Second-year guard Terance Mann has become a legitimate asset on both ends of the floor, as has center Ivica Zubac — the two combining for an average of 26 points and 16.3 rebounds over the last five games, with Zubac chipping in 2.2 blocks. This, of course, is in addition to the usual offensive production and defensive stopping power of superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
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But anyone who knows the history of the Clippers — in a nutshell: 51 seasons, 0 championships — understands that the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” probably won’t do. Which is why, on Thursday, just before the trade deadline, LA’s president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank traded Lou Williams (and two second-round draft picks) to the Atlanta Hawks for two-time NBA champion Rajon Rondo.
The Good, the Bad and the Rondo
The move was a heartbreaker for much of Clippers Nation. Williams, drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2006 straight out of high school, had been a fan-favorite ever since his arrival in 2017, and the three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year was still an effective threat off the Clippers bench, averaging 12.1 points and 3.4 assists in just under 22 minutes of floor time. (Williams tallied his 15,000th career point the night before the trade.)
Even Frank, who obviously made the deal happen in the first place, expressed some level of sorrow when talking to reporters before Saturday’s matchup against the 76ers.
“Lou can keep playing until he’s 40,” Frank said. “He is kind of built like that. He’s just a baller. Just the emotion, there is a lot of things that go into it when you get traded. With it, is just respecting his space, letting him process this. We didn’t want to trade Lou, and Lou didn’t want to be traded. This is kind of what we all sign up for, both the good and the bad.”
The bad, in this case, is Williams leaving a city he loves and that loves him. The good, however, could mean the difference between a long championship run or getting bounced from the playoffs earlier than expected, like last year in the bubble when the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.
“Our biggest team need we felt was we needed an orchestrator,” said Frank. “We needed someone who can really help elevate everyone’s game. And Lou is one of our better playmakers, but Rondo brings a skill set we didn’t have.”
‘Playoff Rondo is a Real Thing’
Frank told reporters that he wants the team in a place where they can simply amplify their level of focus and intensity when the games matter most, as opposed to say turning on and off a switch.
“I think it was fair to say ‘Hey, this is a group that would flip the switch,’” Frank said in reference to last season. “[But] we want to be a team that turns up the dial. There’s a difference — you have different levels and as you get to the second half of the season, you want to turn it up. As you get to the playoffs with each round, you want to turn it up.”
And that right there, the ability to go to 11 in the playoffs, is the biggest reason the Clippers got Rondo. The 15-year veteran has proven that he has a different gear when the postseason comes around, most recently in helping the Lakers win last year’s crown despite only playing 48 games during the regular season.
“Six months ago, he was the third-best player on the court for the Lakers,” Frank said. Playing alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Rondo was a major factor in the Lakers’ final 16 playoff games, averaging 8.9 points on 45.5% shooting from the field and 40% from behind the arc with 6.6 assists and a floor general’s knack for controlling the game’s pace.
“Know that Playoff Rondo is a real thing,” asserted Frank. “It’s because he dials it up and he becomes even more locked in and it has a very contagious effect.”
And it’s not just dialing up the physical aspect, either. To Frank, Rondo has an uncanny ability to size up moments as they are happening.
“Everyone talks about the physical tools,” said Frank, pointing to his head. “But the mental part, it’s huge, and understanding different moments and being able to see it in real-time and not after the fact.”
Rondo attended Saturday’s game — a convincing 122-110 victory over the Joel Embiid-less 76ers — but did not suit up. Rather, he stayed behind the scorer’s desk with a member of the Clippers’ staff going over plays and sets as they happened on the court.
Rondo is expected to make his Clippers debut Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks, but there’s been no official announcement.