What’s next for the Clippers?
The LA Clippers are in basketball limbo right now.
Following the news break of Kawhi Leonard’s successful ACL repair surgery, fans and critics began to speculate about what the team should do for this upcoming 2021–22 season. Truthfully nobody really knows, seeing as the Clippers front office is notorious for keeping things (extremely) close to their chest. It’s still worthwhile to consider possible options though, so here we go.
Option 1: Running it back, and nailing the draft.
The Clippers were able to finish off the Jazz and take 2 games from the Suns without Kawhi (and if it weren’t for some missed free throws and some ice cold shooting, they could very well be the ones facing off against the Bucks in the finals right now). For the 2020–21 season, they were 11–9 without him on the floor. Not great, but one could argue that could be due to the team not being prepared for his absence and being thrust into that situation on short notice, and with months of preparation they would be better.
The team will only possibly be losing Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum, and even then there is a very good likelihood that one of the two stays. Which one? No idea. But it seems like Reggie is very loyal to the team, so I would personally expect the team to use their remaining cap space to give him a deal somewhere in the $7–10M yearly range. Losing Batum would sting, but there are plenty of guards on the market who can do almost or as good a job as Nico did in his role. Serge Ibaka has a player option, but will almost certainly opt in due to his back injury.
The team also has a first round pick this year, at #25. Nailing this year’s pick will be crucial (if they keep it, which we will get into shortly). The 2021 draft class is one of the best in years, so there is plenty of talent to be had, even in the late first round. LAC hasn’t had the best resume of draft choices over the past decade or so, so it will be crucial this season to find someone that can provide valuable minutes and contribute.
This strategy would essentially be to stay afloat in the west until Kawhi can (maybe) come back at the end of the season in time for the playoffs. Kawhi’s particular ACL injury takes around 4–6 months to heal, but one would expect Kawhi to take a little more precaution with a leg injury considering his history. 6 months would be January, but I would expect him back in 8 months at the earliest, so around March-April at the best case scenario. Is Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Terance Mann, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac enough to secure a playoff spot in the west? Possibly. It’s definitely enough for the play-in, which will make the team take a look at this option, if nothing else.
Option 2: Get active on the trade market.
There’s no guarantee that running it back will be good enough for the playoffs, and unpredictable injury issues could ruin an already shorthanded roster. This offseason will likely see more trade market movement than free agency moves, which gives the Clippers another avenue to explore options to handle this Kawhi-less year.
Lonzo Ball has been a name linked to the Clippers for 2 years now, but how would a deal get done? The team does not have enough cap space to offer Lonzo the deal he seems to be looking for, but a Sign and Trade could be done to make it happen. A Sign and Trade would most likely cost the team at least one of Pat Bev/Kennard/Mann and the 25th pick. Is that asking price worth it for a pretty one dimensional Lonzo? With a better version of him in Terance Mann already on the roster, making $1.4M a year for the next 2 years? Probably not, but expect the team to look into this, and where there’s smoke, theres fire.
Kemba Walker is another name that reporters seem to hear discussed in trade deals, with LAC as a potential suitor. Does this make sense though? Walker is currently on a max deal, with 2 years left. The team would have to be willing to part with 2 of Beverley/Kennard/Morris, plus giving the 25th pick and some 2nd rounders to notorious draft pick addict Sam Presti. Walker is aging, with a knee cartilage issue, and can’t defend. Would he be a good third star for the team? That answer is probably yes, but not if the team needs to gut the roster depth to add him. If Kemba is bought out though, expect the Clippers to pursue him heavily.
Option 3: Play the free agency market
This coming free agency class isn’t the best, but it isn’t a talent desert. There are some viable options to help bolster the roster, assuming they let Reggie Jackson and Nico Batum walk, and it will be worth it for the team to sniff around and look into things.
The best name that is within the reach of LAC in this FA class is probably Spencer Dinwiddie (who, ironically, is coming off the same injury that Kawhi just suffered). Dinwiddie is a very solid starting point guard, and will help the team with some extra rim attacking and playmaking, and is also a good defender at his position. Dinwiddie was also seen at Game 6 of the WCF, so there could be some mutual interest between Dinwiddie and the team. Only time will tell, but if the team is to let Reggie go, Dinwiddie would be a good fit and provide another dimension to the offense.
If the team is looking for wing depth, this free agent class has plenty of options. Among others; Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter, Will Barton, and Derrick Jones Jr. are all feasible options, and will help the team deal with what could be a severe lack of wing players this season.
If Serge Ibaka opts out, the team will need to find a backup big as well. Richaun Holmes, Nerlens Noel, Robin Lopez, Trey Lyles, and Jeff Green are all quality rotation guys at the 4 and 5 spots, and I would fully expect the Clips to end up with one of these names if Serge does walk. He probably won’t, but it’s good for the team to do their due diligence anyways.
I’m not going to entertain the Paul George trade hypothesis, because that just isn’t happening. I don’t feel the need to explain why either, it’s seriously that stupid.
The Clippers are in uncharted waters here. There’s plenty of options, with no real right answer. Are there some that make more sense than others? Sure, but basketball is a fickle game, and nothing is for sure. Lawrence Frank and friends have some difficult choices to make, and all we can do is hope they make the right one.