LA Clippers: A blueprint for rebuilding without tanking

LA Clippers (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
LA Clippers (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

With a few well-timed trades, the LA Clippers were able to flip one championship-contending roster into another without having to bottom out.

The “Lob City” era brought the LA Clippers the best stretch of basketball in the history of the franchise. The team was exciting, well-rounded, and gave the franchise their first ever division titles in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.

Despite their successes, the team was never able to reach the conference finals. They disappointingly lost three times in the opening round of the playoffs. Where many franchises may have looked to stay the course and ride their current team as far as it would take them, the Clippers took a hard look at their team, and took action to cut out sentimentality and rebuild before it was too late.

The decision turned the Clippers from one championship-contending team to another completely different championship-contending team in the course of just a few years. This is far quicker than it usually takes an NBA franchise to rebuild. They did it without having to hit rock bottom, tank, and rely on top lottery picks to reload their team.

Trust this process.

Of course, not all teams have the luxury to start a rebuild by unloading two superstar players with major value. But most teams in the Clippers’ position would tend to hold onto those players for dear life and try to rebuild around them rather than tearing it down and starting from scratch. It was a scary move. It took guts, and was admittedly a bit cold to some players (Blake Griffin was pitched by the team on being a Clipper for life just months before they traded him to Detroit), and fans who grew to love one of the most exciting teams the franchise ever put together.

But it worked. And the Clippers are in a better position to win a title two short years after the Lob City era ended. Here’s how they did it.

The first move of the rebuild came on June 28, 2017 when the Clippers traded Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets for Patrick BeverleySam DekkerMontrezl HarrellDarrun HilliardDeAndre LigginsLou WilliamsKyle Wiltjer, $661k cash and a 2018 1st round draft pick.

At the time, the massive haul was seen as a way to piece together what production they’d be losing from Paul with a few key pieces (scoring from Williams, defense and toughness from Beverley, versatility from the rest of the young assets in the trade.) What they ended up getting was a new identity.

Rarely does a trade in which a team gives up a superstar for many parts end up benefitting the team losing the superstar. This is one of the rare cases. The Clippers were able to get players who perfectly know and execute their roles with Beverley and Williams, and a hungry, unproven player eager to prove what he can offer a team in Montrezl Harrell. In his two-plus seasons in Los Angeles, Harrell has transformed into one of the best bench pieces in the entire NBA.

This trade helped set the tone for the Clippers we know today. The defensive-minded, team-oriented, versatile, deep roster featuring players who can guard multiple positions, and fit into their roles perfectly.

Next, on January 29, 2018 the Clippers traded Blake Griffin (with Brice Johnson and Willie Reed) to the Detroit Pistons for Avery BradleyTobias HarrisBoban Marjanović, a 2018 1st round draft pick.

At the time, the young, do-it-all forward Harris, as well as the defensive prowess of Bradley were seen as the best parts of the deal for Los Angeles (along with getting a crowd-pleasing, super-efficient big man in Marjanovic.) But it turns out this move was simply a table-setter for what would come next.

The Clippers would miss the playoffs for the 2017-18 season, finishing 10th in the Western Conference with a 42-20 record. They were a completely different team than a year before. But they weren’t done evolving yet.

On February 6, 2019, the Clippers were able to take advantage of the thirsty Philadelphia 76ers to trade Harris (and his soon-to-expire contract) with Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott to for Wilson ChandlerMike MuscalaLandry Shamet, a 2020 1st round draft pick, a 2021 1st round draft pick (from Miami), a 2021 2nd round draft pick (from Detroit) and a 2023 2nd round draft pick.

The move allowed the Clippers to unload Harris, who was not likely to re-sign with the team in the upcoming offseason, for a haul of draft picks (including a then-more-valuable seeming unprotected 2021 first round pick from the Heat) and they also got the promising, young sharpshooter Shamet in the middle of his surprisingly great rookie season.

The Sixers got their man in Harris, and the Clippers set themselves up nicely with assets and young role players for a future that looked bright.

Turns out that bright future was a lot closer than anyone thought at the time.

The young, upstart Clippers were able to sneak into the 2018-19 NBA playoffs as the eight seed with a record of 48-34. This is another point in the recent history of the franchise where other organizations might stay the course with the young players and future draft assets they held, but the Clippers had other plans.

With superstar Kawhi Leonard hitting free agency in the summer of 2019, there was a real chance the recent NBA Champion and Finals MVP could leave Toronto for Los Angeles. While the Clippers could have made an attempt to sign Leonard and add him to their collection of young players and future assets, Leonard wanted to play with another star. The Clippers made sure to go out and get one to be certain they landed their man.

On July 10, 2019, the Clippers returned to NBA Championship contention when they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded with the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire Paul George. The move cost them Danilo GallinariShai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 2021 1st round draft pick (from Miami), a 2022 1st round draft pick, a 2023 1st round draft pick, a 2023 (via pick-swap option), 1st round draft pick (from Miami), a 2024 1st round draft pick, a 2025 1st round draft pick (via pick-swap option), and a 2026 1st round draft pick.

The Clipper we now know and love were formed.

dark. Next. LA Clippers: Evaluating players with 2020 expiring contracts

Being able to see a few steps down the line is a useful skill in any area of life. The longview is often cited by rebuilding teams who are taking the slow, methodical approach adding players through the draft and free agency in hopes to content. With their moves to tear down and rebuild a team that from the outside looked like it could still contend for a title, the Clippers showed that the longview doesn’t need to only be applied when a team is at their bottom, and may be best used when their head is still above water.