No matter what they did this summer, the Los Angeles Clippers were going to be fine.
If they struck out on the top tier free agents they were connected to all season long, they at least had a good, young team that competed with the Golden State Warriors well enough for me to pick against the defending champions in the second round of the playoffs. And most importantly, they had a budding star and potentially a player whose ceiling was “best player on a really, really good team” in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They had surrounded him with defensive-minded players like Patrick Beverley, shooters like Landry Shamet and mobile-enough, rim-protecting big men in Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell.
The Clippers were on their way to becoming really good, really fast.
If the Clippers added the star they coveted, then their timeline was accelerated. Accelerated so fast that even with someone like Kawhi Leonard on the roster they possessed, they would have been title contenders due to Kawhi essentially taking care of the missing extra spark SGA hadn’t developed and due to the Western Conference being insanely wide open next season.
Instead, the Clippers went all-in. They got what they wanted and more. They accelerated their timeline even further than we thought they could have possibly done so this offseason. They went from a scrappy, young and fun team to a potential title contender to the absolute favorite in a matter of minutes Friday night.
You can’t look at the Paul George trade from the Clippers perspective as the Paul George trade. You have to look at it as them trading for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi was off leading on the Lakers and getting essentially serenaded in Toronto, the Clippers were exploring ways to get PG. There was a reason Kawhi met with the Clippers first.
Kawhi’s choice of George is interesting. He’s not one of the seven-or-so guys in the league that matter, but he’s one of the league’s top 15 players. He’s essentially the perfect side-kick, or the perfect second-best player on a championship team. George is never going to hog the ball, take bad shots or play selfishly. He’s going to play defense because he’s really good at it. And he’s going to score in volumes when he can.
But he’s never going to be taking, or demanding to take, the last shot of the game unless he’s really hot. And he’s never going to have chemistry issues with Kawhi. Despite the takeovers we saw from Kawhi in the postseason, the two are both incredibly selfless players, who move within an offensive system and can get open off-the-ball. Due to their efficiency, the Clippers have two of the best players in the league who don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective.
And they have a defensive menace to go with it. PG and Kawhi are two of the six best defenders in the league and can switch 1-4 and 1-5, respectively. Patrick Beverley is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and they have fantastic role players to go around them. They have three-and-D wings like Rodney McGruder, Mo Harkless and Jerome Robinson, all of whom don’t need to have the ball whatsoever. They have Landry Shamet, a lights out shooter whose size might enable him to play at the three spot in certain lineups. They have Montrezl Harrell, one of the best energy bigs in the league whose athleticism keeps him on the floor late in games. They have Lou Williams, who was legitimately their closer last season and is now one of like four dudes who could take on that role. They have Ivica Zubac, who came back on a team friendly, four-year, $28 million deal.
The Clippers are absolutely loaded from roster spots 1-10. They’ll likely start Beverley-Harkless-Leonard-George-Zubac, and bring Shamet, Harrell and Williams off the bench for spurts throughout games. I’d be all in favor of them closing with Beverley-Williams-Leonard-George-Harrell, but that leaves Shamet and his shot on the bench. The Clippers might actually have a dilemma when it comes to their crunch-time lineup. Imagine that being your biggest issue.
So yeah, that is definitely worth the insane amount of assets they gave up. Trading SGA, the guy you thought was going to be your future, hurts. But with this deal, you get two guys who are already everything you want SGA to become.
The picks have their pros and cons. For the next four seasons after next (No 2020 pick is in this deal), you know those picks are going to be in the 25-30 range. The only one that has significant value is the 2022 pick, which is slated to now be the double draft year instead of 2021, where the Miami pick that has been all around the league, is. That Miami pick made its rounds across the NBA with good reason; Miami was supposed to be rebuilding by then, and there was a chance that was the double draft. Now the double draft is the year after, and the Heat have at least Jimmy Butler (And possibly Russell Westbrook) on that season’s team.
Starting in 2024 is when dealing the picks gets risky. The Clippers sent three of them, their own 2024 unprotected pick, a pick swap in 2025 and their own 2026 unprotected pick. That’s three really risky picks. Why? By then, I’m going to be 25, Kawhi and Paul George’s contracts will be up, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson will be two of the five best players in the league, LeBron will likely be retired (Who knows really, though) and the No.1 overall pick in that draft is about to enter middle school. The point is, that is a really, really long time away. And who knows what anything is going to be like by then. The Clippers will likely be in a different era, maybe a rebuilding one by then. Not having those picks would be debilitating.
Then again, winning 2-3 titles and then having to go through that would ease the pain a bit.
From Oklahoma City’s side of the deal, it’s a bit of a kick in the balls. But it might have been a good, necessary one. This deal, and offseason overall, shows a positive progression of thought from the Thunder’s front office: that winning anything significant with Russell Westbrook in a primary, ball-dominant role is not possible.
Trading George and not Westbrook is a tough swallow. George was traded to OKC in a hail mary deal that ended up as one of the best, most fair trades ever due to George’s surprising commitment to the Thunder last summer, which was only made due to his friendship to Westbrook. He was the second superstar to ever actually come to OKC and be happy and want to stay. He wasn’t forced there at all despite his trade from Indiana before the 2017-18 season, as he could have left last summer. But keeping him could have resulted in a Kawhi-in-San Antonio-or-Jimmy Butler-in-Minnesota-like situation that we saw in 2018, where a refusal to play forced the Thunder to make a deal. Even keeping him and not Westbrook puts the Thunder in a not-as-frustrating (considering finances and value) yet similar situation: a team centered around George is not winning anything significant either due to the type of player George is.
Moving either player was a step in the right direction. It seems as if they’re going to do both. It gets a good but not great team out of the middle class of the league. It allows them to reset and rebuild around that stud young guy above in SGA and an insane bevy of draft picks which likely won’t be all very valuable but are going to a team that has shown an ability to draft well. It gives them Danillo Gallanari, who plays like he’s worth the contract he’s on when he actually plays, is a veteran presence and establishes some competency to a roster that could lose it quick.
Westbrook obviously won’t net that, if anything substantial at all. George required a massive haul because it essentially forced the Thunder, a legitimately good team, to admit defeat and give up. For a small market team to have a really good, competitive team and then do this is devastating to fans and to the front office. Because the draft is a crap-shoot, and no one is voluntarily coming to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The impending Westbrook trade is essentially one where OKC gets out of an absolutely crippling contract to take one that’s not great but is much better. Are the Thunder desperate enough to just demand Dragic and call it a day? That might be underrating OKC’s position; given the way they’ve held onto Russ over the years, they may not be wanting to just get rid of him, and could be looking for legitimate value back.
If I’m any team, this is a contract dump deal. There’s no way I’m giving up anything of true value for Westbrook. Miami’s interest to me makes zero sense. Them handing over a contract and an asset like Justise Winslow or Bam Adebayo is a complete miscalculation of what Westbrook would bring to the table.
Despite it making all the sense in the world, it was likely a tough deal for OKC to make. They’ve been competitive all decade and had put their core together just last summer. Now, that core is beginning its demolition just a year after it was put together. But the consequence of doing that is a good one, even if they don’t realize it yet.