On that unpredictable April night in Oakland, Landry Shamet sprinted toward his bench, three fingers extended.
The rookie Clipper guard’s three-pointer had just pushed his team, once down 31 points, ahead by two. Fifteen seconds later, when Game 2 of the 2019 playoff series was over, and top-seeded Golden State fell victim to the largest comeback in postseason history, Clippers center Montrezl Harrell bounded toward midcourt, pounding his chest with both hands.
A few months later, a gift from the team arrived for Shamet: The Clippers enlarged a photo of his go-ahead shot to poster size and sent it to their rookie guard as a keepsake.
The gift was meant to freeze in time an unforgettable postseason moment for a franchise with few of them. Now it serves as a reminder that in the NBA, things tend to change quickly.
Nineteen months after the comeback, in their attempt to construct a championship-worthy roster, the Clippers have overhauled nearly the entire coaching staff and, last week, began moving on from the memory of that Golden State playoff series. Last week, the team traded Shamet to Brooklyn and saw Harrell leave in free agency to the Lakers. Harrell told reporters Monday that his decision to leave came after sensing he was no longer wanted by his former team.
Three days into free agency, the Clippers have bolstered their rotation by agreeing to re-sign forwards Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson, luring respected big man Serge Ibaka away from Toronto and Trading for guard Luke Kennard. Yet, with the Lakers loading up to defend their championship and other Western Conference rivals making substantial moves to challenge, too, numerous league observers believe the Clippers are far from done in revamping their roster as they mount another attempt at winning the franchise’s first NBA title.
With free agency nearly picked over, the Clippers’ best chance to land a playmaking point guard, impactful backup wing or a backup, floor-spacing big man could require going the trade route. By virtue of the Clippers’ limited financial flexibility and dearth of future draft picks, their most valuable assets could be some of the final remaining members of the 2019 roster: starting center Ivica Zubac, starting guard Patrick Beverley and reserve guard Lou Williams. Finding upgrades for any, however, could require luck, timing and a suitor valuing any as much as the Clippers do.
Of the three, one rival executive said that Zubac, a 23-year-old 7-footer, “has the most value because he’s a true big man and he’s still young,” with time to continue developing.
Zubac has three years left on a contract that pays $7 million annually and averaged 9.1 points and 7.2 rebounds while allowing 56% shooting inside six feet in the playoffs. To the extent other teams have inquired about Zubac at all, it’s likely the Clippers would be reluctant to consider such a request after his breakout postseason performance revealed a trustworthy rim protector and rebounder with good hands and nimble feet.
A second executive said that any trade involving Zubac probably would return a solid player on a similar contract, but likely not much draft capital beyond a second-round pick.
Upgrading the backcourt has been a focus of the team’s offseason after off-guards and wings shouldered the majority of the offensive playmaking last season. Williams, the top-scoring reserve in league history, could be valuable for playoff-bound teams because of his instant offense, a third executive said.
Williams, 34, is in the final year of a contract that pays $8 million annually, and expiring contracts are attractive for teams wanting to create salary-cap space the following offseason. Yet one person cautioned that the combination of his 39% career shooting in the postseason — three percentage points lower than his career average — defensive shortcomings and age could drive down his value.
“He can still score, but his age is against him,” the executive said.
As a 38% three-point shooter for his career and a three-time all-defense selection, Beverley remains a key piece of a starting lineup that outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions in the postseason. When Beverley was off the floor in last year’s regular season, the Clippers were worse offensively and defensively, though those numbers flipped in the postseason, when he battled a calf injury. His pestering defense against Golden State’s Kevin Durant in their 2019 playoff series typified his unrelenting style.
Yet each executive said Beverley would prove most difficult to get value from in any potential trade because of inconsistent health and a contract that will pay him $27 million over the next two seasons. That contract, one executive said, was a “negative” that could require the Clippers to attach draft picks in any deal.
The NBA has yet to announce the upcoming season’s trade deadline. All that is certain is contenders will survey all possibilities to get better. Harrell said as much Monday, in a nod to his now-former team.
“If you’re not one of the top-tier players in our league, which we all know who those players are, everybody is expendable,” Harrell said.
Staff writer Dan Woike contributed reporting.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.