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Los Angeles Clippers transform into genuine NBA title contenders

Mark Deeks - @MarkDeeksNBA

Monday 8 July 2019 06:21, UK

Kawhi Leonard is guarded by Paul George in a Raptors-Thunder regular season game
Image: Kawhi Leonard is guarded by Paul George in a Raptors-Thunder regular season game

A series of value-maximising moves have enabled the Los Angeles Clippers to transform into NBA title contenders with the stunning acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.

All three of the superstars that LeBron James has tried to recruit to the Los Angeles Lakers have ultimately come to Los Angeles. It's just that two of them have gone to the other team.

Team-by-team signings

Team-by-team signings

Who signed where in NBA free agency?

In signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers have reportedly just pulled off the biggest heist of the offseason. They acquired two of the NBA's absolute very best two-way players, including the man who was just the best player on a title-winning team, and now have a duo as good as any other in the NBA, if not better. Little brother just grew up.

The Clippers' previous incarnation - the Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan teams that threatened competitiveness on paper, but which could never put together any deep and meaningful playoff runs - has been systematically dismantled without a rebuild. Although Jordan was allowed to leave as a free agent with no returning assets, both Paul and Griffin were traded close enough to their prime years that the Clippers could garner plenty of useful pieces in return.

Free agency and trade tracker

Free agency and trade tracker

Which players have moved where in NBA free agency?

Paul went first, traded to the Houston Rockets in exchange for a package that included Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and a 2018 first-round draft pick (one subsequently moved to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Danilo Gallinari). Griffin went second, moved to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, another 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick.

Williams, Beverley and Harrell remain with the team, and will serve as an excellent trio of role players for Leonard and George to pair with. The rest garnered even more value.

Danilo Gallinari soars for an uncontested dunk in Game 2
Image: Danilo Gallinari soars for an uncontested dunk

Gallinari put up a career-best season before being moved to the Thunder as the salary part of the George deal. The 2018 first-round pick yielded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and two extra future seconds, with Gilgeous-Alexander being another important outgoing piece in the George trade.

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Harris and Marjanovic were moved to the Philadelphia 76ers at the February trade deadline in exchange for Landry Shamet (himself another core role-playing piece), expiring contracts and four draft picks. One of those expiring contracts belongs to Mike Muscala, whom the Clippers were inexplicably able to trade to the Lakers at the same deadline in exchange for Ivica Zubac, another quality young piece they have subsequently retained this summer.

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Even Avery Bradley, despite a career-worst 12 months of actually playing on the court for the team, was able to be moved to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for the useful contributions of Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green.

It has been a clinic in the extraction of value, and in the value of the reload over the rebuild.

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In a post-Sam Hinkie world that introduced the concept of 'The Process' to the NBA team-building narrative, ideas of how to build competitive teams have become overly polarized.

There is a 'championship-or-bust' mentality, at least among the commentariat, which is giving rise to a way of thinking in which if a team is not picking at the top of the Draft, or if it does not have at least one superstar with the requisite talent around him, then they are wasting time. As recently as 12 months ago, this is exactly where the Clippers were. And yet look at them now.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in regular season action for Boston and Golden State
Image: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in regular season action for Boston and Golden State

The other franchise to have acquired two superstars this offseason is the Brooklyn Nets. They were able to sign both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant earlier in free agency, and in our earlier look at the journey they went on to get to a position where they were able to do so, we explored how they were able to maximise value, play competitively on the court, leverage the big market draw with the underdog spirit of being the second franchise in their respective city, consistently acquire talent without premium assets, and built themselves a core of pieces worth plugging into.

Nets reap rewards in free agency

Nets reap rewards in free agency

Brooklyn's patient progress yields Irving and Durant

The Clippers have done much the same. It is true to say that they started with more, being able to trade away Paul and Griffin in their reload whereas the Nets only had Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young to work with, yet this only meant that their time frame has been shorter and that they never hit the low points that Brooklyn did.

Indeed, the long time joke franchise that made the playoffs only four times in 35 seasons between 1976 and 2011, with only one series victory to show for it, has not dipped under 40 wins since. Even in their sole lottery season over that span, they were able to win 42 games.

The Clippers of the past are no more. These are the new Clippers, and as of yesterday, they now have the pieces in place to be a genuine title contender.

Kawhi Leonard celebrates with the Larry O'Brien trophy
Image: Kawhi Leonard celebrates with the Larry O'Brien trophy

Leonard proved last season that he does not need an elite second wheel to be a champion. Between Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, the title-winning Toronto Raptors certainly had a very strong supporting cast, with good options at every position and important contributions from Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet.

But no one in that list is particularly close to George, one of the NBA's very best defenders who also just had an elite offensive season.

Paul George rams home a dunk against the Denver Nuggets
Image: Paul George rams home a dunk against the Denver Nuggets

With Kawhi and PG13, the Clippers now have two of the league's genuine greats to lead the line on both ends.

Between Williams, Shamet, Harrell and Beverley, they also have four of the league's very best role players. Beverley is as good of a lead guard defender as there is, Williams is as good of a bench scorer as there is, Shamet has shown in his one NBA season that he is an excellent and high IQ shooting combo guard, and Harrell has broken out to be an excellent small-ball center, rebounder, athlete and post-up presence.

Electric reserves Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in action for the Los Angeles Clippers
Image: Electric reserves Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in action for the Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers will now be able to offer crunch-time lineups featuring any five of those six, with further contributions from Zubac, the recently acquired Mo Harkless and the very solid Rodney McGruder. There is youth to be had in the forms of Shamet, last year's first-round pick Jerome Robinson and this year's first-round pick Mfiondu Kabengele.

The Clippers were able to reload and build a competitor as quickly and emphatically as they have by combining promise in their future with a decent baseline level of competitiveness, a tough-out team with upside and flexibility, with no bad contracts, an owner willing to spend and an intriguing underdog billing.

The Bulls big three of Jordan, Rodman and Pippen pictured in the 1998 NBA Finals
Image: The Bulls big three of Jordan, Rodman and Pippen pictured in the 1998 NBA Finals

They still have all that, except now with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to boot.

If that core sounds a little bit like having Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr et al of the all-conquering mid-1990s Chicago Bulls, it is meant to.

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