The NBA trade deadline in February is the definitive end of the NBA trade season, and as that date approaches we'll see lots of trade activity as we always do. But the unofficial beginning of the trade season was a few days ago, December 15th. That's the date when a slew of newly signed free agents, the majority of those acquired in the 2012 off-season, become eligible for inclusion in trades. With more trade chips available to everyone, exponentially more trade possibilities are created. And with several prominent names already being mentioned as being on the market, the speculation will begin to ramp up.
The NBA blogs of SBNation have decided to have a theme day on the start of trade season, where we discuss our team's position in the trade market. I'll just state up front: I don't expect the Clippers to be active on the trade market. Why would they be? They've got the deepest roster in the NBA, they've won 10 in a row, they are in the top two in the league in winning percentage, margin of victory and several other measures, and they don't have any glaring weaknesses. Still, even good teams need to be looking for ways to improve, to get even better -- that's what the best organizations do. And there can always be surprises. Look no further than October's James Harden trade for an example of a team making a deal that no one expected -- and in many ways the Clippers are in the same situation that the Thunder were in.
Are the Clippers a buyer, a seller (or both)?
How about neither? Or maybe a little tiny bit of both? With the team playing well and without obvious flaws, there's little impetus to shake things up and plenty of incentive to stay the course. The Clippers would happily take this roster (hopefully with Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill and everyone else completely healthy) into the playoffs and like their chances.
The general rule of thumb would be that "win now" teams are buyers and "rebuilding" teams are sellers, and in that sense the Clippers are more likely to be buyers in the short. But the Clippers, with a core of a 27 year old Chris Paul, a 23 year old Blake Griffin and a 24 year old DeAndre Jordan, have a pretty wide window for competing: these are not the Lakers/Celtics/Mavs/Spurs, hoping to make one bold acquisition, no matter the long term cost, before their aging stars go dormant. So while the Clippers will certainly be open to bringing in a player they feel could help them win a ring this season, they are not likely to pay a heavy future cost to do so.
But the Clippers potentially could be sellers in one case: Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is a difference maker, a potential future all-star currently sporting a gawdy PER of 23.4, tenth best in the league and second best among point guards. Therein lies the problem though -- Bledsoe plays behind the best point guard in the NBA, Chris Paul. With a just-turned-23 future star playing the same position as their undisputed team leader, the Clippers may never be able to take full advantage of Bledsoe's talents. He's due to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014, at which point the Clippers will either have to pay him way too much to be a backup, or lose him to another team. So the conventional wisdom is that they will eventually need to trade him. In a similar situation, the Thunder chose to act quickly on moving Harden, a full year before he would become a free agent. And let's face it, Harden was a better fit with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook than Beldsoe is with Paul. Is now the right time to move Bledsoe?
What are the team's needs?
The Clippers are the only team in the NBA currently in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They are the deepest team in the league, second in the league in bench scoring despite having two All NBA performers in their starting lineup. There are areas where they'd like to get better no doubt -- teams can never have enough shooting and the defensive rebounding hasn't been great -- but nothing about the team really screams "address this need or lose in the playoffs." They have stars, they have role players, they have scorers, they have defenders, they have good depth at every position.
If Gary Sacks wants to dream, he'd be looking for one of two things -- an actual star on the wing, or an above average stretch four. The Clippers currently have Caron Butler, Matt Barnes and the injured Grant Hill at the small forward and Jamal Crawford, Willie Green and the injured Chauncey Billups at shooting guard; Hill and Billups will both be back on the court in the very near future by all accounts. Would the Clippers love to have a star starting for them on the wing? Of course they would. But ask yourself this: how many small forwards in the league are really significant upgrades over what the Clippers already have? Assuming that Kevin Durant and LeBron James are staying where they are, whom would you target?
The Clippers have long-coveted a big to stretch the floor, someone that would provide a contrast to Blake Griffin's inside game while opening up space for him. While Lamar Odom isn't exactly a pure stretch four (especially so far this year, where he has shot 4 for 26 from three point range) he is a very skilled big who is comfortable on the perimeter. He can make plays, even if right now he can't make jump shots (and even that is showing some signs of improving as he continues to regain his form). So once again, it's not clear that a major upgrade would be available.
So what specific players should the Clippers target?
I'm not convinced there are any worthy/realistic targets out there, but...
Andrea Bargnani is at least intriguing, right? A true seven footer who is a career 36 percent shooter from three point range, he'd provide the ultimate contrast to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. But Bargnani is persona non grata in Toronto for good reason. He's owed over $22M over the next two seasons, he's a poor defender and a worse rebounder, and it's unclear whether he can even do the one thing he's supposed to do well anymore. While his career mark remains at 36 percent, he was under 30 percent from deep last year and is at 32 percent so far this year. The question is: if the Raptors were literally giving Bargnani away -- if there were no restrictions on allowable trades and they could just have Bargnani, would the Clippers actually want him? For this season as a weapon they don't currently have, sure, he'd be nice to have. But for $22M through 2015 for someone you expect to be a backup at best, I don't think so. Not when the Clippers big rotation looks awfully solid right now. The reality is that the Clippers would have to include either Odom or Butler in any deal for Bargnani, and they wouldn't do that -- not without something more in the deal from the Raptors.
The other name in the rumor mill that could conceivably intrigue the Clippers is Tyreke Evans of the Kings. At 6'6" with long arms, Evans has the size of a classic NBA wing and enough star power to have won the Rookie of the Year award in 2010. But Evans won that award playing point guard, and he was never really cut out to be an NBA point. His second season he was beset by injuries, and he's been a man without a position ever since. Is a point guard, a combo guard, a wing? It's unclear. He's not a great shooter which limits his value on the wing, and he's not a great distributor creating issues at the point. In addition, he has to have the ball in his hands to be effective, creating fit problems on a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, not to mention Jamal Crawford coming off the bench.
Again, if the Kings were strictly looking to get rid of Tyreke, if they were willing to trade him to the Clippers for Willie Green for instance, of course the Clippers would do that deal. But the Kings wouldn't. On the other hand, if you'd suggested a couple years back that the Clippers might be able to flip Eric Bledsoe for Evans, Clipper fans would have jumped at the chance. Evans is physically a much better fit than Bledsoe -- playing two 6'1 guards together in the NBA presents issues, no matter how good they are, so Bledsoe and Paul will always be a problematic pairing. But trading Bledsoe for Evans only accelerates the Clippers impending restricted free agency dilemma by a summer, and it now looks like Bledsoe's ceiling is higher than Evans'.
What other objectives might the Clippers have for trading now?
Resolving the situation with Bledsoe is the big item on the Clippers to do list, that's clear. However, there is no rush. The Clippers would love to "sell high" on Bledsoe, but other teams can reasonably say to Sacks at this point "Hey, the kid's only playing 18 minutes per game for you, he must not be that good." The possibility exists that there's a team out there that is so enamored of Bledsoe that they're willing to make a can't-refuse type of offer, but it's more likely that the opposite is true. Teams are looking at the Clippers' depth chart at point guard, looking at Bledsoe's struggles to get minutes, looking at the Clippers history on payroll and player retention, and thinking they might be able to get a future star on the cheap. With Bledsoe 18 months away from restricted free agency, the Clippers can afford to wait until the offers get better. If he's as good as we suspect, he'll continue to play great, make an impact in the playoffs again, and the asking price will continue to rise. (The opposite trajectory is possible as well of course -- there was a time when Tyreke Evans was untouchable in Sacramento.)
The other objective worth thinking about if you're the Clippers is the potential to turn some of the team's depth into a quality upgrade -- is there an opportunity out there to swap two or more good players for one great one? Depth is a great asset in the regular season, but it becomes much less important in the playoffs (assuming the roster remains healthy). Benches shorten in the playoffs, you're no longer conserving the energy of your stars, and bench players play fewer and fewer minutes. If Bledsoe can only crack the lineup for 18 minutes per game now, what's going to happen to his playing time in the playoffs when Paul starts demanding to play 40-plus minutes a game? Not to mention that Billups hasn't even been playing so far.
The Clippers find themselves however in the position of having mostly good contracts on their books. The players making decent money (i.e. the ones that could land a big fish in salary matching) are either untouchable (Griffin and Paul) or expiring (Odom) or doing a decent job of earning their money (DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler). Guys like Barnes and Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins are providing great value to the team for the NBA minimum. Meanwhile, Billups and Hill, who have only played three games between them, are surely worth more to the Clippers at this stage of their careers than they are to anyone else.
The Clippers would be only to happy to take advantage of a one-sided trade that falls into their lap. But assuming that isn't going to happen, I see one potential trade possibility that the Clippers might want to actively pursue. Using Bledsoe as the bait, and pairing him with either Butler (the most expendable high paid Clipper) or Odom (if the trade partner insists on an expiring deal), the Clippers could target some highly paid players if they thought it would help them win now.
So what are my top three trade ideas?
(OK, I'm just doing this for the SBNation network thing. It'll give people something to talk about, so that's fun, I'll play along. But I don't think any of these trades will happen. Sadly, I can't bring myself to do what many fans do and propose trades that are completely one-sided in favor of the Clippers. So these trades are things I feel the partner would consider, and might even jump at. But the Clippers are in a pretty good spot right now, and so don't have to take any risks in making a deal.)
Caron Butler to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani
If Grant Hill gets healthy, and if Grant Hill can still play (too relatively big ifs) Caron Butler becomes the most expendable Clipper making more than say $2M. Matt Barnes has already become the crunch time small forward, playing with Paul and Griffin at the end of close games. Basically, the only thing that Butler does better than Barnes is shoot threes, and Barnes has been doing that pretty well lately as well. Butler has one more season at $8M on his deal, while Barnes is making the minimum this year, so Barnes is the much more economical choice.
Bargnani is a perimeter big, which would give the Clippers a new and valuable weapon for their arsenal. He's also more than just a shooter -- he's a scorer capable of putting the ball on the floor and making a play going to the basket. In my limited exposure to him, he's not nearly as bad a defender as his reputation -- but it must be stated that his reputation could hardly be worse, and he's certainly not good. He is however a truly gawd-awful rebounder for a seven footer. The 6'1 Bledsoe has been a better rebounder this season -- I'm not kidding.
I honestly don't see either team doing this deal though. The Raptors will surely want more for Bargnani (though they probably won't get it) and small forward (where they just paid DeMar DeRozan and have Linus Kleiza as well) is not an area of need. The only thing this does for Toronto is save them about $15M total, with $11M off the books in summer 2014. And the Clippers won't want to take on the extra year and the extra salary for someone they want to be a role player. In the end, Bargnani has more value to a team hoping he can be a star with a fresh start than he does to the Clippers who would use him in a limited role.
Eric Bledsoe, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins and Trey Thompkins to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans
OK, calm down Kings fans, this deal isn't happening. And you calm down too, Citizens of Clips Nation, I'm not advocating it.
But it's at least intriguing on paper, right? The deal is essentially Bledsoe for Evans -- the other names are there to make the trade math work, and they are currently the 12th, 13th and 14th men on the Clippers roster. There was a time when Evans was held in much higher regard than Bledsoe is now. And the 6'6 Evans is a better fit, physically, alongside Chris Paul.
The Kings on the other hand are hungry for the point guard that Evans turned out not to be. Isaiah Thomas is way too small and limited, and the same is true for Aaron Brooks. The situation is so dire that the Kings are trying to convert Jimmer Fredette to the point, and Fredette is the ultimate gunner -- the idea that he can play point guard in the NBA is pretty far-fetched.
But ultimately Evans doesn't fit with the Clippers any better than Bledsoe does. He's a playmaker who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. and as the starting shooting guard, he'd be playing with Paul and Griffin, taking touches away from them. On the second unit, he might be an interesting pairing with Jamal Crawford, but the Bledsoe/Crawford second unit is already a great thing, so there's no incentive to change it.
Bledsoe and Butler, picks and filler to San Antonio for Manu Ginobili
OK, this is the big one. Alternatively you might think of this deal as Bledsoe and Butler to New Orleans for Eric Gordon or some other big name, highly paid wing that has some risk associated.
If the Clippers are going to move Bledsoe now, they will be expecting a star back. They will be making the move to help them win a championship RIGHT NOW. Because if the priority is to win a championship eventually, they have time, and Bledsoe's value will likely continue to increase. So the only way they make a move involving Bledsoe before February would be to bring in some immediate help.
Ginobili is a proven winner, a champion at every level of competition (NBA, EuroLeague, Olympics, Worlds). He's been part of one of the great Big Threes in San Antonio with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker -- he could change uniforms and form a new big three with Paul and Griffin at the same positions.
Why would the Spurs do this deal? They wouldn't. Bledsoe has the same issue in San Antonio playing behind Parker that he has in L.A. If the Spurs suddenly decided that Duncan/Ginobili/Parker were too old to win another title and decided to blow it all up, they might consider something like this in conjunction with other deals. But as a standalone trade, even if they love Bledsoe, it doesn't really make sense.
If the Clippers wanted to bring back Eric Gordon (and only if they thought his knee issues were resolvable) New Orleans might be very interested in this deal. They coveted Bledsoe in the original Chris Paul trade, and Austin Rivers is more of a shooting guard than a point guard so he might fit better with Bledsoe than with Gordon. The Hornets have a pretty long time horizon for getting good, so getting cheaper with their core is not a bad thing for them. But in the end, why would the Clippers bring back Gordon, especially considering the injury risk, not to mention the salary.
There's one more possibility for Bledsoe, one that has no particular trade partner. The Clippers could actually go the Harden route and trade Bledsoe now for future considerations. The biggest advantage to OKC for doing the Harden deal was in saving money in their small market, helping them to avoid the luxury tax while getting something back for Harden. Would the Clippers consider trading Bledsoe, a player who will always struggle to find enough playing time in the backcourt with Chris Paul, for a couple of future first rounders? It's one possibility. Los Angeles is a huge market, but Donald Sterling has never given any indication that he'd be willing to pay the luxury tax, so giving Bledsoe a big payday in July 2014 is highly unlikely.
But in the end, while there are obvious reasons to trade Bledsoe before he reaches free agency, the Clippers are in no hurry to do it and he'll almost certainly remain in L.A. through the end of the season. So unless a one-sided deal falls into their lap and assuming the roster remains relatively healthy, I expect the Clippers to stay on the sidelines through the entire trade season.