Evaluating the Clippers' three NBA trade deadline moves

Evaluating the Clippers' three NBA trade deadline moves

This year's NBA trade deadline challenged the glut of Western Conference contenders to test how far they would go to separate themselves from the pack.

Some teams, like the Phoenix Suns in their Kevin Durant blockbuster or the Dallas Mavericks in their Kyrie Irving acquisition, swung for the fences. Others — such as the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans — only nabbed a rotation player or two, opting to bet on their current core.

The Los Angeles Clippers appear to fall in the latter group, but we should not overlook their trade-deadline moves. With three separate trades, all in the final hours of dealmaking on Thursday, the Clippers added Bones Hyland, Eric Gordon and Mason Plumlee. They took calculated risks and changed three important spots in their rotation, hoping the current stalwart defense insulates a boost of offensive juice.

Hyland was one of the hottest names in the rumor mill last week after his falling out with the Nuggets. Los Angeles pounced and dealt two second-round picks for the former No. 26 overall selection in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Hyland quickly becomes the most promising developmental talent on the roster at 22 years old. But more immediately, he brings a high-charged dose of long-range shotmaking to the Clippers' bottom-10 offense.

The combo guard profiles as one of the most extreme perimeter creators in the entire league. Some evidence: Hyland has attempted 118 self-created threes this season, according to PBP Stats, which would rank second on his new team behind Paul George (164) and far above the third-place guard he's replacing (Reggie Jackson, 66), in only 820 minutes this season. His 39.8% clip on those attempts ranks 13th among 81 players who have attempted at least 50 such shots.

To this point of his career, however, Hyland's primary impact has come from distance. He can attack the basket, but he's no more than a mediocre rim-pressure threat, and he's a very limited playmaker. Microwave shooting is an important skill that can swing a playoff series if active; it's unclear if Hyland can consistently impact the game this way.

That's why the Eric Gordon trade adds another level of intrigue. Gordon, a 34-year-old shooting guard, finally leaves a rebuilding Houston Rockets situation after years in and out of reported trade talks. He rejoins the franchise that drafted him seventh overall way back in 2008. 

Gordon has a 15-year history of solid, albeit streaky, pull-up shooting, and he can still slice his way to the rim with ease. Gordon has converted 67% or more of his shots within three feet of the hoop in each of the last three seasons, per Basketball Reference — and that's in a Houston offense that has looked pretty wonky at times. 

The Clippers acquired Gordon in a three-team deal with the Rockets and Grizzlies that ultimately sent John Wall to Houston and Luke Kennard to Memphis. They now have a reshaped guard rotation that includes Hyland, Gordon, Terance Mann and Norman Powell — four complementary scoring threats next to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. 

Entering Saturday, L.A. took just 30.2% of its shots at the rim, a 23rd-ranked rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Gordon's talents should directly help, and Hyland's perimeter prowess ideally opens up lanes for others to attack.

The four-man crew allows for some interesting lineup flexibility. Does head coach Ty Lue opt to keep Mann in the starting lineup and let Hyland bombard off the bench, knowing Gordon can also keep teams honest? Or can Hyland eventually work his way up to start and provide a more powerful perimeter impact than Reggie Jackson ever could — also leaving Mann to keep the heat on with the second unit?

With just those two, we already see that the Clippers want to apply more pressure from more angles, versus the stagnation that can arise with just Kawhi plus PG plus floor-spacers. Mason Plumlee continues the theme in his own way as a passing hub.

Los Angeles added the veteran center in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets that sent Jackson and a 2028 second-rounder to Charlotte. During our 2023 NBA Trade Deadline Show, Nekias Duncan and I both commented on the parallels between Plumlee and the team's 2021-22 backup center, Isaiah Hartenstein. 

Last year, Hartenstein showed off his facilitation chops by hitting cutters from the arc and operating out of some roll actions. He's in the sub-Nikola-Jokic tier of best big man passers in the NBA, and so is Plumlee.

For several seasons, the 32-year-old has consistently posted some of the best passing numbers in the league; his 18.0% assist rate is in the 92nd percentile among bigs this season, per Cleaning the Glass. Plumlee is assisting on 12.6% of his total passes, per Second Spectrum, which is the third-highest rate among centers.

Add in his stellar presence around the rim (73% shooting in that zone) and solid track record on the glass, and Plumlee seems about as ideal a fit at backup center as feasible. The healthy Clippers are looking at a Hyland-Gordon-Powell-Robert Covington-Plumlee second unit, with Nic Batum and Amir Coffey as additonal options. That is deep.

The overarching worry: L.A. is tweaking the components of its top-10 defense — the backbone of its current fifth-place standing in the Western Conference. Hyland has serious defensive question-marks, Gordon is strong but undersized and Plumlee, while fundamentally sound, is by no means a rim-protector. Can the system and the prowess of the remaining players provide a stable floor? And if not, do the new pieces just fall out of the rotation, or do they unearth a new problem?

We likely won't know the final answer until the postseason. But the Clippers pointedly targeted several needs on Thursday, and the moves have more reward and more risk than they appear to at first. Even without adding a star, the Clippers have become another must-track team in the reshuffled West playoff race.

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