February 26, 2024

Inside the Clippers’ strangely quiet NBA trade deadline: Rotations, P.J. Tucker and the status quo

The night before the NBA trade deadline, following the LA Clippers’ tiring 117-106 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, I asked small forward Paul George about the feeling around the locker room this time of the year compared to past seasons. After all, George has seen his team change significantly at every trade deadline since he was acquired by LA in 2019.

“We’re just focused on moving forward,” George said Wednesday night. “I guess that’s different, more so than the other years. We’re honestly not looking to make any moves. I don’t think that we are looking in this locker room thinking, ‘where can we get better?’ We know we have enough to win right now. So, yeah, I don’t think anyone’s nervous or worried about their position and their spot here. I think we’re in a good place with a great locker room.”

By Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline, the only trade the Clippers had executed was one for the future. As The Athletic first reported, the Clippers traded cash to the Denver Nuggets for the draft rights to 2022 second-round center Ismaël Kamagate. As our front-office insider John Hollinger explains, the Clippers can’t use cash in a trade as a second-apron team after this trade deadline. Kamagate is a worthwhile prospect to keep an eye on, but the Clippers drafted two-way contract center Moussa Diabaté three spots ahead of him in 2022, and this trade was strictly to attain an asset for now.

While the Clippers kept up their run of president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank always executing a deal within a week of the trade deadline (the last season they didn’t, 2016-17, former head coach Doc Rivers was still in charge of the front office), it was the most minor deal the Clippers could have possibly made. The entire 18-man roster that the team has had since signing backup center Daniel Theis remains intact.

Now, there are several takeaways here. We will get to all of them. But we have to start with the obvious.

The Clippers are good

Since Nov. 17, the last time the Clippers made a transaction that impacted the playing roster, LA has the best record in the NBA at 31-9. That’s better than a 60-win pace. This is a franchise, mind you, that has never won 60 games in a season.

In that same time span, the Clippers have the best offense in the NBA. They are the only team in the league since Nov. 17 making 50 percent of their field goals and 40 percent of 3s. There is a reason this team is cooking better than it ever has, and it is because of a move LA already made.

The Clippers had their quietest trade deadline in the Leonard-George era

Most of the NBA waited until after the In-Season Tournament to start seriously considering trade activity. The Clippers, on the other hand, acquired point guard James Harden on the last day of October. The move  put the Clippers in a hole at first, with LA sitting at 3-7 and in 12th place in the Western Conference by mid-November.

But from that initial failure came a realization of what was needed. The starting lineup evolved to include Terance Mann, who can start games on top perimeter ballhandlers defensively while not requiring touches offensively. Russell Westbrook and Norman Powell took over the second unit, where they could contribute effectively with the touches they needed to produce.

Harden’s presence has been critical for the Clippers. No one has played more minutes for the Clippers since Nov. 17 than Harden (1,392). The Clippers have outscored foes by 411 points in Harden’s minutes while getting outscored by 121 points in the minutes Harden has sat. He has been indispensable. Good thing the Clippers did not wait to acquire him in February, right?

The elephant in the room

In acquiring Harden, the Clippers also took on the contract of Filip Petrušev (later traded to the Sacramento Kings to create Theis’ roster spot and waived) and P.J. Tucker, who was starting at power forward for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The front office was looking forward to Tucker’s physicality and toughness making an impact, and coach Tyronn Lue had Tucker in the rotation for the first 12 games of November. The Clippers lost eight of those 12 games, including the first six consecutively. In Tucker’s last six games, he went scoreless in 79 minutes while compiling more fouls (14) than rebounds, steals or blocks combined (12). By the end of November, rookie Kobe Brown took over Tucker’s rotation spot. Now, with Brown showing he’s too green for that role this season, Amir Coffey has emerged as a rotation fixture.

When the Clippers went in another direction with the rotation, Tucker made it clear that he wanted to play elsewhere. Tucker was open about wanting a trade in December, though he was disgruntled by the end of the six-game losing streak as well even when he was playing at the thought of his minutes being reduced. At the end of January, Tucker reiterated to The Athletic not only his desire to be traded in order to play more, but also his reluctance to forego a 2024 player option that would pay him $11.5 million in his age-40 season.

I asked Harden, Tucker’s teammate in Philadelphia and with the Houston Rockets for six of the last seven seasons, about Tucker’s situation ahead of the trade deadline. Harden suggested there was still an opportunity for Tucker to be in the rotation if he wasn’t traded.

It should not be considered a surprise that Tucker did not get traded. The combination of his age, contract status, skill set, production and potential team fit all conspired to tank his value. The Clippers tried to move him for two months and found no takers. Again, this was predictable in December — though that does not make Tucker any less frustrated.

The front office still believes Tucker could contribute in a playoff series. He is willing to guard bigger bodies, such as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić and New Orleans power forward Zion Williamson. But that was also the case with Robert Covington last season, and the coaching staff never quite got around to making Covington a consistent part of the rotation that spring.

Tucker can be upset, but the Clippers should not kowtow to him. The team has a solid nine-man rotation, one that does not include players like Theis and Brandon Boston Jr. when the team is fully healthy. It remains to be seen whether or not the passing of the trade deadline changes Tucker’s DNP-CD streak. But Tucker’s situation highlights another glaring reality.

The Clippers did not improve at the trade deadline

They didn’t get worse, either. It’s the status quo. The team is established. For a group that has won better than 75 percent of its games, there are certainly worse places to be.

Like every team, the Clippers are not perfect. LA wanted to upgrade, if possible. Kawhi Leonard is their power forward after entrusting that role to players such as Maurice Harkless, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum and Covington. The No. 1 factor keeping the Clippers from being a top-10 defense is their defensive rebounding, which is ranked 22nd since the Clippers began winning with Harden, and 23rd for the season. (No, Tucker would not help the defensive rebounding.)

Frank hinted that internal improvement would be the key for the Clippers in lieu of a trade. Having center Ivica Zubac on the floor certainly helps, along with a healthy Mason Plumlee. As critical as Theis has been, opponents grab 33.6 percent of offensive rebounds when he is on the floor. That mark is 31.9 percent with Plumlee, which is not very good either. With Zubac, it’s only 26.4 percent.

The only position that made sense for LA to add to would have been power forward. The Western Conference has large teams that the Clippers will have to do something about: The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets at the top, the New Orleans Pelicans in the middle and the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz hovering in Play-In Tournament territory. Defenses that can actually guard the pick-and-roll will give the Clippers more issues than they’ll usually encounter.

The Clippers could have used athletic size — that is, a player in the 6-foot-9 range with enough agility to defend outside of the paint and enough height and physicality to be a secondary rim protector and defensive rebounder. That player also needs to have the skill set offensively to not be a complete minus overall, which means  the ability to shoot the 3 on a team that already has five shot creators in the rotation, though a slight loss in shooting efficiency can be balanced with finishing ability and adequate playmaking to go with any on-ball juice.

As one team source puts it, those players that fit the size-skill-athleticism intersection that the Clippers would look for is likely a max player. The Clippers have depleted assets. And a look around the league shows why the grass is not always greener.

None of the players who actually got traded would have been worth the Clippers acquiring

Here’s a list of the power forwards who got moved leading up to the trade deadline:

  • P.J. Washington: a player about as tall as Leonard who is not an efficient 3-point shooter, doesn’t rebound and is frustrating defensively.
  • Grant Williams: He can shoot and defend but is only 6-foot-6 and does not rebound.
  • Dāvis Bertāns: He can shoot, but that’s it.
  • Chimezie Metu: The Grizzlies waived him after the Suns traded him; Metu’s a career 29.7 percent 3-point shooter.
  • Yuta Watanabe: His shooting percentages are way down this year, and he does not rebound.
  • David Roddy: He is 6-foot-4 and shoots 30 percent from 3.
  • Royce O’Neale: He is 6-foot-6 and does not rebound well enough to be a big; this team has enough wings.
  • Keita Bates-Diop: He’s shooting 31.3 percent from 3 this year and does not rebound.
  • Marcus Morris Sr.: We already know Morris, and the Clippers cannot re-sign him after he is bought out because he makes more than the midlevel exception.
  • Doug McDermott: He can shoot but is undersized for the four and does not defend or rebound.
  • Bojan Bogdanović: Makes $20 million, so getting him would have cost a rotation player, and he does not rebound.
  • Thaddeus Young: He is 35 years old and has made one 3-pointer all season.
  • Otto Porter Jr.: Porter has played 320 minutes since leaving the 2022 champion Warriors.
  • Kevin Knox II: He’s the size of a small forward, doesn’t rebound and shoots only 33 percent from 3 this season.
  • Danilo Gallinari: He is 35 years old and cannot defend or rebound.
  • Kelly Olynyk: Olynyk’s 6-foot-11 and can shoot, but he struggles to defend perimeter at power forward and is not a rim protector at center.

The Clippers will always look for ways to improve. But the roster is locked-in, barring a surprise and a change of heart. And that overall is a good thing with two months to go until the postseason.

(Photo of Paul George and James Harden: Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)