Like the other seven teams still in title contention, it’s impossible to imagine the L.A. Clippers thinking about anything beyond their upcoming second-round series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
The rest of the NBA world, meanwhile, continues to turn, and franchises that either didn’t make the postseason in the first place or were vanquished in the first round are busy trying to suss out what went wrong and how to better themselves in the offseason.
Naturally, some of this planning involves the Clippers, detached though they may be, and on Saturday CNBC’s Jabari Young reported that an unnamed Western Conference executive had “floated” the idea of the Clippers trading star forward Paul George to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for 29-year-old shooting guard CJ McCollum.
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But the Blazers, smarting from their latest first-round playoff thud against Denver, are desperate to keep superstar point guard Damian Lillard happy — in Portland — and doing so may require bringing in an elite talent like George. That puts McCollum on the hot seat, perhaps.
While the 6-foot-3 born scorer is certainly no slouch (he’s averaged 20-plus points for six straight seasons), he’s less dynamic than George on both ends of the floor, and is one of the more tradable assets in Portland’s quest to keep Lillard’s toes tapping. Last week, the Blazers and eight-year head coach Terry Stotts agreed to part ways in the first of what could be many moves this summer.
Young’s article is short on specifics when it comes to a McCollum-George swap, but it’s not the first time they’ve been mentioned together in trade rumors.
Trade Scenarios Benefit Both Teams
In late May, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley considered a six-player trade that would move George, Ivica Zubac and Luke Kennard to Portland for McCollum, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic, plus a first-round pick.
While Buckley acknowledged that no other player in the deal can touch George from an individual standpoint, he believes the cumulative value to L.A.’s offense could be considerable, and that they would still have plenty of defensive stopping power on the wings.
The Clippers collectively improve their shot-creation and playmaking around Leonard with McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Even if neither matches up to George individually, together they could offer more offensive relief to (Kawhi) Leonard and help get the ball moving. L.A. would miss George on defense, but it could still blanket opposing wings with Leonard, Robert Covington and Marcus Morris Sr., plus it would have Nurkic as insurance on the back line.
From the Blazers’ perspective, Buckley rightly believes that George would improve Portland’s defense overnight, and that the 6-foot-8 wing would make the potential loss of Norman Powell to free agency an easier pill to swallow. Obviously, a George-Lillard backcourt would be one of the most feared in the league. Kennard could do his thing from three and be a floor spacer in the second unit, with Zubac presumably tag-teaming with Enes Kanter or Zach Collins at center to more or less fill Nurkic’s shoes.
Another trade scenario involving some of the same key players was postulated by Sportsnaut’s Vincent Frank on June 6, and has George and second-year guard Terance Mann going to Portland for McCollum and Nurkic.
Both teams would reap many of the same benefits as described in Buckley’s more player-heavy deal, except that here, without Covington, the Clippers would not immediately replenish their wing defense. The Clippers would also be forced to part ways, perhaps prematurely, with Mann, whose star is still rising. If the Clippers trade the explosive Mann, and he eventually adds reliable 3-point range, they will rue the day.
A Lot May Need to Happen
While Frank is quick to concede that a trade between Western Conference rivals “may not make a lot of sense,” Buckley majorly caveated his scenario by saying that it’s only possible if:
1. Both teams lose in the first round, thereby creating a demand for major roster changes
2. Kawhi Leonard, who will almost certainly decline his player option and become a free agent this offseason, sticks around and gives his blessing to a George trade, and
3. Lillard’s feud with George is truly water under the bridge
Obviously, the first one is not going to happen, with the Clippers already moving onto the second round, but they sure did make things interesting getting down 0-2 to the Mavs. And calls for major changes could still happen if the Clippers lose to the Jazz in a resounding way, or worse, collapse similar to last season’s Nuggets nightmare.
It does seem likely Kawhi will stay put (the So Cal native has expressed a desire to stay close to home) but giving his blessing to a George trade could be asking a lot, especially since Leonard only agreed to sign with L.A., in the summer of 2019, after a trade was made to acquire George.
The Lillard-George feud, which dates back to George’s days in OKC and was still alive and well as recently as last offseason, seems to be squashed as both guys played nice at this year’s All-Star break.
That said, last week The Athletic’s Jason Quick and Shams Charania reported that an unnamed Clipper openly mocked Lillard during a game in April, not-so-quietly suggesting to the point guard that his coach (Stotts) didn’t have the ability to make in-game adjustments.
“According to two sources, Lillard was taunted throughout the game by a Clippers player, who mocked that the Blazers didn’t have a coach who could adjust to the Clippers’ trapping defense on Lillard. The Blazers were stifled 133-116 in that game while Lillard was held to 11 points on 2-of-14 shooting,” Quick and Charania wrote.
All in, a George-McCollum trade is a long shot, but it’ll be hard to say exactly how improbable until after the Clippers’ current playoff run.