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Clippers' big trade has brought them assets to build for the future, now or this summer

Clippers' big trade has brought them assets to build for the future, now or this summer
Tobias Harris averaged career bests of 20.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 43.4% three-point shooting this season, playing in all 55 games with the Clippers. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

When Tobias Harris made a fall-away jump shot with four seconds remaining Tuesday night in Charlotte, it broke the Clippers’ tie with the Hornets and kept Los Angeles one game ahead of Sacramento for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

This Clippers season was always viewed as one of transition, between its former star-laden era and the one it hoped to build beginning through free agency in 2019. Yet throughout three-plus months of this season, the Clippers had not only remained in the playoff picture but beaten some of the NBA’s best teams.

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Harris, as the team’s leading scorer and steady hand in the locker room, was central to why the team had defied many expectations and stayed afloat in the playoff race.

Five hours after Harris’ game-winning shot, the Clippers traded him and teammates Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philadelphia in exchange for sharpshooter Landry Shamet, center Mike Muscala, forward Wilson Chandler and four draft picks.

The trade with Philadelphia woke up the league — it was after 2 a.m. in Charlotte when news broke — and the Clippers might not be done yet. The team remains engaged in talks across the league ahead of the noon PST trade deadline on Thursday.

The impetus for the stunning move, even with the franchise on track for its eighth consecutive winning season, was because modest success in the short term is no longer the Clippers’ goal. Instead they aspire to “construct a sustainable, championship contender,” president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said in a statement.

Before teams can win NBA titles, they must first have multiple stars. The Clippers can open enough salary cap room to sign perhaps two players worthy of maximum-salary contracts this summer via free agency. But they didn’t have the flexibility to acquire a top star via trade because they didn’t possess nearly as many roster-building assets — particularly draft picks — to compete with the stockpiles of young players and picks other teams, such as the Lakers and Boston Celtics, have amassed.

The four draft picks received in the trade “will be important building blocks as we continue to carry out our long-term plan,” Frank said.

The Clippers will keep an additional first-round draft pick should they miss the playoffs this season. Otherwise, the pick belongs to Boston.

The trade came one day after Rich Paul, the agent of All-Star center Anthony Davis, informed New Orleans that Davis would be willing to sign a long-term contract with the Lakers, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks or Clippers. Whereas the Lakers and Celtics can use their war chests to entice New Orleans to trade them Davis, the Clippers were out of the running short of trading away every valuable player on the roster.

The Clippers’ trade with Philadelphia wasn’t done solely with acquiring Davis in mind — though it can’t be ruled out as a possibility. Primarily, it was done to have the Clippers prepared to move quickly the next time an All-Star who is still under contract elsewhere asks out and has eyes for Los Angeles.

Harris was averaging career highs in points, rebounds and three-point shooting, and might be playing his way into a maximum contract this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

The Clippers also saw an opportunity to sell high and flip him into two first-round draft picks, in 2020 and 2021 — the latter being unprotected, via Miami — and two second-round picks that come from Detroit. One concern was whether the Clippers could have re-signed Harris as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Harris could be offered a maximum contract elsewhere and the Clippers want to pursue Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Golden State’s Kevin Durant foremost in free agency.

In the short term, the trade is expected to leave the Clippers short-handed Thursday against Indiana. Because of the quick turnaround between the trade and the matchup with the Pacers, Shamet, Chandler and Muscala will likely join their new team Friday in Boston.

The 6-foot-9 Chandler is expected to miss several more games because of an injured quad. Shamet, a 6-5 guard from Wichita State who has made 40.4% of his three-pointers, has scored in double -figures off the bench 20 times. The 6-11 Muscala is averaging 7.4 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 34.2% on 4.2 three-point attempts a game.

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VS. INDIANA

When: 4 p.m. PST, Thursday

On Air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: Danilo Gallinari, who has missed the last 10 games because of back spasms, listed as questionable. Lou Williams scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of the victory over Charlotte on Tuesday and ranks fourth in the league by averaging 7.8 points in the fourth quarter. The Clippers (30-25) and Pacers (35-19) are playing for the first time this season.

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