Clippers Must Make a Move at NBA Trade Deadline

Why the Clippers are not a championship team, plus thoughts on a suddenly murky Rookie of the Year race.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Maybe Monday’s win was a turning point, the kind that championship teams look back on as the moment everything changed. Down 22 to Atlanta in the third quarter, Clippers coach Ty Lue emptied his bench, line changing out Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the rest of the starters for Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and a second unit that erased that deficit, clearing the way for Leonard to close out the Hawks in the final minutes.

Perhaps a game like this can be a springboard.

“It’s definitely one of the most fun games I’ve been a part of,” Kennard said.

Or perhaps it was an uplifting moment in a season that has not had enough of them.

As Thursday’s trade deadline approaches, one thing is clear: The Clippers are not a championship team. L.A.’s front office seemed to acknowledge that on Monday when they offloaded Mfiondu Kabengele, the team’s 2019 first round pick, to Sacramento. Officially, the trade returned a future second round pick. Unofficially, the Clippers made the deal to free up a second roster spot—and move $2.6 million below the hard cap, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, giving the team added flexibility in the coming weeks.

The Clippers will need it. Monday’s win was a continuation of the Jekyll and Hyde act L.A. has been for the last month. A three-game road losing streak ended when L.A. came home and clobbered the Warriors. A few days later, New Orleans tattooed them for 135-points. A two-game road trip in Dallas began with a ten point win … and ended with a 16-point loss. The Clippers seemed poised to blow any momentum gained from a blowout win over Charlotte before Kennard and Co. came in and saved them.

“I don’t really have a lot of answers,” Lue said. “Just frustrated early on by the way we were playing … the guys see how we have got to play. How we have to attack every single game, no matter who we are playing. We can’t let missed shots determine how we are going to play.”

There’s a lot to like about the Clippers. Leonard is an MVP candidate, averaging 26 points on an efficient 51% shooting. George is an All-Star, seemingly more comfortable in his second year in L.A., with his field goal (48.1%) and three-point (44.1%) numbers are career-high levels. Leonard and George are the NBA’s sixth highest scoring duo this season, backstopped by a second unit that posts 40 points per game, third most in the NBA.

But there are also glaring flaws. The Clippers are the NBA’s best three-point shooting team, but too often they settle for outside shots. They don’t attack the paint much, ranking in the bottom third of the league in drives, free throw attempts and shots within five feet of the basket. Playmaking is an issue—L.A. averages 24 assists per game, 18th in the NBA—one that won’t simply be resolved by the return of Patrick Beverley, who has been in and out of the lineup with a knee injury. The defense continues to be shaky, evidenced by Atlanta turning a ten-point first quarter deficit into that 22-point third quarter lead.

On Monday, Lue advocated for a quiet trade deadline, citing consistency as what his team needs to improve. “It would be good for us,” Lue said. “Figure out what we like, what we don’t like. Having the same crew, it would be important. Having 72 games under our belt, the dos and the don’ts, what we’re good at and what we need to keep improving on. I think this team has taken great strides with that.”

But Lue knows what the Clippers are. He knows the team needs an upgrade at point guard, which is why Ricky Rubio, Lonzo Ball and George Hill will be connected to L.A. until Thursday afternoon. He knows the team needs a defensive identity, which is why Lue pivoted to defense when answering a question about a potential trade. “My main focus,” said Lue, “is to continue to have a defensive mindset.”

It’s wishful thinking to believe the Clippers can do nothing and hope the healthy return of Beverley and Serge Ibaka will push them up the title ladder. L.A.’s inconsistency blew an opportunity to gain ground on the banged up Lakers and the scuffling Jazz. If the season ended today the Clippers would be locked into a 4-5 matchup with Denver—and is there anyone in Los Angeles that wants to see that team again?

The Clippers pushed all their chips in acquiring Leonard and George, doubling down last December when they signed George to a four-year, $190 million extension. It’s a star driven league and L.A. has two of them. But the Clippers need more. L.A. doesn’t have first round picks to deal, but they do have a cache of second rounders, including three future seconds from Detroit that could be valuable assets in the years to come.

On Monday, the Clippers game broadcast showed Lawrence Frank in the stands, catching the team president tapping away on his cell phone. It will be a busy next two days for Frank. The good feelings from the win over the Hawks will soon be replaced by the sobering reality: L.A. is good. Really good. But without a substantive upgrade, they are not championship good.

A suddenly murky Rookie of the Year race

LaMelo Ball

Before LaMelo Ball suffered a fractured right wrist—an injury that will reportedly sideline him for the rest of the season—Ball was a lock for Rookie of the Year. The 6’ 6” playmaker was averaging 16 points, six assists and six rebounds, energizing a once lifeless Hornets team and pushing Charlotte squarely into the playoff mix. But with those numbers likely final—and with just 41 games on his rookie resume with more than a third of the season to go—the question is: Did Ball do enough?

The fewest number of games played by a Rookie of the Year is 50, the number Patrick Ewing was stopped at in 1986, when the Knicks center comfortably beat out Xavier McDaniel and Karl Malone for the award. Like Ball, Ewing’s season abruptly ended (his in March) with a knee injury. Still, voters saw enough of Ewing, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds, to give Ewing (36 first place votes) more than McDaniel (16 1/2 ) and Malone (14 1/2 ) first place votes combined.

Will voters feel the same way about Ball? The stiffest competition figures to come from Anthony Edwards, who leads all rookies in scoring (16.7 per game). Edwards has already eclipsed Ball in games played (43) and figures to get plenty of opportunities for the lottery-bound Timberwolves in the second half of the season. Tyrese Haliburton has played well for the Kings while James Wiseman has played increased minutes since the All-Star break.

Will voters value raw numbers? Or will Ball’s impact on (currently) playoff-bound Charlotte carry more weight? In the grand scheme of things, it means little. Ball is a bona fide star in the making, and he has given the faceless Hornets a relevance it has not had in decades. But Ball wants that hardware. In half a season, he may have earned it.

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