Paul George Injury Could Dictate LA Clippers' Direction at Trade Deadline

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IJanuary 12, 2022

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George (13) looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 107-96. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

With a crowded field of teams hovering around .500, plus a rash of injuries and health and safety protocols limiting rosters across the NBA, few sellers have emerged at this early stage of the league's annual trade market. Only the rebuilding Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons have so far communicated clear intentions to recoup draft capital and young prospects ahead of the Feb. 10 deadline. 

One strong possible addition to that list: the Los Angeles Clippers

A seven-game winning streak in early November pushed the Clippers to 8-4 on the young season and a top seed in the early Western Conference playoff picture. Los Angeles has since fallen considerably to 21-21 and into the thick of the play-in tournament field, largely because of Paul George sustaining a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. 

While the team's initial announcement on Christmas Day stated George would be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks, the Clippers are operating under the possibility that George may not return this season, sources told B/R. And despite the momentum surrounding Kawhi Leonard's rehab from a torn ACL, there remains a healthy dose of skepticism around the league about Leonard retaking the floor in 2021-22 as well. 

"He's always played things methodically and cautiously," said one source with knowledge of Leonard's thinking. "I knew he was ahead of schedule [in his rehab], but I wouldn't bet on it. Kawhi is always focused on the long term. If they're not in the playoff picture, I think the chances he comes back are slim to none." 

This appears to be a scenario that Lawrence Frank's front office has prepared for dating back to the offseason. With Leonard's injury coming in the second round of last year's playoffs, Clippers brass approached team governor Steve Ballmer about treating this 2021-22 season as more of "a gap year," league sources told B/R, and Ballmer gave his approval to take a page of out of Golden State's recent team-building pamphlet. The so-called "Warriors model," has noticeably entered the lexicon of team executives this season, describing a championship contender's one-year tanking effort to then leap-frog back into the title conversation. 

Los Angeles, though, has no top-five pick to accrue this season. Oklahoma City holds the Clippers' unprotected 2022 first-round selection thanks to the blockbuster package that paired George with Leonard in the first place. Yet perhaps under the stewardship of Tyronn Lue's coaching staff, the Clippers can develop their own version of Jordan Poole out of Brandon Boston Jr. or Keon Johnson—fellow rookie Jason Preston has been recovering from foot surgery—after Terance Mann's own step forward in the last year's playoffs. 

Lue, sources said, initially rebuffed the concept of muted expectations for this season. When the Clippers broke ground at the site of their new Inglewood arena in September, Lue explicitly informed Ballmer he would be coaching to win games, according to one source with knowledge of the situation. He did not want to divvy playing time based on any concerted youth movement, and there has been no further direction from management to do so.

But George's injury presents Lue and the Clippers with a new reality. Lue has started third-year forward Amir Coffey in four of Los Angeles' past six games. The team was slow to incorporate Boston Jr., whom the Clippers paid $2.5 million to acquire on draft night, but Lue has rewarded the intriguing rookie with a dramatic increase in playing time since December after strong early showings. 

Johnson, selected 21st overall, only appeared in five games prior to George's injury, and has averaged just over 10 minutes per game in December and January. As with Boston and 23-year-old reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein, Lue has proven he'll carve opportunities on the merit of performance. 

Rival executives have since gathered that Los Angeles is willing to discuss the majority of its veteran roster in trade scenarios. "They're pretty much open for business for anyone except their main guys and Terance Mann. I think they really are fine falling out of the playoffs and regrouping for next year," said one Western Conference official. "I think they're trying to shed the Marcus Morrises of the world, guys that have some value and maybe can replace them with younger talent, maybe cheaper [contracts], to free them to get someone else this summer." 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Perhaps Morris could net back the first-round pick that Los Angeles currently lacks. The veteran forward could plug-and-play into a variety of contenders' wing rotations, just as he did when the Clippers first acquired Morris before the 2020 trade deadline. Utah would appear a perfect landing spot, but the Jazz and Clippers' past and future playoff collision course would make any deal there unlikely, in addition to Utah's dearth of draft assets. Maybe the New Orleans Pelicans, still chasing a play-in spot of their own, would cough up a first-rounder to take on a contributing piece such as Morris. 

The Clippers moving Serge Ibaka appears to be the most likely trade deadline maneuver for Los Angeles. Shedding Ibaka's $9.7 million salary alone would save the Clippers over $40 million in tax penalties. As noted by ESPN.com's Bobby Marks, the Clippers still have $3.3 million available to send out in a trade this season, and only $3.1 million of Ibaka's salary would remain on his contract this year before he becomes a free agent. Oklahoma City is a trade partner to monitor, league sources said.  

Los Angeles has seven second-round picks at its disposal as well. There's a potential path for the Clippers to move Eric Bledsoe to Toronto for Goran Dragic, for example, which would allow Los Angeles to hold Dragic's bird rights entering this summer. That's the type of transaction that a gap-year mentality can afford a front office. 

With such a limited field of teams expected to have cap space, perhaps another front office would take on Bledsoe's salary, with only $3.9 million of his $19.3 million salary for next season guaranteed. There's also value for Los Angeles to hold onto Bledsoe. The Clippers pushed back his June 30 guarantee date to July 10, which is four days after the league's moratorium ends, and can provide Los Angeles with some added flexibility for whatever offseason swing any trade deadline tinkering can help set up.

For now, as the Kings and Pelicans, and even the Damian Lillard-less Blazers, still have designs on reaching the postseason, the Clippers' interim slide out of the Western Conference playoff scenario may simply add a few more veteran trade options for the laundry list of buyers around the NBA.   

Before Leonard and George push the Clippers back toward the 2023 championship conversation once again.