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Blazers, Clippers Trade Analysis: Value in the Eye of the Beholder

Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1

At the end of last week, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trailblazers executed a trade that many around the league were a little baffled by. On paper, the Clippers undoubtedly get better while the Blazers seem to get minimal return on their investments made over the past 18 months or so.

Let’s take a look at the trade itself, as well as what it means for both teams moving forward.

The Trade:

Blazers Acquire: Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson, a 2025 second-round pick.

Clippers Acquire: Norman Powell, Robert Covington.

For the Clippers:

LA’s motivations for making this deal are pretty straight forward.

With All-Star duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George currently sidelined with an ACL and elbow injury respectively, the team is finding it hard to score. In many ways, the Clippers are in the midst of a bizarre season as their defence currently ranks 6th in the league, but their offense sits at a lowly 26th due to the aforementioned absences of George and Leonard. The fact Ty Lue has them only one game under .500 on the season at this point is quite remarkable really, and their relative success to this point may have been the catalyst for Lawrence Frank and the Clippers brass to pull the trigger on a deal of this nature.

Many writers and observers of the league (myself included) thought LA would look to off-load extra salary and try to minimise, or eliminate, their luxury tax bill heading into the deadline. Contracts like Serge Ibaka (expiring $9.7m), Eric Bledsoe ($18.1m this season), and even Marcus Morris ($15.6m this season) were reportedly on the block and while this trade has sent Bledsoe’s $18.1m contract away, they’ve brought back additional salary. So much additional salary in fact that the franchise will pay an extra $19m this season just from electing to execute this trade. If we’ve learnt anything about the Clippers under Steve Ballmer’s tenure, however, it’s that money is not an issue in any way shape or form. 

Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer (left) has gone all-in on All-Stars Paul George (right) and Kawhi Leonard. Credit: Sportscasting

Ballmer gives unwavering support to those in his corner and expects the same level of ‘all-in’ attitude in return. It’s this expectation and commitment from and by Ballmer that makes me think they are quietly confident Kawhi and George can at least get back on the court this season and help them make a playoff push. After all, Ballmer has gone all in this season, increasing the teams pay-roll to improve the squad when it would’ve been easy to cut money and plan for next season. The least George and Leonard can do is suit up and maybe play through some pain at the end of the season to help the team try and make some noise once the regular season concludes.

Bringing in Powell, who is close to a 20 point-per game scorer and plays good defense, not only gives the Clippers a stop-gap to help the team put points up to finish this season, but also a fantastic third scoring option (if you place him above Marcus Morris) for when George and Leonard return next season. He’s also on a great, long-term deal which is very team friendly so the franchise is given flexibility to keep him for years to come if things go well, and flip him easily if things go south for any reason.

Norman Powell (left) and Robert Covington (right) impressed in their Clippers debut and loom as important pieces for the franchise going forward. Credit: Blazers Edge

In Covington, the Clippers are taking a player who has failed to fire in recent seasons but has shown he has value across the league as a three-and-D type of wing. At 31 years old, his best production is probably in the rear-view mirror, but LA has turned fellow veteran wing Batum into a reliable outside threat and flexible defender after many (himself included) questioned whether his NBA career was over following a stint in Charlotte. If Ty Lue and the coaching staff in LA can help Covington find a role and excel in it, like they have Batum, they could have found not one, but two, excellent pieces in their quest to bring a first Championship to the franchise.

This trade is as close to a home-run as you can get for the Clippers. They gave up multiple assets they had no real interest in keeping in Bledsoe, Winslow and a 2025 second-round pick, and only really had to give up on Keon Johnson, the 21st pick in the most recent draft. While I’m sure in an ideal world the team would’ve liked to keep Johnson due to his upside as an athletic defensive wing, the emergence of 51st pick Brandon Boston allows them to move Johnson and still have injected youth into a veteran team this season. All-in-all, it’s a huge success from LA’s point of view.

For the Blazers:

Things have not gone the way the franchise would’ve hoped after firing Head Coach Terry Stotts and hiring Chauncey Billups in the off-season.

With Lillard having missed time due to an ongoing abdomen issue and the team failing to come together and secure wins in his absence, the Blazers appear to be leaning into a rebuild of sorts – likely preferring to try and re-tool on the fly around Lillard from all reports heading into next season.

Moving Powell may raise eye-brows on paper given the perceived lack of return for him, however what it does allow is the Blazers to shed salary heading into next season. Bledsoe’s $18.1m salary this season made up the heavy majority of the money required to match Powell’s outgoing contract, however Bledsoe is only guaranteed $3.9m next season, compared to Powell, who is owed the heavy majority of his 5-year/$90m deal signed last off-season. With the cap room they’ll have due to this deal, the Blazers are likely to extend Anfernee Simons, who has been excelling recently with extended playing time in Lillard’s absence at the guard slot.

Reports indicate the Blazers cleared Powell’s salary to allow them to offer a large extension to Anfernee Simons, pictured. Credit: Blazers Edge

The contract of Winslow is multi-yeared, but cheaper than Covington at just $4.0m for this and next season. While he isn’t the three point shooter Covington is, he is still a great defender who can guard multiple positions and can even pinch-hit with some play-making at a stretch. As for Keon Johnson, he, despite not being a household name, may be the piece the Blazers covet most in this deal.

The 21st pick in the Draft last season, Johnson has struggled to see court-time with the Clippers despite Covid-19 protocols and injuries to key players. He has, however, excelled in the G-League with their affiliate, The Agua Caliente Clippers. Averaging 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists with a steal and 1.5 blocks per game, Johnson clearly has potential to develop into an athletic wing defender, and his combine record 48” vertical is testament to this. The percentages and efficiency aren’t quite there yet, but the tools and the potential is. Under the right tutelage, something Coach Chauncey Billups was heralded for during his time with LA last season, he could develop into a reliable defender at the very least for years to come.

Keon Johnson (right) has seen limited opportunities with Los Angeles despite being a first round draft pick only months ago. Credit: The Rookie Wire – USA Today

In terms of value for a trade, this doesn’t look good for Portland. The Clippers hands down got the best player in the deal, and depending on how you rate Bledsoe against Covington, they may have acquired the two best players in the deal, but they do get a first round draft pick from the recent draft in Johnson, as well as a future asset in a 2025 second-round pick. The move gives them cap flexibility and allows them to extend Simons, who has been terrific recently for the team.

The deal does raise questions about the future for both CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard though. With the Blazers pulling the trigger on trading Powell and not getting a player in return who can help them achieve a post-season birth, many are wondering who is next to be dealt. Is it McCollum? Nurkic? Even Lillard? Nobody really seems sure of the direction this front office is intent on taking.

My assumption is that Portland’s preference would be to keep Lillard as the most popular, and arguably the best, player to ever pull on a Blazers jersey. However, to do so without making further substantial changes to this roster would likely result in the team treading water once again in the Western Conference, and I can’t see Lillard as being content with that arrangement.

The Blazers are in a weird spot – seemingly caught between a full rebuild and believing Lillard has the talent to be able to propel an otherwise average roster in the Playoffs. The best course of action may not be a popular one in this situation, but for the franchise to have significantly better days in the future, they need to cash in their chips while they hold significant value.

They also need to do so for a much higher price than they fetched for Norman Powell and Robert Covington.  

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