With the 2022 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors concluded, the league will officially shift to a place where the Clippers have already been for quite some time: the off-season. On the surface, the Clippers actually have very little work to do–10 of the 15 players who were on their NBA roster last season are under contract for next season, and retaining the four potential free agents who the team is interested in keeping (sorry, Rodney Hood) should be relatively straightforward. It helps, of course, that they signed Robert Covington to a 2-year, $24 million dollar extension earlier in the off-season to avoid him being a free agent as well.
That framework allows the Clippers to explore some upgrade possibilities this off-season, rather than simply trying to scrape together a roster for next season. Including a few guys who aren’t yet 100% secured for next year, the team has 12 proven rotation-caliber players. It’s a testament to the team’s depth that they were one of the deepest teams in the NBA last season while missing Kawhi Leonard for the entire 2021-22 campaign and Paul George for over half of it. Those injuries created a playing time void that was filled by guys like Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, Amir Coffey, and newcomer Robert Covington, all of whom acquitted themselves well as significant rotation players. Then there’s deadline acquisition Norman Powell, who hardly played for LAC due to a broken foot but figures to be a major part of their plans going forward. All things considered, it seems essentially impossible to keep everyone happy with their role for a full, hopefully mostly healthy season, putting a little pressure on the Clippers to find some kind of consolidation trade that nets them one higher-value player (either due to starpower or age/upside/contract/skillset) in exchange for two or more of their current guys. And if (when?) they make such a trade, the ripple effects will be significant down the roster. That means that the number one item on the Clippers’ agenda right now has to be…
1) Searching For The Big One
The Clippers probably are a “third star” short of being the best version of themselves. I don’t think they need a better third-best player to win a title, but I certainly don’t think it would hurt. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a high-volume scorer, either–Golden State’s Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Draymond Green combination and Boston’s Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown/Marcus Smart trio both contain a player not as known for his offensive prowess. But both Thompson and Smart (for my money, the #3 on each team) are head-and-shoulders ahead of anyone on the Clippers’ roster not named Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (the same is true for the third-best player on the 2021 champs, Jrue Holiday). You can say that the Clippers have a better star duo, and that will certainly have to be true for them to win the 2023 title, and you can say that they have superior depth as well. But depth just doesn’t matter as much on the biggest stage. In a pivotal NBA Finals game 5, Boston played a 7-man rotation while the Warriors went with 8. I love Amir Coffey, but Amir Coffey being a better 11th man than Nik Stauskas and Damion Lee wouldn’t impact a potential LAC-BOS or LAC-GSW series.
In the pursuit of a championship, the Clippers’ extreme depth is most certainly expendable in exchange for even marginal upgrades at the top of the rotation, getting just a bit better in the roles that play 40 minutes in must-win games. Rather than spending a ton of time zeroing in on potential targets, let’s take a look at where the current Clippers fall in the “building a trade package” calculus:
- Untouchable: Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. We aren’t going backwards here, folks.
- Untradeable: Nico Batum, Isaiah Hartenstein, Amir Coffey, Jay Scrubb. Personal preferences aside, pending free agents can’t be traded, and outgoing sign-and-trades as part of a package to bring back a bigger name seem pretty unlikely (although with Amir an outgoing S&T could be possible).
- Tough Pills to Swallow: Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Terance Mann, Robert Covington, and Ivica Zubac. Powell is the team’s third-best player and apparently doesn’t have a ton of trade value due to his 5-year contract (since the Clippers got him for next to nothing a few months ago). Jackson and Zubac are both important starters without replacements on the current roster. Mann is a homegrown prospect, fan favorite, and franchise legend. Covington had a stellar half-season with LAC and just signed an extension… at the exact dollar amount that allows him to be traded this off-season without a waiting period. All of these guys would hurt to lose, but if the right deal came along you’d say a tearful goodbye.
- Expendable: Luke Kennard and Marcus Morris. Both of these guys have given the Clippers good play, but when you look at LAC’s extreme depth they’re the most expendable players who you could see other teams really wanting. Between Powell, Mann, and Coffey, Kennard is expendable as a backup wing, and Morris is the logical odd man out in the PF conversation with Covington and Batum.
- Assets/Sweetener: 2027 1st round swap, 2028 1st round, 2029 1st round swap, 2022 pick #43, 2023-2026 LAC 2nds, 2028-2029 LAC 2nds, Brandon Boston Jr. In addition to the future picks, Boston would be a nice acquisition for a rebuilding team that can invest minutes in his development.
- Filler: Jason Preston, Rodney Hood S&T, Xavier Moon S&T, TPEs. Preston seems unlikely to be traded since the Clippers like him as a prospect but he hasn’t actually performed on the court to garner interest around the league. The Clippers could technically use non-bird rights to S&T Hood or Moon to slightly above-minimum deals to help with salary matching, but it’s unlikely that those slim margins would make or break a deal. Their TPEs can’t be added together or added to player salaries to make trade math work, but they could use them to absorb smaller undesirable contracts from a trade partner to add value to their offer.
I’m not going to get too into the range of options for the Clippers here because it’s so wide-open. Almost any player could fit in a lineup built around Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and I could see anyone else moving to the bench if the right big name came in at their position. This gives LA’s front office the flexibility to go after the best player they can get on the trade market, almost regardless of position. One thing to keep in mind: targets essentially have to be players already under contract. Acquiring a signed-and-traded player places a hard cap on that team’s cap sheet for the year, and the Clippers are well over that threshold. It’s hard enough to see them cutting enough money to get under it, let alone getting far enough under it to then add a substantial new contract without passing it again.
2) Core Re-Signings
One of the downsides of having such a wide-open hunt for a talent upgrade on the trade market is not knowing what the ripple effects will be on the rest of the roster. However, after extending the contract of Robert Covington, I think that in pretty much any scenario the Clippers will also look to ensure that Nico Batum (player option) and Ivica Zubac (team option) are back on the team next year (unless they pick up Zubac’s option and/or extend his deal as part of the aforementioned big trade).
Batum is only due $3.3M on his player option for 2022-23 after taking a steep pay cut last summer to allow the Clippers to use their taxpayer mid-level exception elsewhere (Justise Winslow). It helps, of course, that he’s made over $160M so far and is still getting paid $9M by the Charlotte Hornets through next season, with that amount partially reduced if he gets a lucrative deal from a new team. It also probably helps that he struggled under the pressure and criticism of meeting the expectations of his massive contract and Charlotte, and that he would probably rather not be in a position to have his contract be a big expiring that the team might want to trade down the line. Either way, I’d expect him to decline his player option–with the Clippers having his early bird rights, they can now give him a contract starting at up to about $12M and running up to 4 years in length. I would guess that a compromise is in order: a multi-year deal in the 8-12M range that gives him financial security after the Charlotte checks stop coming. A reunion seems highly likely.
The Clippers have a team option for Ivica Zubac worth $7.5M next season, which gives them an abundance of options. They can always just pick up that option and worry about his next contract next summer, or they can negotiate an extension, or they can decline his option with a handshake deal for a larger, longer contract in place for when free agency opens. If he ends up being a part of a trade, they would have to pick up his option and flip it, with an extend-and-trade being unlikely due to financial constraints (he can only get a 5% raise, which he shouldn’t accept). Even if the Clippers acquire a big-name center via trade, declining Zubac’s option outright to let him walk in free agency seems unlikely. He would of course be a candidate to be a part of that trade, but if he wasn’t, it would be preferable to keep him as the backup and save the taxpayer mid-level (which is probably going to Isaiah Hartenstein) for another position.
3) Rotation Re-Signings
While I feel pretty sure that Batum will be back with the Clippers next season and Zubac will either be on the team or a part of a major trade package, the same can’t be said for LAC’s two rotation free agents who are a little lower on the priority list: Isaiah Hartenstein and Amir Coffey. Both had phenomenal seasons for the Clippers last year and there’s no reason to believe that a divorce is inevitable, but their departures are certainly possible.
Hartenstein was only with the Clippers for one year on a minimum-salary deal, severely limiting their options to retain him. The good news is that due to their robust depth, there should be no concern about using the taxpayer mid-level exception on a backup center (as long as backup C is still where the need lies, depending on how trades shift the depth chart). That deal would start at $6.4M and could last for up to 3 years with 5% raises for a total of just over $20M. To me, that seems like a perfectly reasonable deal. In fact, you could probably even keep Hart for a shade less and save a few bucks to give the 43rd overall pick a 3-year contract out of that taxpayer MLE. If Hartenstein does leave, whether it be for money, role, or another reason, that contract should be enough to give the Clippers a nice selection of alternative backup centers, a player pool that Robert Flom broke down recently.
Coffey is easier for the Clippers to retain, since he’s a restricted free agent with full bird rights, but perhaps harder to justify since he’s unlikely to be a top-10 rotation player for them next year and the luxury tax bill is mounting. It’s really going to depend what the market is for him around the league, and if teams are going to try to test Ballmer’s willingness to spend extra tax dollars on an 11th man. Sometimes, it works out where lower-caliber restricted free agents just get no interest around the league and re-sign on the cheap (see Montrezl Harrell a few years ago). Sometimes teams overpay to pry away a player they know a team doesn’t want to pay. For example, if the Clips can’t think their depth out via trade and Amir is going to be the 12th man next year, are they really going to match a 10M deal that will cost Ballmer another ~40M in luxury tax penalties? Lastly, sometimes teams try to get a guy while avoiding overpaying by negotiating a sign-and-trade and providing compensation to get around the right of first refusal. It would really be a bummer to lose Amir, but if the Clippers are stuck between letting him walk for nothing, paying $50M for an 11th man, and getting a couple 2nds via S&T, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them choose the latter.
4) The Fringes
Once that’s all settled, there honestly won’t be much to do. Current NBA roster rules state that you get 15 full-time NBA players plus 2 two-way contracts. If you operate under the baseline assumption that the Clippers don’t make a trade and re-sign/retain Batum, Zubac, Hartenstein, and Coffey, then whoever they select with the 43rd overall pick will take the 15th roster spot. They’re expected to keep Jay Scrubb around for a third two-way year, while Xavier Moon is a bigger question mark–one presumes that the now-healthy Jason Preston will get any and all spare PG minutes. The Clippers could look for someone at another position and/or younger than Moon, who is 27.
So, the “run it back” plan means the only changes to the Clippers’ roster this summer would be pick 43 replacing Rodney Hood and maybe a new undrafted free agent/g-league guy replacing Xavier Moon. Working backwards from that, you can figure the rest out: if they make a 2-for-1 trade and everything else goes according to plan, there will be one extra slot for a minimum salary guy; if they make a 2-for-1 trade and keep Batum/Zubac/Hartenstein but lose Coffey, there will be two, etc. But before zeroing in on targets for these depth spots, we need to know where in the depth chart they are after the dust settles from any trades.