The Los Angeles Lakers began the trade season Monday by acquiring Rui Hachimura from the Wizards for Kendrick Nunn and three second-round players, in what could be the first of many moves ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline. .
Just 5.5 games separate the third-seeded Sacramento Kings and the 13th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the West, so nearly the entire conference is still in the playoff hunt. The Lakers feel that if Anthony Davis can recover, they can run. But there’s still uncertainty about whether they’re willing, or should, move their two future first-round picks.
The rival Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, face no such dilemma. They need to go all out to try and win the championship now. Why? They have no other choice. With their future draft picks foreclosed and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George potentially becoming free agents in 2024, now is the time.
It was a tough start to the season for Leonard, but he has progressively improved and now resembles his pre-injury self. In his last seven games, he averaged 29.9 points with elite efficiency and 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.9 steals to boot. It’s a small sample, to be sure, and he’s still at risk of getting hurt again. But with Leonard looking like his old domineering self, and George still playing at the edge of All-Star level, it’s obvious why the Clippers would feel the urge to go for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.
There is talk in the NBA that the Clippers are actively seeking an upgrade for Reggie Jackson at point guard and a backup big man behind Ivica Zubac. Despite Leonard and George’s play, the Clippers will still look like fake playoff contenders unless they make improvements.
Jackson hasn’t been very useful since the 2021 playoffs, and John Wall was a worthwhile offseason gamble, but he’s proven to be a much better interviewer than a basketball player in 2023.
Marc Stein reported on Substack that the Clippers have an interest in Jazz point guard Mike Conley, who thought they would trade him to the Clippers before the season. The Jazz are hanging around in the playoff race, but they better move the remaining veterans so they can get out of the play-in and into the lottery, where they intended to be in first place. No matter what other moves they make, the 35-year-old Conley is likely to move to a team that will give him a better chance of winning his first title.
Conley is a good fit offensively for the Clippers because he’s a consistent playmaker who can thrive on the ball as a shooter and cutter. And while he’s declined on defense, he’s had some shut-in moments this season where he’s looked like the better self of him.
In the final moments of a tight win against the Pelicans last month, Conley deflected two tackle passes intended for CJ McCollum before blasting through three screens to stop McCollum’s scoring attempt. There were levels of speed and awareness on display that the Clippers haven’t seen in Wall or Jackson.
But other teams will also be looking for Conley, which means the Jazz will likely wait for the best possible offer until near the deadline. So LA must tour the rest of the league. League sources say the Clippers are also interested in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Lowry makes $28.3 million, and his decline with the Heat has been even more apparent this season than Conley’s with the Jazz. Conley is ranked 84th in our ranking of the 100 Greatest NBA Players, while Lowry fell out completely in the most recent update.
VanVleet, who is at no. 76, is overall the best target for the Clippers considering he’s only 28, he’s a relentless defender of the ball and he was an All-Star last season.
League sources doubt the Raptors would move Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby unless the return is huge — think two or three unprotected first-round picks or young players of nearly equal talent — but VanVleet is more likely. or Gary Trent Jr. to be moved as they are less talented and may become free agents this summer.
Leonard and VanVleet won a championship together in Toronto and would likely excel again in Los Angeles due to FVV’s ability to excel off the ball or reliably run the point. VanVleet should be the Clippers’ primary target, but even if they get it, they’ll still need to get bigger before the playoffs.
Although Zubac was posting All-Defensive-caliber numbers earlier in the season, it’s true that he’s worn down from playing the most minutes of his career. LA had a top-five defensive rating in the first 30 games of the season before falling to the bottom five in the last 20 or so. Other than Zubac, the only 7-footer they have is Moses Brown, who offers nothing on the defensive end.
HoopsHypeMichael Scotto reported Monday that Timberwolves center Naz Reid has drawn interest from the Clippers and Nuggets. I heard from league sources that the Nets also inquired about Reid, so there would be competition for him if Minnesota decided to move him, although the price for the next free agent wouldn’t be significant.
The Clippers probably won’t be able to acquire a big man like Myles Turner from the Pacers or John Collins from the Hawks. A cheaper option would be Magic center Mo Bamba, who has seen his minutes drop and is, according to league sources, readily available in a trade.
According to league executives, the Clippers are also interested in their former backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, who is now with the Knicks.
LA tried to re-sign Hartenstein last summer, but he went to New York for more money and because he felt that he was wanted there. But unfortunately, not all free agent decisions turn out the way he originally envisioned.
The Knicks have blatantly abused Hartenstein more as a rim roller than a midfielder, his previous role with the Clippers. He had a 20.5 assist percentage with the Clippers, compared to just 5.1 percent with the Knicks. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t know how to get the best of him, while Ty Lue has already shown that he can. Getting back together could be the best for everyone.
The Clippers don’t have many high-value assets to trade. But just as the Lakers were able to outbid other teams for Hachimura, deals can be made at an affordable price. The Clips only have their 2028 first-round pick to offer, but they still have all of their future second-round picks besides the 2027 one. Former second-round picks Jason Preston and Brandon Boston have been standouts in the G League; Preston has shown consistent shot creation from him, and Boston looks like a go-to presence. Both have a value that reflects a high or medium second round.
Stein says the Clippers “squashed outside interest” in Terance Mann. He’s no surprise teams want him. Mann has established himself as a solid rotation forward, but he’s still just 26 and in the final year of his rookie contract before a two-year, $22 million extension takes effect next season. Amir Coffey has a team-friendly long-term contract and could also be a good addition to any offer. But none of them have a star level advantage.
The Clippers also have a salary range to utilize and potentially combine to make any incoming deal work. Wall ($6.5 million) and Jackson ($11.2 million) give the Clippers two expiring contracts to work with, while Marcus Morris ($16.4 million), Luke Kennard ($13.7 million) and Robert Covington ($12.3 million) can become free agents in 2024.
For VanVleet, the Clippers could offer something similar to Kennard, Mann, Boston, a future first-round pick and a second-round pick or two. Depending on the number of players involved, perhaps the Clippers could get someone like Juancho Hernangómez back in a deal or work on a trio to land a backup center.
As currently built, the Clippers don’t look like a contender. The point guard and center positions are too weak for the team to survive a competitive playoff series.
Although they can’t count on Leonard staying healthy, they’re not entitled to any of their first-round picks until 2027 and have no choice but to bet on Leonard’s best-case scenario. We’re looking at the best-case scenario right now, and it’s looking like West Coast Michael Jordan again. George is a willing second choice, and the team has plenty of other good players. There are only weaknesses that you need to address.
The Lakers made their first move, and perhaps not their last. Other contenders in the West will also look to the market for upgrades. But few if any teams should feel more pressure than the Clippers; They’ve invested heavily in this core, and both Leonard and George have the potential to become free agents next summer. The time is finishing.