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This Isn’t 4th Down: The Clippers Don’t Look to be Punting the Rest of the Season

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In trading away their leading scorer in Tobias Harris, the Clippers officially turned their focus towards the future. However, with new additions like Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, these new-look Clips are still dangerous.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

“Dead to rights” is a phrase that I learned this season when reading our Editor-in-Chief, Robert Flom’s work. According to W.S. Farmer & J.L. Henley’s, Slang and Its Analogues, vol. 2 (1891), “dead to rights” means “certain; without doubt,” and asserts that it is simply an amplification of the earlier term “to rights,” meaning “completely to one’s satisfaction.” Basically, being “done” or “counted out” as a certainty in peoples minds. The Clippers have been “dead to rights” basically throughout the existence of the franchise. Winning records for the last eight years aside…playoff disappointments, injuries and horrendous ownership have been in abundance since they were founded as the Buffalo Braves in 1970.

This trend was supposed to continue with the end of “Lob City” in 2017. People were calling for a purposeful tank to “reset” as a misfit band of cast-offs became faces of a franchise. The funny thing is, the Clips didn’t quit, and different players stepped up, like 4th-quarter hero Lou Williams, Tobias Harris and Montrezl Harrell among others, leading to a 42-40 record in 2017-2018. Still, in the eyes of many, at the beginning of the 18-19 season, the Clips were still average and “dead to rights” in the tough Western Conference playoff race. Then they captured first place early. All of a sudden the story flipped…was this egalitarian approach working? Could they keep this up? Is Tobias Harris the max player and All-Star that no one expected?

Well, as the Clippers Clippered in the months of December and January, the story once again cooled to a “probably not” for the Clips’ playoff chances despite being in the top eight all season. Jerry West and company had a decision to make with the trade deadline approaching February 7: do we cash out our chips on this season and prepare for the hotbed of 2019 free-agency, pr try to maintain playoff position with a fringe all-star in Tobias Harris and have an awkward situation when his deal is up this offseason? Well, it doesn’t seem as though it was so black and white as that.

West, Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, and Steve Ballmer worked their collective magic in getting two 21-year-olds who have showed promise on high-profile squads in Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac. They traded dead weight in Avery Bradley for two key rotation players in Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green (I still don’t know how that happened) and got two coveted first-round picks and two-second round picks for Tobias, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic.

The NBA media pinpointed that the Clippers made this move in order to “punt” this season to keep their 2019 first-round pick, (which the Celtics own if we make the playoffs) and focus on this upcoming offseason. I mean, they did trade their best player for two young guys, and got two expiring contract players that probably aren’t starter level talent…potentially “dead to rights” in most scenarios. In a lot of ways, this train of thought makes sense. Especially if trading for Anthony Davis is their number one goal. Well, not so fast.

The mantra from the start of this season has been that the Clippers can and will compete for a playoff position. Doc Rivers went so far to say, post Tobias trade, that he doesn’t care about the draft pick, and the Clips are still gunning for the playoffs. Lawrence Frank went on the Fox Sports broadcast Monday night against the Timberwolves and echoed this competitive sentiment. Is it a bluff? So far, it really doesn’t look to be so.

This playoff potential has already been seen in only three games with the newbies. Whether it was the franchise-record, 28 point, comeback against Celtics after being “dead to rights” in the first half, the beatdown of the Suns, or the near-epic comeback against the Timberwolves, it’s clear that this is still a dangerous team with young and old talent galore. Another interesting wrinkle will be the return of Wilson Chandler and Luc Mbah a Moute — two veteran wings who can both shoot and defend. While it has been a small sample size thus far, and L.A. is still not without their typical issues (turnovers, offensive rebounding woes, some rotation question marks), the trend remains: the Clips are still going for the playoffs, and have the horses to do so.

With 32 wins at the All-Star break, the Clips are holding onto the eighth seed in the West after the Sacramento Kings last-second loss to the Denver Nuggets. Based on win projections for the West, and given the competitiveness of the conference, it’s looking right now as though 45 wins will get you the eight spot. With 23 games left, that means the Clips would have to go 13-10 the rest of the way. While that’s not an easy record to achieve, when you look at the Clippers schedule the rest of the way, the path to the playoffs is open.

The Clippers will face the Knicks twice, the Cavaliers twice, and the Memphis Grizzlies twice. These are all teams who should be (and look to be) tanking at this point. They also have home games against the Bulls, Nets and Mavericks and face the Kings in Sacramento Mar. 1st, who the Clips have played very well against this season — and hold the tiebreaker against. You never, ever want to assume wins, especially with the Clips, but if they can take care of the Knicks, Cavs, Bulls and Grizz, all they have to do is go 6-10 in their other 16 games to get to 45 wins. This still might not be enough, but it would put them right there.

Given the play of L.A. over the first three games with the new guys, and given the front office’s insistence they want to compete for the playoffs, Clippers fans have no reason to think that they will punt the rest of this season. Yes, they can be an inconsistent, turnover-prone team with no real star (although so far it’s looking like Lou Will is up for the task), but this is a team that still plays with a chip on their shoulder and will never give up. These moves were made with the mindset of being competitive in the present, while preparing for the future. Hopefully, these moves by the Clippers’ FO could see them get a big name free-agent AND make the playoffs this season.