The Clippers are in a risky position right now. They finished slightly above 0.500 last year despite suffering devastating injuries and the discomfort of trading their franchise player halfway through the season. The Clips currently possess a mix of solid veterans and promising youngsters, a combination that is just tantalizing enough to believe they could be a playoff team next year by staying the course and signing some stopgap veterans (such as Mike Scott, or Anthony Tolliver/Amir Johnson/Avery Bradley). There is an outside chance, with good health and strong development from their young guys, that the Clippers could pull off the 8th seed. But it’s unlikely, and moreover, it’s not all that helpful for the franchise in the long run.
The first piece of importance is that the Clippers’ 1st round pick next season is lottery protected: if they make the playoffs, it goes to the Celtics. Now, if the Clippers were a championship contender, or even a solid 2nd round team with a chance for more, losing that pick would be worth it. For an 8th seed, and a chance at losing by 20+ points per game to the Warriors? Not so much.
Additionally, the Clippers are losing relevancy in Los Angeles (and the broader NBA) with each passing week. With DeAndre Jordan gone, the last remnant of Lob City is elsewhere. All due respect to Tobias Harris, who is a legitimately fantastic player, the Clippers have nobody on their roster likely to make an All Star game. The best way to get fans engaged is through a competitive contender, the second best is rallying around a group of fun, up-and-comers, and ranking in dead last is trotting out a 35-40 win team filled with 30+ year old veterans. The Clippers last year were a fun, spirited group. But the West is stronger this year, the Clippers weaker (please do not underestimate the loss of DeAndre Jordan). It would be savvy of the Clippers for both on and off court reasons to choose a direction in which to swim this upcoming season, and to do so soon.
The road to contention (or even a semi-competitive playoff appearance) next season is simple: the Clippers would have to trade for Kawhi Leonard. Whether the Clippers are willing to trade him to the Clippers or want any of their assets is still an open question, but a package of Tobias Harris, Pat Beverley, one of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, and a future 1st round pick is pretty damn good. The Clippers could even do a sign and trade with Avery Bradley for one of the Spurs’ bad contracts as a conditional part of the Kawhi deal, sweetening the pot further. Now, a Clippers’ team post-trade, even with Kawhi, would be incredibly thin. It would be Leonard, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Marcin Gortat, the remaining rookie, and little more than flotsam. Even with a healthy, full-strength Kawhi and a couple cheap free agent signings that’s not more than a 50-win team, maybe 55 at an absolute peak if the Clippers’ young guys pan out quickly and Gallinari stays healthy. The key would be having Kawhi, impressing on him that this is a new, modern, team with a strong culture, and being able to secure him for the near future, when a proper team could be built around him. That’s door one.
Door two, if anything, is even simpler. The Clippers would rebuild, trading away veterans with value, protecting future assets, and playing their young guys 30+ minutes a game if possible. Pat Beverley? Gone for a late 1st round pick. Milos Teodosic? Sent to the Suns (or whatever other team wants a steady hand at point guard) for a couple future 2nds. Then re-sign Montrezl Harrell to a reasonable deal, bring back Tyrone Wallace, and try to work on an extension with Tobias Harris. The resulting team wouldn’t be completely horrible, would probably be a ton of fun to watch, and most importantly, would generate a top 10 draft pick at the very worst, more probably top 7. With the changes being made to the draft lottery next year, the Clippers would have a decent shot at a top three pick, and with it, a chance at a new franchise player to go along with Shai and Jerome.
There are other interesting outcomes that could happen if the young guys really get their moment in the sun from the get-go. It’s possible (not likely, but possible) that one of Shai or Jerome demonstrates star potential in their rookie seasons, ala Donovan Mitchell last year. Mitchell’s explosion changed the entire course of the Jazz’ franchise in one swoop, and a superb rookie season from Shai or Jerome could do the same for the Clippers. That probably would not happen if the Clippers go with a veteran-heavy cast and try to compete for the playoffs. There’s even a chance that Sindarius Thornwell, Jawun Evans, or Wallace has a breakout sophomore campaign, giving the Clippers a third building block to put alongside Shai and Jerome. There are a lot of possibilities there.
Rebuilds are often tantalizing, and more often than not prove to be fools gold. For every Process that succeeds, there are two teams like the Orlando Magic or Sacramento Kings that have been rebuilding for what feels like decades and still haven’t sniffed the playoffs, and that still don’t have franchise players. Trading for Kawhi could prove equally devastating, if not more so. There’s every chance he isn’t the same player he was two years ago, or that even if he is, he leaves at the end of the season, leaving a gutted roster behind him. But these are risks worth taking, for they lead to greater rewards, both next year and in the years to come. The Clippers are not in a position to play it safe, to hit for a single. And while next summer brings with it the promise of cap space and a dozen All-Star free agents, the Clippers can’t simply float idly in mediocrity until then. One way or another, a course must be set.