A blockbuster trade in 2019 would intertwine the Thunder and Clippers. LA’s title hopes have yet to materialize, but they continue to go all-in. Meanwhile, OKC has rebuilt and holds key pieces of LAC’s future.
The time is now for the Clippers.
Technically, this has been true ever since the summer of 2019 when the Clippers shook the league by trading for Paul George and signing Kawhi Leonard. It was a bold and costly attempt to counter the Lakers’ LeBron James-Anthony Davis pairing. It also prevented Leonard from joining that duo.
Fast forward four years and the Steve Ballmer-owned franchise is still seeking the big payoff to the trade that revamped the Clippers and kick-started a Thunder rebuild. The two teams who will be connected for years to come face off again Tuesday night in Los Angeles (9 p.m. TNT).
Keeping up with the Lakers
The Clippers have tried for years to separate themselves from the legendary Lakers across the hallway of Crypto.com Arena. That was less of a concern under the ownership of Donald T. Sterling, who was banned for life in 2014 after a tape of his racist comments was released. Sterling was merely satisfied to own an NBA franchise, operate it as inexpensively as possible, and prioritize profits over wins.
Ballmer, the Microsoft mogul who is the living embodiment of competitiveness and passion, took ownership of the franchise toward the end of the Lob City era of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. All three would be gone by January 2018, launching a retool (but not a full rebuild).
Having a net worth greater than the GDP of Armenia doesn’t mean you can just go out and get the players you want. LA had to plan with rigid salary cap rules designed to limit owners with nearly unlimited spending power.
The Clippers morphed from one of the Western Conference’s best teams to a scrappy bunch that played over its head, winning 48 games with the likes of Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Motrezl Harrell, and a rookie by the name of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
When the opportunity arose to acquire Leonard, the Clippers pounced. Leonard would only sign up if LA also acquired George from the Thunder, creating a unique scenario for OKC. The Thunder would essentially be trading a player they had no rights to. With leverage firmly on Oklahoma City’s side, it extracted Gallinari, SGA, five future unprotected first-round picks and multiple pick swaps from LA.
Injuries derail title hopes
Unfortunately, this era of Clippers basketball is not known for lobs and dunks, nor for punching above its weight. Injuries to Leonard and George play a significant role in the team’s lack of playoff success. As does ineptitude.
LA blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference semifinals, held at the Disney Bubble. The Clippers made the Western Conference Finals the next season and lost Leonard to a torn ACL during that run.
The injury would cost Leonard the entire 2021-22 season. George played in only 31 games that season as well, and the Clippers sank to the 8th seed. Two straight play-in losses sent LA to the lottery, a selection that ended up delivering Jalen Williams to the Thunder.
Despite all of this, the Clippers had at least one prominent local admirer.
“I think the Clippers have probably the best roster in basketball,” Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said during an April 2022 media availability, “and probably will win a title maybe multiple times in the next couple years.”
The Clippers and Thunder became even more intertwined when LA signed Russell Westbrook, the one-time face of the OKC franchise, late in the 2022-23 season. However, George suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Thunder, landing awkwardly after Lu Dort contested one of his shots. The Clippers made the playoffs, but Leonard suffered another knee injury in game 2 of LA’s first-round series against Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns.
A title would have to wait.
Full speed ahead
With so much invested and so little to show, LA decided to push in even more. James Harden, yet another link to OKC’s past, forced a trade from Philadelphia to the Clippers in early November.
In an almost comical twist, the Thunder helped facilitate the deal.
The initial fit was far from seamless, but the pieces are starting to click. LA enters Tuesday night’s game 11-4 in its last 15 games and a league-best 124.8 offensive rating over that stretch. Leonard signed an extension last week and George could be next. The Clippers still have some tradeable contracts and some draft assets available if they need to shore up other areas, particularly on the defensive end.
The Clippers’ future is in the Thunder’s hands
While the Clippers and Thunder compete against each other tonight and this season, OKC holds LA’s future. Via both the George and Harden trades, the Thunder have the rights to the Clippers’ first-round picks from 2024 through 2027. Oklahoma City owns LA’s unprotected first-rounders in 2024 and 2026 and the right to swap picks in 2025 and 2027.
At least one of those picks should deliver a juicy selection just as OKC needs highly talented players on rookie-scale contracts. Or perhaps one or more of those picks becomes valuable in a future blockbuster trade.