The Los Angeles Lakers kicked off the trading season Monday by taking on Rui Hachimura from the Wizards for Kendrick Nunn and three runners-up in what could be the first of many moves before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Just 5.5 games separate the third-seeded Sacramento Kings and 13th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the west, leaving most of the conference still in the playoff hunt. The Lakers believe they can have a run if Anthony Davis gets healthy. But there is still uncertainty as to whether they are willing – or should – postpone their two future first-round picks.
Rival Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, doesn’t face such a dilemma. They now have to do everything they can to win the championship. Why? You have no choice. With their future draft picks pledged and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George potentially becoming free agents in 2024, the time is now.
It’s been a bumpy start to the season for Leonard, but he’s progressively improved and now resembles his pre-injury self. In his last seven games, he’s averaged 29.9 points with elite efficiency and 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.9 steals. It’s a small rehearsal, to be sure, and he’s still at risk of getting hurt again. But with Leonard looking like his old dominant self and George still playing at a borderline All-Star level, it’s obvious why the Clippers would be aiming for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year.
There’s talk in the NBA that the Clippers are actively looking for an upgrade for Reggie Jackson as a point guard and a backup big man behind Ivica Zubac. Despite Leonard and George’s play, the Clippers will still look like fake contenders entering the playoffs if they don’t make improvements.
Jackson hasn’t been very useful since the 2021 playoffs, and John Wall has been a worthwhile offseason gamble but has proven to be a much better interviewee as a basketball player in 2023.
Marc Stein reported on Substack that the Clippers are interested in jazz point guard Mike Conley, who thought he would be traded to the Clippers ahead of the season. The Jazz are hanging around in the playoff race, but they’re better off moving their remaining veterans in the first round so they can drop out of the play-in and into the lottery, where they wanted to be first. Whatever other moves they make, it’s likely that 35-year-old Conley will be transferred to a team that will give him a better shot at his first title.
Conley fits well with the Clippers offensively because he’s a stable playmaker who can benefit from the ball as a shooter and cutter. And while he’s turned down defense, he’s had a few lockdown moments this season where he resembled his best self.
In the closing moments of a narrow win over the Pelicans last month, Conley poked two inbound passes destined for CJ McCollum before weaving through three screens to stop McCollum’s attempt at goal. It showed levels of speed and awareness not seen by Wall’s or Jackson’s Clippers.
But other teams will also be chasing Conley, meaning the Jazz will likely wait until closer to the deadline for the best possible offer. So LA needs to comb through the rest of the league. League sources say the Clippers are also interested in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Lowry earns $28.3 million, and his decline with the Heat has been even more apparent this season than Conley’s slump with the Jazz. Conley ranks 84th in our Top 100 Ranking of NBA Players, while Lowry fell flat in the last update.
VanVleet, who is at No. 76, is the best overall target for the Clippers considering he’s only 28, is a relentless defender on the ball and was an All-Star just last season.
League sources doubt the Raptors will move Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby unless the return is huge – think two or three unprotected first-round picks or young players of near-equal talent – but it’s more likely that VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr. will be postponed 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 given FVV’s ability to get off the ball or reliably score points. VanVleet should be the Clippers’ number one target, but even if they land him, they have yet to grow in size before the playoffs.
Despite posting all-defensive numbers earlier in the season, Zubac is admittedly jaded with most of the minutes of his career. LA had a top-five defensive rating for its first 30 games of the season before falling below the bottom five for the last 20 or so. Aside from Zubac, the only 7fter they have is Moses Brown, who has nothing to offer on defense.
HoopsHype‘s Michael Scotto reported Monday that Timberwolves center Naz Reid has attracted interest from the Clippers and Nuggets. I’ve heard from league sources that the Nets have also asked for Reid, so there would be competition for him if Minnesota decided to move him, although the price tag for the upcoming free agent wouldn’t be significant.
It’s probably too expensive for the Clippers to acquire a big man like the Pacers’ Myles Turner or the Hawks’ John Collins. A cheaper option would be Magic center Mo Bamba, who has seen his minutes drop and who league sources say is readily available in a trade.
According to executives around the league, 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 wanted there. But unfortunately, not all free agent choices play out the way you originally envisioned them.
The Knicks obviously abused Hartenstein As a rim roller more than a playmaker, his former 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 out of him while Ty Lue has already proven he can. Getting back together might be in everyone’s interest.
The Clippers don’t have many high-quality assets to trade with. But much like the Lakers have been able to outbid other teams for Hachimura, there are deals available at an affordable price. The clips only feature their 2028 first-round picks, but they still own all of their future second-round picks except for 2027. Former second-round picks Jason Preston and Brandon Boston have both excelled in the G League; Preston has shown off his steady-shot creation, and Boston looks like a focal point. Both have a value that mirrors that of a high to medium runner-up.
Stein says the Clippers “wiped away” external interest in Terance Mann. It’s not surprising that teams would want him. Mann has established himself as a solid rotary wing, but he’s still only 26 and in the last year of his rookie deal before a two-year, $22 million extension begins next season. Amir Coffey is on a team-friendly long-term contract and could be a nice addition to any offer too. But none of them have a star-level advantage.
The Clippers also have a range of salaries that they can use and potentially combine to handle just about any incoming contract 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) may become free agents in 2024.
For VanVleet, the Clippers could offer something along the lines of Kennard, Mann, Boston, a future first-round pick and a second-round pick or two. Depending on the number of players involved, the Clippers could perhaps bring someone like Juancho Hernangomez back into a deal or work it into a threesome to land a backup center.
As currently constructed, the Clippers resemble no competitor. The point guard and center positions are far too weak for the team to survive a competitive playoff series.
While they cannot count on Leonard staying healthy, they have no rights to their first-round picks until 2027 and have no choice but to bet on Leonard’s best-case scenario. We’re seeing this best-case scenario right now and he’s looking like West Coast Michael Jordan again. George is a willing second option and there are many other good players in the team. There are only weaknesses that need to be addressed.
The Lakers made their first move and might not be their last. Other western competitors will also be scouring the market for upgrades. But few teams, if any, should feel more pressure than the Clippers; They’ve put so much into that core, and both Leonard and George have the opportunity to become free agents next summer. Time is running out.