With three wins in their last four games, the NBA trade deadline looming and their in-town rival in a Western Conference freefall, the Clippers are heading into a critical phase of the season, hoping not only to push ahead in the West standings but looking to bury the much-despised Lakers on and off the floor.
That goal is in reach, even as four games against teams with a combined 103-63 record looms, a stretch that should show just how strong the Clippers’ bounce-back really is after suffering through a 4-7 slump from mid-February to mid-March.
The Clippers are now tied with the Lakers for the No. 3 seed in the West, and with the Lakers battered by injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers have lost three straight games, by an average of 13 points, and are facing the likelihood of playing at least the next 10 or so games without their two stars.
That puts the Clippers in position to get a firm hold on the third seed, with Phoenix just two games ahead at No. 2.
Clippers Could Surprise Lakers at Buyout Time
While the Lakers have been shrugging off the importance of playoff seeding, the Clippers could do more significant damage by pulling a surprise at the trade deadline.
The Clippers have been looking for an upgrade at point guard and several names—from young guns Lonzo Ball and Aaron Holiday to vets Kyle Lowry, George Hill and Ricky Rubio—have cropped up as candidates. It is unlikely that the Clippers’ targets on that front will overlap with any of the targets for the Lakers, who are focused on adding shooting.
But the Clippers could also seek to add a big man in the post-deadline buyout market—and that is where the team will likely go head-to-head against the Lakers.
There has been speculation that Cavaliers center Andre Drummond will get a buyout and that he favors signing with the Lakers once that deal is completed and he hits free agency. But the Clippers also have had some stealth contact with Drummond and could persuade him to take their minutes in the middle, especially if they can sell their short-term future as being brighter than that of the Lakers.
The same can be said for Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Both the Lakers and Clippers will have interest in him, too.
Should Clippers Kick Lakers While They’re Down?
Still, winning the buyout wars won’t guarantee much for the Clippers, as fans will recall from last year. Both the Lakers and Clippers were battling for forward Marcus Morris at the trade deadline then, and it was the Clippers who stepped up with an offer of a first-round pick and got Morris in a deal with the Knicks.
We know what happened from there—Morris became a starter but the Clippers flamed out in the conference semifinals. Morris’ twin brother, Markieff, signed with the Lakers after getting a buyout from the Pistons, and went on to chip in for a championship with the Lakers.
Despite a handful of sharp words back-and-forth, the Clippers and Lakers have been much less focused on each other this season compared with last year. But it’s hard for the Clips not to take notice of the dire straits the Lakers find themselves in—and hard not to want to give them the boot while they’re down.