Clippers look to make a deal for Harden or Lillard

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
The Clippers are returning Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook next season but want to add one more star.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have not proven they can stay healthy. The Clippers have stressed optimism, however, that they can recover from their injuries and still win an NBA championship together. That success also depends on another factor the Clippers have hoped to address this offseason.

“We’re trying to maximize these two and figure out ways that we can get better,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers president of basketball operations, told reporters.

Within the first three days of free agency, the Clippers have tried to reach that goal with two approaches.

They retained some of their core players. They kept a star point guard that Leonard and George advocated for following the trade deadline. The Clippers retained Russell Westbrook, who accepted a two-year, $8 million deal partly because he appreciated how the Clippers helped rejuvenate his career after 1 ½ seasons of turbulence with the Lakers. As ESPN reported, the Clippers agreed to re-sign Mason Plumlee on a one-year, $5 million deal,  a candidate the Clippers as a viable backup center to complement Ivica Zubac.

The Clippers have also tried to inject more youth. The Clippers dealt two future second-round picks (2026, 2027) to the Houston Rockets for forward K.J. Martin, an aggressive and athletic scorer that also starred at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon.

Will the Clippers soon take a third approach? That could involve either acquiring a star point guard from Philadelphia (James Harden) or Portland (Damian Lillard), both of whom have told their respective teams directly to trade them.

No doubt, the Clippers have become an opportunistic team that seeks to make big moves under owner Steve Ballmer. But both Sixers and Blazers officials have said their teams will entertain plenty of various trade proposals before narrowing on one. Both the Sixers and Blazers have indicated they are comfortable with either trading their respective star players immediately or holding off even until next season before accepting a potential deal. Both teams may even ignore their star players’ demands and keep them.

Nonetheless, those around the league anticipate any deal would involve at least three teams to help facilitate the possible transfer of role players, expiring contracts and draft picks. In the Clippers’ case, it seems understandable they would consider making a big move. After Leonard and George failed to win an NBA title their first four seasons amid overlapping injuries, the Clippers want to exhaust every option with helping their chances to win an NBA title. After all, both Leonard and George could decline their player option at the end of the 2023-24 season. The Clippers also enter their last season at Arena before moving into Intuit Dome, its privately financed arena scheduled to open in Inglewood for the 2024-25 campaign.  The Clippers could assuage concerns about their star players’ future and moving into their new arena with NBA championship buzz.

Either Lillard or Harden would thrust the Clippers back into title contention. Both are dynamic point guards that show nearly unlimited range, can create their own shot and playmake for others. They could substantially ease Leonard and George’s workload. They could help the Clippers absorb any potential absence Leonard and George with potentially future ailments.

Time will tell if the Blazers or Sixers like the Clippers’ offer. The Clippers have at least prepared for this scenario. With the Clippers boasting a logjam of forwards, they could dangle some of those players as assets to balance the roster. They tried shipping power forward Marcus Morris Sr. and guard/wing Amir Coffey to Boston for Malcolm Brogdon before talks eventually stalled amid concerns about Brogdon’s health. Perhaps the Clippers can include Morris and Coffey as part of a future deal. The Clippers also declined to guarantee Eric Gordon’s $21 million contact because the move saved the team over $100 million in luxury taxes and eased a pathway into making a big trade.

Nonetheless, either move also yields significant risk.

While Leonard and George have struggled with staying durable in recent seasons, so have Harden and Lillard. Harden missed only a combined 16 regular-season games for five consecutive seasons (2019-20), but he still wore down in the playoffs. After sitting in Brookyln’s 21 of its 24 final regular-season games with a strained right hamstring in the 2020-21 season, Harden missed Games 2 through 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee. He only played 58 games this season in Philadelphia amid overlapping ailments to his right foot and left Achilles. As for Lillard? After missing 53 games in the 2021-22 season before and after having surgery to treat a lingering abdominal injury, Lillard sat another 24 games in 2022-23 because of a right calf ailment. How could the Clippers depend on Harden or Lillard to mitigate any potential absence that Leonard and George face when they also have struggled with staying available?

The Clippers may still take that risk because of their talent. Their presence alone, however, could cause disruptions.

Both Lillard and Harden thrive the most when they are the primary scorer and playmaker. That would change with Leonard, George and Westbrook still on the team. Perhaps Harden can adjust because of his familiarity with Westbrook both in Oklahoma City (2009-12) and Houston (2019-20). When both were the primary stars in Houston, they shared ball handling duties and played at varying tempos to complement each other. Yet, Harden and Westbrook eventually experienced tension when both wanted the ball in crunch time.  Perhaps Lillard will accept the reduced role after lacking enough help in Portland. Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that all parties will experience tactical adjustments regardless of the right intentions.

While the Clippers weigh those dynamics, they at least addressed their roster on the margins.

The Clippers could only offer a $3.8 million exception to Westbrook because of their heavy payroll. Nonetheless, Westbrook accepted the offer for reasons beyond depressed market interest. The Clippers accommodated him with a starting role and used their deep roster to put him in positions to succeed. Despite his strengths (athleticism, competitiveness) and weaknesses (shooting, turnovers), Westbrook has stayed consistently durable during his 15-year NBA career. The Clippers may not be able to count on Leonard and George to stay healthy, but they sure can count on Westbrook to do so.

Martin has struggled with making 3s consistently during his three-year NBA career (31.5% last season). Yet, Martin is an athletic wing that can attack the rim and defend at multiple positions. For better and for worse, the Clippers have plenty of those players on the roster. Nonetheless, the Clippers can benefit in today’s NBA with having positional versatility and speed. That sets the Clippers up well either to lean on their depth or trim at least some of it in hopes for another proven player.

It made sense for the Clippers to retain Plumlee. Though the Clippers have prided themselves on having wing-heavy lineups, they still want to have traditional lineups with effective rim protectors and passers to mitigate the league’s elite centers (Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid).  

As for Leonard and George, the Clippers remain bullish they will finally become healthier next season. That might seem naïve considering their extensive injury history, but the Clippers have pointed out the context of their recent ailments. George missed the Clippers’ final nine regular-season games and first-round loss to Phoenix because he sprained his right knee after colliding into Oklahoma City forward Lu Dort. Frank said George would have returned had the Clippers stayed in the playoffs through May.  After missing Games 3 through 5 with a torn meniscus in his right knee, Leonard had what Frank called a “clean-up procedure” in early June that will require only eight weeks of recovery. Once the season starts, Lawrence said he “a hundred percent” expects Leonard to participate in training camp without any restrictions.

By that point, the Clippers will also have clarity on if their NBA title fortunes depend on another star or plenty of depth to complement Leonard and George.

Mark Medina covers the Clippers for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.