Over three years ago, the Clippers decorated headlines with their groundbreaking trade to acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In exchange for the then-MVP finalist Geroge, the Thunder stole away a promising youngster in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks.
Granted, it wasn’t just George — the lone player headed to L.A. in this trade — that the Clippers landed with this ploy. This was the final push that helped the 213 mine up the crown jewel of the 2019 free agency class: Kawhi Leonard.
With his preferred partner onboard the Clipper ship, captain Leonard had no excuse to sign the deal and start sailing for his hometown team.
Kawhi Leonard has been recruiting Paul George to find a way to get to the Clippers and LA pulled it off tonight: George goes to the Clippers with Leonard, and together they walk into Staples Center to go head-to-head with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2019
So while many argued that trading away the future of the organization for a lone star was excessive, securing two of the best two-way players in basketball at that price felt like a reasonable — or even requisite — investment.
A championship does speak louder than a bunch of draft picks. A lot louder.
And it felt like the right time for Lawrence Frank and the Clippers to go all in.
Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell — the Clippers housed the core pack of feisty, hard-fighting hoopers. The kind that will give any team a fight even without a legitimate first option.
In Doc Rivers, they had a coach that knew how to win big games. A coach capable of taming hard-headed superstars to play under a system (spoiler alert — he wasn’t anything close to the coach we thought he would be).
And this was a team that took the star-stacked Warriors team to six games. With utter class, too — their stunning 31-point comeback win is still the most remarkable comeback in Playoffs history. Even more remarkable when considering it was done against the two-time reigning champions.
Now drop in two of the hottest, the most prestigious players in basketball into the already scorching Clipper cauldron, and the Clippers were cooking up something special. One of the best defensive teams ever assembled. A team good enough to finally end the team’s ever-lasting championship drought.
And all they had to trade away was a scrawny rookie, a sluggish sharp-shooting forward from Italy, and five picks that they didn’t have to worry about until later. Those were intangible picks, unlike the real, concrete, palpable greatness and brilliance of Leonard and George.
But things didn’t quite turn out the way most anticipated. Four years since the team unleashed the two-headed monster of George and Leonard, the team’s trophy case is still collecting dust — well, other than Leonard’s All-Star Game MVP trophy that even the recipient himself doesn’t really care about.
What were once ‘what-ifs’ and question marks are no longer up in the air. And now at the halfway mark of the 2022-23 season, it is time to fret.
For one, it is never certain whether either of them will be available to play.
As it stands, Leonard and George have been two of the least available stars of the league — according to Joey Linn, just 35 percent of games since joining the Clippers in 2019. And it just happens that both play for the same team.
Since joining the Clippers in 2019, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played just 35% of the team’s games together.— Joey Linn (@joeylinn_) January 18, 2023
For comparison, the duo of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul played 71% of LA’s games together.
Their unavailability — and thus their limited impact in support of the team’s championship aspirations — is deeply contrasted by the brilliance of one of the players they traded away: the ultra-swaggy walking bucket, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Thunder’s floor general has rapidly developed into one of the league’s most stylish and, more importantly, best scorers. He’s kept the same confidence he had as a rookie in Los Angeles but honed his tools to become a serious threat on offense.
The Canadian guard is averaging 30.5 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.9 rebounds, alongside 1.7 steals per game.
These numbers have earned him — and rightfully so — an NBA2K23 rating of 92. In comparison, Leonard and George are rated 90 and 89, respectively.
Just as interestingly, SGA (1,843,460 votes) has accumulated more votes in the NBA All-Star Voting than Paul George (1,612,347) and Kawhi Leonard. Even despite OKC having a considerably smaller fan base and backing than a team that plays in Hollywood.
LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo lead their respective conferences in the third fan returns of #NBAAllStar Voting presented by AT&T.— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) January 19, 2023
Fans account for 50% of the vote to decide All-Star starters. NBA players and a media panel account for 25% each. pic.twitter.com/nqNZqkeVJw
To top the comparison between the Kentucky product and the two superstars, Gilgeous-Alexander has scored more points than both Leonard and George this season.
The Canadian guard has logged a league-third of 1,286 points, while the Clipper duo has amassed 1,203 points. And unlike the injury-prone duo, SGA has missed just four games this season. Let’s also not forget the five draft picks that the Thunder stole from the 213.
So in hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t all too good of a decision to gamble with the team's future at the prospect of winning its first championship.
Could the front office have been blinded by rushing emotions and short-sighted at the moment? Probably. Is this a decision all Clipper fans will regret in the next coming years? We don’t know.
The acquisition of George and Leonard was a statement from the Clippers’ front office: the team is trying to win now, even at the cost of its future. Sure, they still haven’t won yet. And maybe they never will.
One thing is for certain, though: the Clippers are on the verge of becoming one of the best what-if teams ever assembled. A failed project. A step in the wrong direction.
But let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. One championship is all the Clippers need to show the world that the team did indeed make the right decision. Time is ticking.