Clippers coach Doc Rivers was excited about his newest player, a familiar face in Luc Mbah a Moute, as he walked around the court in Las Vegas last week.
Mbah a Moute, who played for the Clippers from 2015-17, was a valuable piece in the Rockets’ rotation last season, helping Houston finish with the top record in the NBA. A 6-foot-8 forward who can guard every position from point guard to center, Mbah a Moute also worked himself into a useful catch-and-shoot three-point shooter.
He’ll help the Clippers win games — which is why some people in that same gym as Rivers had to wonder just what the team was thinking.
The Clippers, having shed all the stars from their Lob City days, have put together a roster that could challenge for a playoff spot. But not everyone is convinced that’s their best strategy.
To figure out where the Clippers are headed, you need to think back to where they were on Feb. 18, 2016.
Knowing they weren’t good enough to beat the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers and Rivers, then the head of basketball operations, struck a deal with Memphis at the trade deadline.
Lance Stephenson would be sent along with a first-round pick to the Grizzlies for Jeff Green — a 6-foot-9 forward who was going to be the Clippers’ answer at a position that had been a weakness since they became contenders.
The pick, a first-rounder in 2019, probably wouldn’t be a good one, the Clippers thought at the time. After all, they had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
But just in case, they protected the selection if it fell between No. 1 and No. 14 for 2019 and 2020 before it turns into a second-round pick.
The trade didn’t work. The Clippers lost in the first round after Paul and Griffin both were injured, Green left that offseason, and now “in case” is here.
Without a true star, the Clippers probably will be headed back to the lottery, where the team can try to add another cost-controlled player to rebuild around.
But so far this summer, the Clippers have not acted like a team that’s rebuilding. By re-signing veteran guard Avery Bradley, whom the team acquired from Detroit in the Griffin trade, and adding Mbah a Moute, the Clippers have some strong defensive players on the perimeter.
Add veteran point guard Patrick Beverley, one of the best on-the-ball agitators in the NBA who’s returning from a season-ending injury, and the Clippers have the pieces needed to navigate a stacked Western Conference. Second-year guard Sindarius Thornwell and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also have potential to be above-average defenders.
The hope is the defense-minded players provide balance with scorers such as Lou Williams, Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari to keep the Clippers competitive in the short term without taking them out of the market for one or more superstar signings in the 2019 free-agency class. They have $55 million in expiring contracts.
Perhaps the Clippers believe a playoff berth would be more attractive to a player like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler or Boston’s Kyrie Irving, than another young player on the roster.
It’s a gamble — sacrificing first-round picks is never a good idea, particularly when the return is a few months of a player like Green — but it comes with a bit of a hedge.
If the Clippers’ health problems continue — and the history of players like Beverley, Gallinari and Bradley suggests they might — they have players who should be attractive to contenders at the trade deadline.
Beverley’s deal, at just more than $5 million a season, is one of the great bargains in the league if he can stay healthy. Williams has three years left on his deal, but each comes with a palatable $8-million price tag. And Bradley’s new deal is only partially guaranteed in 2019. Add in Mbah a Moute, and the Clippers might be able to flip a player or two for prospects or picks — assets they’d surely need to offer if they want to clear even more cap space next summer by dealing Gallinari, who will be owed $22.6 million.
Trading any of their new signings is not on the minds of anyone in the Clippers’ front office — at least that’s what they’ll say. The signals are they want to compete — extending Rivers’ contract, trading for veteran center Marcin Gortat, keeping Bradley and bringing back Mbah a Moute.
Their intentions, though, might not be good enough. The Clippers will be fighting with Denver, the LeBron James-led Lakers, Dallas and a healthier Memphis to crack the top eight in the West.
Try as the Clippers might to keep their seven-year streak of winning seasons alive with an eighth, it might not matter — not in a conference with the stacked Warriors, the on-the-verge Rockets, ascending Utah, and talented Oklahoma City.
Whether they mean to or not, whether they deal off players or hold tight, the Clippers probably will end up missing the playoffs and keeping their first-round pick.
And in the long term, that just might be what’s best.