The Los Angeles Clippers have experienced turbulence without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They have also fielded uncertainty on when or if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will return from their respective injuries this season.
But that has not stopped the Clippers from staying competitive enough to remain in the Western Conference’s playoff picture. That also has not stopped the Clippers from finding ways with upgrading their roster in hopes to make a playoff push, regardless of their star player’s availability.
The Clippers acquired Norman Powell and Robert Covington from the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and the Detroit Pistons’ 2025 second-round pick. By securing this deal, the Clippers achieved two objectives they have considered important ever since owner Steve Ballmer purchased the franchise in 2014.
The Clippers want to collect as much talent and assets as possible. Though Ballmer has never put a price limit on such spending, the Clippers also want to maintain their flexibility. And in this case, the Clippers thread the needle by accomplishing both.
Just before the Clippers squeaked out a win over the Lakers on Thursday, Clippers coach Ty Lue maintained, “I love our team and how we’re constructed now.” And why wouldn’t he? The Clippers (27-27) moved to eighth place in the Western Conference despite missing Leonard for the entire season while recovering from off-season surgery to treat a partial tear in his right ACL injury. The Clippers remain within striking distance of a playoff seed without even needing to compete through the play-in tournament.
But the Clippers did not want to base their fortunes on whether Leonard and/or George would return this season. So, the Clippers took the advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their roster well before the trade deadline expires on Feb. 10.
The Clippers acquired two players in Powell and Covington that can provide wing depth as both outside shooters and perimeter defenders. While Powell has averaged a combined 11.2 points on 46.2% shooting through stops in Toronto (2015-21) and Portland (2020-22), Covington has averaged 11.6 points with outside shooting potential during stops Houston (2013-14, 2019-20), Philadelphia (2014-18), Minnesota (2018-19) and Portland (2020-22). The Clippers added two players that historically become amenable with their roles and playing time. As an added bonus, Powell returns to his hometown after growing up in San Diego and playing at UCLA.
And the Clippers acquired these players while still maintaining their flexibility. Powell is nearing the first year of a five-year, $90 million deal, so that gives the Clippers both security in keeping a dependable player entering his prime and an additional asset in future deals. Covington will become a free agent this summer, but the Clippers can spend over the cap to keep him because they have his Bird Rights.
Make no mistake that the Clippers’ playoff fortunes improve substantially with Leonard and George back in the lineup. But LA wanted to be proactive before then.
Lue revealed after Thursday’s game against the Lakers that “we know Kawhi is probably not going to come back.” But there is more nuance for reasons beyond Lue’s concession that “I’m not a doctor.” Internally, the Clippers are pleased with Leonard’s progress and have trust in how he has rehabbed his right knee after having surgery on July 13. But the Clippers are operating on the high likelihood that Leonard won’t play this season simply because it typically takes players 12 to 18 months to return from an ACL injury.
As for George? Lue confirmed a Turner Sports report that George plans to receive an MRI on Feb. 24 to provide clarity on the ligament tear on his right elbow, an injury that has sidelined him for the past 22 games. Though those results will offer more insight on George’s recovery, the Clippers have maintained optimism that George will return in time to help the Clippers make a playoff push. But with the Clippers going 10-12 in his absence, they don’t want to put the burden of success on George’s return.
So, the Clippers became aggressive with pursuing the trade market. Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin told NBA.com this week that he would remain “open-minded” with pursuing deals that would either help Portland (21-31) in the short term or the long term. But Cronin stressed, “I don’t think we have the appetite to tear it all the way down.” It remains to be seen whether Cronin will change his mind or if he still thinks he can add pieces around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
It is clear what the Clippers are doing, though. They want a team best equipped to stay in the playoff picture for however long Leonard and George stay sidelined. They also want a team equipped to adjust its roles around Leonard and George once they return. Though the Clippers won’t welcome their two star players until they are fully healthy, they feel optimistic they can contend for an NBA title with a full roster regardless of their seed.
The scary part: the Clippers aren’t done yet with pursuing more moves. Don’t expect a big deal as the Clippers did with Portland less than a week before the trade deadline. But expect the Clippers to try to flip expiring contracts in exchange for draft picks and dependable talent that have long-term upside and flexibility with their roles. With Clippers veteran forward Serge Ibaka holding an expiring $9.7 million contact, the Clippers will soon find out what interest that will attract in the open market.
“These guys continue to just keep fighting every single night,” Lue boasted about his players.
As shown with their deal on Friday, the Clippers could say the same thing about their front office.
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