if the Claw would suit up at all in 2021-22.
Like George, it’s unknown whether Kawhi will come back at all this year. Earlier this month, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that the 30-year-old was ahead of schedule in his rehab and that a return to action was within reach. That being said, the overly-cautious Leonard might not want to rush back if his partner-in-crime George isn’t on the court with him.
The Los Angeles Clippers shouldn’t anticipate their stars returning
Considering Leonard has sat out all year and George has missed 20 games and counting, the Clippers should be proud to be hovering around .500. Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe have been serviceable veterans, while Luke Kennard and Terance Mann have elevated their game after receiving more opportunities.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with holding firm at the deadline and hoping for Leonard and George to come back. But buying in anticipation of their returns would end up being a foolish mistake.
With a healthy superstar duo, LA has had no problem being aggressive around the deadline. In 2020, the Clippers swung a trade for Marcus Morris, who wound up re-signing in Hollywood that offseason. A year later, they acquired Rajon Rondo in order to provide veteran leadership at point guard. But unlike those teams, this year’s club is not a single depth piece away from winning a championship.
The Clippers also have no reason to rush given Kawhi and PG’s contract situation. Unlike the last two years, the two All-Stars are committed to LA for the long haul. Assuming they accept player options at close to $49 million each in 2024, Leonard and George won’t become unrestricted free agents again until after the 2024-25 season. So it’s not as if LA needs to go for a title now before either of its centerpieces leave during the offseason.
Given the unpredictability of George’s elbow and the general caution surrounding Leonard’s ACL, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if neither suited up again until next season. And even if they did come back for the playoffs, it would take some time to get back into game shape, especially in Kawhi’s instance. So the Clippers anticipating their returns and acquiring win-now help is not a viable option.
Is there a chance the Clippers become sellers at the trade deadline?
The Clippers are in a fascinating predicament heading into the trade deadline. If they’re entrenched in the playoff picture, there’s an increased likelihood Leonard and George would want to return. But that’s far from a guarantee, considering LA is just 22-24.
So is there a possibility the Clippers actually sell at next month’s trade deadline?
According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, the Clippers could be treating this season as a “gap year,” similar to what the Golden State Warriors did during its awful 2019-20 season. In other words, tank for a year while your stars are out before re-entering the championship conversation.
With no first-round picks until 2027, LA might be wise to explore trading a few of their pricier veterans. Someone like Morris could potentially net them a first-rounder, plus getting his $48 million off the books might not be the worst thing. The same can be said for Bledsoe and Serge Ibaka, who combined have made around $27 million this year.
Trading one or two of these veterans would help re-stock LA’s barren draft cupboard and offer some financial relief. Additionally, it would allow the Clippers to get extended looks at youngsters like Amir Coffey, Brandon Boston Jr., and Keon Johnson.
If the Clippers officially became sellers, it would all but guarantee Leonard and George sitting out for the remainder of the year. It would also put LA in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. But there’s a logical argument to be made that it might be the way to go for the long run.