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NBA Trade Deadline: Could the Clippers be Surprise Buyers?

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The Clippers could use the deadline market to prepare for a playoff push.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, Robert Flom asked the Clips Nation staff what the Clippers should do at the deadline. The resounding answer? Sell.

In my comment on the post (I missed the cut-off for the e-mail thread, because of course I did), I echoed the sentiment, saying the Clippers should either sell or swing for the stars. They’ve got a handful of guys—Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari—who could bring back some form of draft compensation in a deal. But there are also a handful of stars who could be on the move (Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis), and while none of those trade scenarios are particularly likely, the Clippers’ goal is to acquire stars this summer and it would be nice to get a head start on that task.

The logic behind being a deadline seller is pretty straightforward: the Clippers aren’t bad this season, but they aren’t that good either. Finishing higher than 8th in the West seems unlikely, so the “best-case” scenario looks like a first-round loss to the Warriors. If they sold, they’d be trading a bunch of veterans who likely won’t be a part of the new-look team next season, and would free up playing time for younger, cheaper players (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Tyrone Wallace) who are likely to have rotation spots next season. And, because of an unfortunate stint with Jeff Green a few years ago, the Clippers owe their lottery-protected first-round pick to the Celtics this year. If the Clippers finish 9th in the West, they’ll get a lottery pick. If they finish 8th, they’ll play 4 extra games and get no pick at all. Dumping useful veterans and playing young guys through their struggles might even help them get a higher pick than 14th. No-brainer.

It was a little after tweeting this last night that I got to thinking: it’s not quite as simple as we’ve (I’ve?) been making it seem. Saying making vs missing the playoffs is the difference between pick 14 and no pick at all might not be totally accurate.

Let’s say the Clippers don’t make the playoffs this season and keep their pick. The debt to Boston rolls over in the form of another lottery-protected first-round pick next season, and if the Clippers are in the lottery again, they’ll send the Celtics their 2022 2nd-round selection. While it would be great to get out of giving up a first-rounder for Jeff Green all those years ago, it’s not worth missing the playoffs for two straight seasons.

None of us knows for certain what next July is going to bring, but the Clippers’ front office seems like a confident bunch heading into a summer with a star-studded free agent class. If they have even a moderately successful summer, and it seems like they think they will, they’ll be in the 2020 NBA playoffs.

So the question isn’t whether or not the Clippers are going to send a first-round pick to Boston, the question is which first-round pick the Clippers are going to send to Boston. If the Clippers don’t make the playoffs this year and keep their pick, they’ll almost certainly end up sending their 2020 pick instead, so the trade-off between 8th and 9th in the West isn’t pick #14 vs no pick at all, it’s pick #14 in 2019 vs whatever pick the Clippers will have in 2020.

There’s another layer to this too: you know how the Clippers are penny-pinching to make sure they position themselves as well as possible to sign stars this July? If they get the 14th pick, they’ll be paying around $3.4 million to a rookie next season, and that number will count against their cap space in free agency. If they give up this year’s pick, they would have more financial flexibility this summer, and then they’ll be able to add a rookie in the 2020 draft when they aren’t worrying about money.

Having a later pick in 2020 might not be too much of a downgrade—I’m no draft expert, but Rob tells me that the 2019 draft class is expected to be fairly shallow. Add in the financial benefit, and the often-discussed intangible perks - maintaining a winning culture, staying competitive, and getting playoff experience for the squad (especially rookie starting point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) - and things start to look a bit different.

Maybe making the playoffs and “losing” their pick wouldn’t be so bad after all.

I get that most folks aren’t going to be on board with that—I’m not sure if I am. And we’ve all been asking to see more Jerome Robinson, Tyrone Wallace, and Jonathan Motley, and less Avery Bradley and Marcin Gortat. The fanbase is, by and large, ready to develop the young guys, get as good a pick as possible, and put that cap space to work.

But with 29 wins already, even the most dedicated tank commander would be unlikely to get the Clippers a top-10 pick in July’s draft. ESPN’s playoff odds predicts that they’ll finish 8th in the West at 44-38, with a 63% chance of making the playoffs—three games ahead of the 9th-place Lakers. Maybe this is the little-brother syndrome talking, but holding off LeBron’s playoff push in his first season in L.A. would be a statement, and a big one.

Since it’s trade deadline week, indulge me for a moment: if you’re the Clippers, and you’ve decided for the reasons outlined above that you’d rather send the pick this year than next, why not make some moves to bolster your playoff push? Not only could the team help their chances of making the postseason and ensuring the pick goes to Boston, but they might even climb a bit in the standings. Right now, the team is 1 game behind Utah, 2 behind Houston, 3 behind San Antonio, and 4 behind Portland. Those aren’t necessarily easy gaps to close—especially against teams of that caliber—but the Clippers’ relatively soft schedule to end the season might make it possible. Like I said, ESPN predicts the Clippers will finish 44-38. Utah, Houston, and San Antonio are all projected to tie from 5th-7th at 48-34, while Portland finishes 4th at 49-33. The Clippers have outperformed expectations all year. Is it too much to think that, especially with a little bit of help at the deadline, they could break into that conversation?

So, what would that deadline help look like? The Clippers are in a precarious situation. It would be nice to shore up some weaknesses (starting SG, starting C, wing defense), but it definitely isn’t worth jeopardizing their long-term plans. That means unless they’re getting a star, they can only take back expiring contracts and they can’t trade any of their valuable young pieces or future assets. There isn’t a lot on the table, but I’ve got a couple of ideas to start with.

Let me start by saying that, after criticizing Avery Bradley somewhat relentlessly all season, I don’t think he’s been so bad lately. His defense, I think, remains good but overrated by Doc Rivers. The big shift, though, is that after shooting 29.8% from three in 30 pre-January games, he shot 39% from three in 15 January games. As an above-average defender and above-average three-point shooter on a partially guaranteed deal for next season, Avery is back in positive value range, even if it’s only for a single second-round pick.

If the Clippers can move Avery for an expiring deal and a second-round pick, they can probably turn that into a three-team trade where that expiring and 2nd go to the New York Knicks (along with Milos Teodosic to make salaries match) in exchange for Wesley Matthews. Matthews has positive on-court value as a veteran defender with enough size to take on both wing positions (making him less redundant with Patrick Beverley than Bradley is) and a 38% shooter from three this season on 6 attempts per game. He also probably has very low trade value: he makes over $18 million this season, so the playoff teams who could use him are going to have a hard time piecing together enough outgoing salary to land him.

Trades for Wes will be made even more difficult by the fact that the Knicks are clearly angling for cap space this summer—that was the whole point of their recent deal where they acquired Matthews’ large expiring contract—so teams don’t just have to put together salary to match $18 million, they have to do it with only expiring contracts. For a team like Houston, who would be sure to covet Matthews, there’s no package that piques the Knicks’ interest.

Because of the bind they’re in, the Knicks (who are a league-worst 10-42 and certainly tanking) are probably going to end up buying out Matthews’ contract after the deadline. I expect that they’d happily take a second round pick for him on Thursday instead of cutting him on Friday. Turning Milos and Avery into Matthews would be a marginal rest-of-season upgrade for the Clippers that doesn’t require taking on long-term money or losing assets.

At the center position, I think the Clippers would do well to look at the BullsRobin Lopez. On an expiring $14.4 million deal, it would be similarly hard for Chicago to find a good team who has enough expendable salary to put together a deal for Lopez—and, to be frank, I’m not sure how much interest there is around the league. He hasn’t been great this year, and he’s only playing 17 minutes a game for the 12-41 Bulls. But, for what the Clippers need from their starting center (16-20 minutes a game of being a very large human), Lopez can probably hold his own better than Marcin Gortat. Lopez should be both more effective defensively and as a roll man, though the Clippers’ strategy down low would still clearly be built around Montrezl Harrell’s bench energy.

From Chicago’s perspective, I’m not sure that there’s much of a difference, except maybe that Gortat makes about a million less than Lopez. Neither player is interfering with their tank, and neither is likely to be on the roster next season. A second-round pick from the Clippers (they’ll have both their own and Portland’s this June) should be enough to seal the deal—and I’m sure Steve Ballmer would also be more than willing to write a check. The Bulls’ front office has never been able to resist cash considerations (BlogaBull’s podcast is literally named “Cash Considerations”).

Again, the Clippers make a marginal upgrade without taking on long-term money or giving up a valuable asset. Lopez won’t make or break the Clippers’ season, but just by being solid, he could help the Clippers win an extra game or two that Gortat won’t. And while the outgoing second-round pick is technically an asset, it’s one of two late 2nds they’ll have in addition to potentially having Sindarius Thornwell and Jonathan Motley on the roster next season. Plus, if they want another second-rounder this June, the team has consistently shown themselves willing to buy a pick (that’s how they got Thornwell in the first place, and while they didn’t buy a pick to draft Motley, they sent the Mavericks cash last off-season to purchase his two-way contract). The downside here is minimal.

That’s far from a comprehensive look around the league, but I think it’s an example of two totally realistic, not-sexy-but-solid trades that the Clippers could pursue if they want to make small upgrades to their roster this week and go all-in on this playoff push. Sending out Bradley, Teodosic, Gortat, and a 2nd for Matthews and Lopez might not dramatically change the Clippers’ trajectory. However, it would almost undeniably make them slightly better going into the last 30 games of the season. And, if they’re going to make the playoffs and lose the 2019 pick, it would be nice to see them break into the 5-7 tier and hopefully get a more competitive series than a sweep to the Warriors.