LOS ANGELES — The 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers (29-13) have yet to live up to expectations. How concerned should the team's front office be with the NBA's February 6 trade deadline just a few weeks away?
The Clippers have serious championship aspirations after a blockbuster summer that brought in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but the All-Star duo has only played in 18 games together. They have a 14-4 record over that span, but the team just hasn't hit a good, consistent stride, winning just nine of its last 15 contests.
While they've beaten the first-place Los Angeles Lakers (33-8) twice—once without George in the season opener—the Clippers have fallen behind the Denver Nuggets (29-12) and are just a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz (28-13). If L.A. doesn't improve, a playoff run may need to go through three of the Houston Rockets (26-14), Nuggets, Jazz and Lakers, followed by an NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks (37-6).
Do the Clippers just need to get healthy, make moves around the edges and peak at the right time? Or do they have bigger flaws that should be addressed by the deadline, with centers Andre Drummond and Steven Adams potentially available? Could the Clippers even do the unthinkable and bring back Chris Paul?
The NBA community is conflicted on what path the Clippers should take moving forward.
"They just haven't had their guys. George and Pat [Beverley] have been hurt, Kawhi has his load management," said one Eastern Conference executive. "We've seen what they can do at full strength against the Lakers on Christmas."
"I don't think they need wholesale change," one former executive said. "They're not as good defensively as they'd like to be, with Montrezl [Harrell] and Lou [Williams], but they're going to be able outscore almost anyone."
But others see flaws, notably with Harrell, who will be a free agent this summer.
"Harrell is a disaster if they have to play the Nuggets in the playoffs. Their best bet is Ivica Zubac, but he can't get out to Nikola Jokic on the perimeter," said another former executive. "Is Montrezl big enough to play against the Lakers and the Jazz?"
"They need another playmaker. Patrick Beverley isn't a point guard. They're too reliant on Lou, Kawhi and George to create for others. They go on long scoring droughts. They need more size, and they're not getting a lot out of their bench outside of Lou and Trez," said a Western Conference executive. "They may be able to beat the Lakers in a series, but will they get that far?"
The guard issue could be solved if free agent Darren Collison chooses to join the Clippers. He's expected to make his decision after the trade deadline.
The bigger issue is the team's size and the upcoming decision on Harrell this summer.
If the Clippers don't believe they can win with a 6'7" center, especially one hoping for what is believed to be a $20 million-per-season payday, then they risk losing Harrell as a free agent. (Multiple executives believe the Atlanta Hawks could be a summer destination.) Los Angeles would have his rights and the ability to sign-and-trade him to another team, but that's a move entirely dependent on Harrell's participation.
Moving him proactively for a more traditional fit may be the answer. The Clippers are 11-2 when Zubac plays at least 20 minutes, but the Clippers have only played Zubac and Harrell together for a grand total of three minutes all season.
"They take up the same space on the court. The Clippers simply don't play them together," the Eastern Conference executive said. "Montrezl is getting 29 minutes a game, so even if the Clippers added on another center, where would those minutes come? They would need a floor-spacer."
In part, that's why the Clippers have had their eye on Aron Baynes of the Phoenix Suns (17-24), though they are still looking to make a playoff push, just two games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies (20-22). Baynes is a strong, experienced defender who can space the floor. Giving up Zubac for Baynes could make sense if the Clippers reinvest in Harrell, but would the Suns have any interest in Zubac's four-year, $28.5 million deal as a backup for Deandre Ayton?
“Marcus Morris would solve a lot of their problems. He can shoot and is tough enough to play center,” the first former executive said of the New York Knicks forward, earning $15 million on a one-year deal.
The Clippers could send out Mo Harkless and perhaps second-year guard Jerome Robinson to match salary, although it’s unclear what the Knicks would be looking for in return.
"What about Dewayne Dedmon [with the Sacramento Kings], he's available?" asked the second former executive. "He was kind of a floor-spacer one of those years."
Dedmon shot 38.2 percent from three-point range through the 2018-19 season with the Atlanta Hawks, but he's hitting a paltry 21.4 percent in Sacramento. The 30-year-old veteran is in the first year of his three-year, $40 million contract (the final season is only $1 million guaranteed).
Harkless alone (in the last year of his deal at $11 million) is enough to match salaries, helping the Kings get Dedmon's contract off their books. But then, if Dedmon’s outside shot doesn't return, he's an expensive $13 million a year player who may not play over Harrell or Zubac.
Another possibility for Harkless and considerations, one NBA source suggested, could be Thaddeus Young of the Chicago Bulls, who has $34.6 million of his $40.6 million guaranteed through the 2021-22 season.
"They could go after Drummond, but if they're sending out Zubac, Harkless and filler [like Rodney McGruder], they still have the issue that they're not going to play Drummond with Harrell," the Eastern Conference executive said.
The Clippers sent most of their future first-rounders to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the deal for George, but they can send their pick in June's draft (likely in the Nos. 22-28 range). It's also worth noting that the Detroit Pistons are extremely close to the NBA's $132.6 million luxury tax threshold; the front office has been directed to not go over under any circumstances, per someone familiar with the team's dynamic.
"Drummond has a lot of bad habits he needs to unlearn," said the second former executive, citing a lack of postseason experience. "The Clippers would have to be really confident he's the right fit, because they're going to need to pay him more than Harrell in July."
That compounds the issue. If the Clippers are debating the right figure that makes Harrell a good investment, are they ready to simultaneously have that discussion on Drummond?
Instead, the Clippers could try to make Zubac a reserve and offer Harrell to Detroit. If he's the primary compensation, instead of a draft pick, the Pistons would need to have some assurances that Harrell is willing to re-sign (which they may not be able to get by the deadline).
What if, instead, the Clippers turned their attention to the Thunder and Adams?
"That makes a lot more sense," the second former executive agreed. "He's everything the Clippers would need for the playoffs. If the Thunder got Harrell, they'd still be competitive."
The Thunder went into the season open-minded about their future after acquiring Chris Paul from the Rockets and Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Clippers. They're still interested in hearing what teams are willing to offer before the trade deadline, but their 23-19 record should be enough to carry them into the playoffs, a stunning accomplishment after trading away Russell Westbrook and George.
Adams is at $25.8 million for the current season with another year at $27.5 million. The Clippers could get to the necessary $20.6 million in outgoing salary with Harrell, Harkless and either JaMychal Green or McGruder. Green can block any trade because of the NBA's one-year Bird rule.
The Clippers already have a strong working relationship with the Thunder. L.A. general manager Michael Winger previously worked in Oklahoma City under top executive Sam Presti, which was a significant factor in why the talks surrounding the George trade were kept so successfully under the radar.
An Adams/Zubac rotation would give the Clippers formidable size against their prospective postseason opponents. They'd lose Harrell's scoring but improve defensively. If Green remains, he could get time as the team’s small-ball center.
"Harrell is too dependent on Lou to create his offense. Without Lou, Montrezl is just OK," the Eastern Conference executive said.
Both Leonard and George can opt out of their contracts after the 2020-21 season. Adams’ salary lines up perfectly. The Clippers wouldn't have to over-invest in Harrell (or Drummond) if they had Adams locked in for another season.
Or maybe the Clippers are willing to pay Harrell long-term. If so, then they may just pick up a small trade or a free-agent reserve big on the buyout market.
Instead, perhaps they should look to upgrade the backcourt, where they don't have a true point guard.
"Beverley is a small forward," the executive continued. "Collison would help, but if he doesn't pick the Clippers, they need another guard."
With Dwight Howard successfully reunited with the Lakers, what about Chris Paul?
"That's a lot of salary to match, the Clippers would have to include Beverley, and the Thunder fans aren't going to want that," he said, referring to the incident when Westbrook suffered a season-ending injury after colliding with Beverley in the 2013 playoffs.
The Clippers could get most of the way to Paul's $38.5 million with Beverley and Harkless. At a minimum, they'd need to include a couple more players, such as Jerome Robinson and McGruder. The Thunder might have interest in Harrell or Zubac, but as noted, the Clippers need to add inside, not subtract.
Stranger things have happened. A core of Paul, George and Leonard would be tremendous both offensively and defensively. Paul would be a bold move. Do the Clippers want to pay a 34-year-old guard—one they have a history with—given the $85.6 million he's due for the next two seasons. He has a player option on the final year, but is there any scenario in which Paul opts out of his $44.2 million salary for 2021-22?
"The Clippers would trade anyone outside of Kawhi and [George] if it made sense, but you can say that about building around the top stars on any contender," the Eastern Conference executive said. "But Beverley is a part of the Clippers' identity. I couldn't see them trading him."
And the Thunder probably wouldn't take him, so then L.A. would have to rope in another team.
"I don't see it," said one of the former executives. "I think the big decision is about Harrell, but I'd keep him. The Clippers are really good when they're healthy. Every team has flaws, but who is going to be able to stop their top four guys from scoring?"
The Harrell situation will need to be addressed eventually, but the Clippers may need to see what he looks like in the postseason with Leonard and George before they reach clarity.
A smaller move could be the answer, both at guard and reserve center, but a move for Adams may hold some appeal.
"It's interesting," one Western Conference executive said, "I don't know if I would do it.”
Three weeks until the deadline...
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.
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