The Way-Back Machine: What if the Clippers traded for Tyler Zeller?


When watching yesterday’s Clippers-Celtics game, I was reminded of something: at one point last season, the Clippers were in connection with then-Cleveland Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller around the trade deadline.

To be exact, the rumored deal was Zeller for small forward Reggie Bullock.

At the time, the deal made sense, at least for the Clippers: with the frontcourt reserves struggling, Tyler Zeller would’ve added much-needed stability behind DeAndre Jordan, replacing Ryan HollinsUnfortunately, the deal ‘hit a snag‘ and both Zeller and Bullock would remain with their respective teams for the remainder of the season.

But seeing the third year center in action today (Zeller finished with 16 points, 5 rebounds) made me wonder: what if the Clippers and Cavaliers had agreed to the deal?

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Busting Brackets

  • San Antonio Spurs: Three players who aren't likely to return in the 2020-21 seasonAir Alamo
  • Tyler Zeller looking to find his way again with San Antonio SpursAir Alamo
  • San Antonio Spurs: Why did newly-signed center Tyler Zeller fall out of the league?Air Alamo
  • Breaking: San Antonio Spurs sign free agent center Tyler Zeller to two-year contractAir Alamo
  • Los Angeles Lakers: 3 cost efficient options at center with DeMarcus Cousins outLake Show Life
  • Does Zeller’s presence change the Clippers’ fortunes in the playoffs? This is an unknown though reserve frontcourt play can be cited as one of the reasons why the Clippers lacked in comparison to other championship contenders.

    But the following summer? Zeller’s presence changes everything barring an unforeseen trade.

    Though Zeller was only a 6.9 point, 4.9 rebound performer through his first two seasons in the NBA, his potential to improve combined with a favorable contract ($1.7 million in ’14-15/$2.6 million in ’15-16/$3.6 million qualifying offer in ’16-17) would’ve made him the go-to candidate as backup center for the 2014-15 season. And because the backup center dilemma solved, there’s little reason for the Clippers to sign Spencer Hawes in the off-season (unless Rivers jumped off the deep end and believed Hawes could play full-time power forward).

    With no Hawes in the picture, this means the full mid-level exception is available for use. Though Darren Collison was out of the picture, the Clippers found who they believed to be the perfect replacement for him in Jordan Farmar, signed with the bi-annual exception. And with Jared Dudley (and the 2017 first-round pick) traded to Milwaukee for whatever reason, the only logical position to upgrade by use of the full MLE was the wing position.

    And awaiting in free agency? A scoring small forward from Los Angeles who had a prior relationship with Clippers head coach/team president Doc Rivers.

    By now you’ve guessed that small forward to be Paul Pierce, the player the Clippers should’ve signed this past summer instead of Hawes. But with Zeller in the picture, it’s hard to find a reason the Clippers and Paul, who signed for the full mid-level in Washington, don’t come to an agreement.

    In no way, shape or form is Pierce the player we fondly remember from his days with the Boston Celtics, but he proved last season with the Brooklyn Nets that he’s still capable of being a key player on a “contender”. Alongside Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Blake Griffin, the need to carry a team offensively doesn’t exist. Instead, Pierce would play the much-needed third-option wing creator this starting unit has needed the last two seasons, and spot-up shooter, feeding off of Paul’s and Griffin’s playmaking.

    Meanwhile, with Pierce in the starting lineup, the bench sees improvement as Matt Barnes is forced into a reserve role, preserving his energy and body going forward.

    Who knows what happens from there.

    On one end of the spectrum, having Crawford, Barnes, and Zeller lead off the bench isn’t a bad scenario, especially in comparison to the bench being currently led by the likes of Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, and Austin Rivers.

    And if the Clippers wanted to due to the added scoring presence of Paul Pierce, they could’ve taken advantage of Crawford’s early play and flipped the former Sixth Man of the Year at the trade deadline for defenders/shooters/depth without worry of the offense being unable to maintain itself.

    Does this bunch equate to a bonafide championship contender? It’s hard to tell given the nature of the Western Conference and top East contenders (CLE, ATL), but compared to the current version of the Clippers, this hypothetical team would be much better off.

    -steps out of wayback machine-

    Of course, the deal didn’t happen.

    Tyler Zeller is a Celtic.

    Reggie Bullock is a Sun.

    Paul Pierce is a Wizard.

    And Spencer Hawes, unfortunately, is a Clipper.

    It’s fun to dream though.