The Los Angeles Clippers have yet to enjoy the success they envisioned when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George returned to their Southern California roots in 2019. Despite having two complimentary superstars in the prime of their careers, they are one of only five teams to have never reached the NBA Finals, with serious injuries derailing each of their last three seasons.
To make matters worse, the Clippers started this season with a 3-7 record and both George and Leonard set to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was busy constructing a brand new, self-financed $2 billion stadium in Inglewood, California that will open at the beginning of next season, putting an end to the team getting third billing behind the L.A. Lakers, Kings, and concert events at Crypto.com Arena in downtown L.A.
With an already expensive team struggling and a new (even more expensive) stadium in tow, Ballmer and the Clippers front office had a decision to make: go all in on the present or keep an eye towards the future, maintaining the two-timeline approach that has become popular in today’s NBA as teams try to improve internally on the margins while holding onto whatever precious assets they still possess for the future.
The Clippers went the other way, trading control of what remained of their first-round picks until 2030 to the Philadelphia 76ers for the type of point guard they have long sought after: California native James Harden. The deal gave the Clippers the second-most expensive payroll in the league at just over $200 million and a luxury tax bill that projects to be $142 million to pay out at season’s end.
It was a risky bet on a much-maligned point guard with a history of playoff failures and trade requests — one who hasn’t stayed in the same place for two full seasons since his Houston tenure. But so far, the Harden trade looks to have not only been a smart bet for the Clippers, but one that other teams in similar positions can learn from.
“It makes it a lot easier on Kawhi and PG not to have to handle and make every play for themselves and for our team,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue tells SB Nation. “So, James has been great, just keeps everybody happy… takes a lot of grind off of PG and Kawhi.”
“Just all around offensively, you know, no weaknesses,” Lue adds. “I’m just glad to have him. Like I said, it makes my job easier. Makes PG and Kawhi’s job easier. And we have a long ways to go still, continue to keep getting better. But I like where we’re trending.”
The Clippers have the best record in the league since Harden got acclimated to his new environment a couple weeks after the trade, going 26-5 since Nov. 30, with the best offense and the 16th best defense during that time. They currently sit just 0.5 game back of the best record in the Western Conference, ahead of the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.
More importantly, the Clippers are getting All-Star caliber seasons from Leonard, George, and Harden — the three players they leveraged their future for. Plus, Russell Westbrook, who signed with the Clippers towards the end of last season and took the biggest paycut in NBA history to stay near his Southern Californian roots, has been the perfect sparkplug off the bench. All together, the Clippers might have the most talented team in the league, appearing to be true championship contenders for the first time since 2020.
“When you have a team with three Hall-of-Famers, when you add another Hall-of-Famer, it just becomes better, right?” Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic says. “[Harden’s] one of the best players in the league. And just in combination with Westbrook and Leonard and George, they have a team loaded with talent.”
The reason the Clippers were bold enough to leverage their entire future in the first place is Leonard, an MVP-caliber player who has led teams to championships in two different cities, with two Finals MVPs to his name. Leonard is having his healthiest and most efficient season of his career, playing in 43 of 47 games and averaging 24.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.6 stocks (steals+blocks) with a career-high true shooting percentage of 63.6 (for reference, his true shooting percentage during the Raptors’ playoff run was 61.9). He’s also shooting career-highs at the rim (78 percent) and from three (45 percent). After winning 15 of their previous 18 games on January 10th with Harden orchestrating the league’s best offense, Leonard rewarded the Clippers by signing an extension to stay in L.A. for at least three more seasons after this one.
And when you have that type of player, you go all in. That is the lesson of this Clippers’ season. And it’s one that teams that are trying to win on two-timelines but have the assets to similarly go all-in could learn from; teams like the 12th seed Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry, the fifth seed Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid, and even the Oklahoma City Thunder with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Of course, the Clippers might not win the title this season. Harden is still the guy who combined to score just 20 points and be -46 in his last two elimination games. George and Leonard are the same injury-prone guys who haven’t been able to get through a healthy playoff run since the 2020 NBA Bubble. And the Nuggets — who have had the Clippers name since that series — still own the West until proven otherwise.
Meanwhile, other examples of all-in teams like the Milwaukee Bucks — who traded away what remained of their first-round picks until 2031 to acquire Damian Lillard this offseason — haven’t looked nearly as good as the sum of their parts despite being 32-16. It’s not always as simple as go all-in and prosper.
But none of that matters. What matters is that the Clippers gave themselves a real shot; it’s that they boosted their championship odds. And while their future might be grim, their present is brighter than ever, entering the playoffs as one of the best — and most experienced — teams in the league.
“I think the big advantage [of our team] is when you get to the playoffs,” Lue says. “I think just having those guys that have been around, that have been through pretty much everything possible in the playoffs and have a lot experience, you can learn from it as well.”
“So, that’s the upside of when you’re an older team, a veteran team, is when can get to the playoffs, they’ve pretty much seen everything you can possibly see.”
“You don’t gotta rely on just one guy,” George adds. “We got so many that can finish games, create, score, defend and a bunch that aren’t afraid of the moment.”
The other benefit of going all-in is that everyone in the Clippers organization seems to be on the same page. In fact, everyone in the rotation is at least 26 and in the prime of their careers, with enough individual accolades to their names to stack several shelves. The only thing missing from the resume of Westbrook, George and Harden is a championship, making the Clippers uniquely suited to put their individual goals aside in the name of winning.
“We’re not a selfish group,” George says. “We all want to win. And I think in this part of our career and stage, winning is the only thing that matters. So no one is out here trying to get numbers. No one’s here trying or not trying to play the right way.”
“I think that’s the beauty in it all is that we’re right — everybody, the four of us… we’re right where we need to be, you know, in the perfect stages of our careers.”
Whereas in a two-timeline approach teams often have to combat the obstacles that come with having young players (sometimes literally) fight older players for touches and contracts, the Clippers are on the same page. And it helps that their four future Hall-of-Famers all grew up “an hour apart from one another” in Southern California, George says.
“We all know we’re here to represent.”