After pulling the trigger on the trade, the Los Angeles Clippers felt great, and why wouldn't they? Sure, they just traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a plethora of picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but they got back Paul George and, in turn, Kawhi Leonard. The summer of 2019 was a massive win for the Clippers.

Given where everyone involved in the trade was in their respective careers, you make that trade 10 times out of 10. Leonard coming off a title? George coming off a top-3 finish for MVP? No question.

But that was five years ago. After five long and nowhere nearly successful years, it's time to be honest: Kawhi Leonard was wrong and the LA Clippers lost the trade. But this goes back prior to the trade.

The 2018 NBA Draft

The Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in January 2018, about six months after inking their franchise superstar to a five-year, $171.2 million deal. In return, Detroit sent a package highlighted by Tobias Harris and a top-four-protected 2018 first-round pick.

Detroit finished with a 39-43 record, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference. The Clippers, meanwhile, finished 10th in the Western Conference with a 42-40 record. The two finished back-to-back in the NBA Draft lottery — the Pistons with the 12th pick, which would convey to LA, and the Clippers the 13th.

That meant the Clippers had, not one but two lottery picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. After weeks of keeping their draft plans close to the vest, the Charlotte Hornets, who owned the 11th overall pick, picked up the chatter surrounding the Clippers and discovered they wanted to select Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Charlotte selected Gilgeous-Alexander with pick No. 11 while extracting a pair of second-round picks from the Clippers. Miles Bridges, who Los Angeles selected, was traded with the second-rounders to the Hornets.

With the 13th pick in the NBA Draft, the Clippers selected Boston College combo guard Jerome Robinson. It was a reach that surprised many people, especially given the fact that Michael Porter Jr. — a consensus top-five pick — was still available on the draft board.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and guard Jerome Robinson (left) are interviewed by the media during Media Day at L.A. Clippers Training Center.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a fantastic rookie season, considering he started behind Avery Bradley on the depth chart. He really found his way as the season went on.

In fact, Gilgeous-Alexander registered a pair of games with at least 22 points in the final three playoff games against the Warriors in 2019. Nobody knew just how good the combo guard would turn out to be, but the vision and potential were certainly there.

Jerome Robinson struggled mightily. He started the season with a lower leg injury, only playing in 33 games, and he never found his footing that season. In short, it turned out to be a very disappointing season for the lottery pick.

And looking back now, there are at least 20 players taken after Robinson who have been NBA rotation players, including Donte DiVincenzo at No. 17, Kevin Huerter at No. 19, Grayson Allen at No. 21, Anfernee Simons at No. 24, Mo Wagner at No. 25, Jalen Brunson at No. 33, Mitchell Robinson at No. 36, Bruce Brown at No. 42, and De'Anthony Melton at No. 46.

The Trade

Entering that free agency, the Clippers were radio silent with the hopes of landing a commitment from free-agent Kawhi Leonard. With two max salary slots available and a roster that just gave the Warriors a fight in the postseason, the Clippers were a prime destination to contend.

Coming off an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors, Leonard was rumored to be considering three scenarios in free agency: a return to the Raptors or heading to Los Angeles to join either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Clippers.

Leonard sought out Kevin Durant, who ended up joining Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and Jimmy Butler, who ended up joining the Miami Heat. According to multiple reports, Leonard requested that the Clippers try and find a second star if they wanted to obtain his commitment.

After a few days, the organization discovered that Paul George was available on an Oklahoma City Thunder roster that had clearly reached its ceiling with the pairing of George and Russell Westbrook.

The cost to trade for him, however, would be steep.

Clippers received:

F Paul George

Thunder received:

G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
F Danilo Gallinari
2021 1st round pick [unprotected MIA pick]
2022 1st round pick [unprotected LAC pick]
2023 1st round pick [top-14 protected MIA pick]
2023 1st round pick [right to swap]
2024 1st round pick [unprotected LAC pick]
2025 1st round pick [right to swap]
2026 1st round pick [unprotected LAC pick]

While most preferred that the Clippers keep Gilgeous-Alexander and add Kawhi Leonard, the trade also made a lot of sense. Leonard was coming off his second NBA Championship and Finals MVP, while Paul George just had the best year of his career.

On top of that, a lot of folks like to casually throw around the graphic of the George trade, but in reality, it was both George AND Leonard coming to Los Angeles that summer. If that’s what it took to get two bonafide superstars at the time, it was a no-brainer decision. Surely, they were the next team in line to compete for an NBA Championship.

Five Years Later

We're now in the year 2024. The Clippers have no NBA Championships to their name, and they've only reached the conference vinals once since the trade went down in July 2019. Kawhi Leonard has not been able to finish the season for four-consecutive years due to injury. Paul George missed two-straight postseasons and threw up untimely stinkers in the last one.

The Oklahoma City Thunder — the youngest team in NBA playoff history — just finished as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and nearly earned a spot in the conference finals.

They fell to the more-experienced Dallas Mavericks, but their future is bright. Oklahoma City is already the better team, and the Clippers still owe them a pair of first-round picks in addition to pick swap rights in 2025.

To make matters worse, here's an updated look at what the Paul George trade actually looks like so far:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Danilo Gallinari
Tre Mann
Jalen Williams
Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Cam Whitmore — Pick swap did not convey, so Clippers traded in later pick swap with Houston for Eric Gordon, who they let walk after 2 months. Clippers pick turned into No. 30 — Kobe Brown
2024 1st round pick [unprotected LAC pick]
2025 1st round pick [right to swap]
2026 1st round pick [unprotected LAC pick]

Paul George, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams Tre Man, Jaime Jaquez, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami heat, Charlotte Hornets


Pleasing the Stars

Relationships go both ways, and for a franchise that hadn't seen many stars like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George walk through their doors, obviously keeping them happy has been a top priority for the organization. But it has also been to a fault.

For years, the Clippers stars had been privately asking for a point guard to help them. Paul George publicly complained on the All The Smoke Podcast that Doc Rivers was using him like a, “Ray Allen or JJ Redick, all pindowns.” As a result, the Clippers put the ball in his hands more often under Tyronn Lue.

The Clippers found a gem in Isaiah Hartenstein, and he told ClutchPoints he was open to taking the midlevel exception at the time, which was less than the New York Knicks were offering. However, Leonard and George pushed for the team to add John Wall, who had played a total of 40 games over three seasons between 2019-2022.

The team paid Wall what they would've Hartenstein, letting the latter walk to New York. The Wall experiment did not work, as he was traded three months into the season. The Clippers have struggled finding depth at the center position since letting Hartenstein go.

Recently, the former Clippers big man helped the severely shorthanded Knicks get within one game of the Eastern Conference finals, earning himself what should be a nice raise this offseason when he hits free agency.

Since the 2020-21 season, the Clippers have gone through Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Bones Hyland, Russell Westbrook, and now James Harden at the point guard position. All of this because ball-handling responsibilities against the likes of Jrue Holiday, who has been in the East since 2020, was too much to bare.

“We thought we needed a point guard,” Paul George said in March 2023 after the Clippers added Russell Westbrook. “Especially, we traded Reggie, we traded John, our two point guards. So we like, man we really need a point.

“I'm playing point out there, and I thought I could do it, but bro, it's a lot. Especially, when you got Jrue Holiday picking you up and you gotta create. I'm a deer. I need to be a stallion. A black stallion… [Westbrook] is going to do all the running.”

Surely, THAT'S the mentality you want out of your highest paid players and stars.

So What do the Clippers do now?

At this stage, Steve Ballmer, Lawrence Frank, and the brass of the Clippers have some difficult decisions to make. When you watch the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics, it's the opinion of this journalist that the Clippers are not on the same level and the championship window is all, but closed.

That's not to say they can't get on a close enough level with a move or two, but the team is already extremely limited on assets. Their only players with any real value on the roster are Terance Mann, Ivica Zubac, and likely Norman Powell. Two of those three are also your more promising players on the younger side, and Powell is a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

The Clippers will have seven players under contract entering free agency, while Paul George, PJ Tucker, and Russell Westbrook have player options to decide on. James Harden, Mason Plumlee, Daniel Theis, and Brandon Boston are all unrestricted free agents.

Harden performed well and is still expected to return to the Clippers, league sources told ClutchPoints. Despite multiple reports of other teams interested, George is also expected to return. Tucker, 39 years of age, is also expected to pick up his player option for next season and told ClutchPoints earlier this season it's not thing he would waive.

Sure, the West has had a different team in the NBA Finals in each of the last five season and that might convince you to run it back with the same core while praying for a little health luck. When available, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the NBA. There's no question about his abilities, especially on the playoff stage.

The biggest problem the Clippers face is that their highest-paid and soon-to-be 33-year-old star is consistently unavailable at season’s end due to injury. Through no fault of his own, it has now been four straight seasons that Leonard rides off into the offseason sunset without being heard from because of injuries.

The left quadriceps tendinopathy he dealt with during his days with the San Antonio Spurs was rumored to have developed a degenerative left knee condition, which only gets worse over time.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks on from the bench during game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks at Arena.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

And that was before he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in 2021, a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2023, and inflammation in his right knee in 2024 that he tried to play through, but simply couldn't.

You can keep playing the, ‘we just need a little health luck,' card because it is partly true, but how long can you keep doing that? It's been regurgitated in various forms since 2021.

The other star in Paul George just had a prime opportunity to prove his worthiness of the max contract that he's desired. If he found a way to lead his Clippers to the second round without Kawhi Leonard, that might've been enough to warrant and secure him the contract he wanted — at the very least from another team if not from the Clippers.

Instead, he turned in his worst statistical postseason since his third season in the league with the Indiana Pacers.

Beyond that, unless he was dealing with an injury, George has visibly lost a step. He struggled to get around defenders like Derrick Jones Jr. and even Kyrie Irving at times in the postseason, relying too often on his jump shot. At this point, it's unclear if he's still equipped to handle being a No. 1 or even a No. 2 option on a championship contending team, but he's asking to be compensated like one.

He had more single-digit scoring halves (seven) during the six-game series loss to the Mavs than he did double-digit scoring halves (five). Ivica Zubac and James Harden made more shots from the field in the series than he did. In the final two games when he was needed most, George combined for 33 points on 10-of-31 shooting.

And that's from the guy who said he had, ‘no pressure,' when on the brink of elimination and followed that up with, ‘if you fail, you fail.'

How much longer can you put all your eggs in this basket?

On one hand, if you have a chance to win, you absolutely have to go for it. The Raptors did so with Kawhi Leonard ahead of the 2018-19 season, and the Bucks followed suit with their Jrue Holiday addition before their championship in 2021. It’s certainly possible assuming a few things break your way.

The counter to that with this specific team is how many more assets can continue to be poured into this era? You already owe first-round picks outright in 2024, 2026, and 2028, while giving away the rights to swap their 2025, 2027, and 2029 first-round picks. The next six drafts are essentially out of the Clippers control, you haven't made the NBA Finals once, and the best days for your stars are behind them.

The Clippers perfectly shifted out of their Lob City era with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, acquiring significant assets in the form of players and draft compensation for both while not completely punting on the seasons. In my opinion, this Clippers team needs to try and do something similar but not as drastic in retooling their roster.

Whether it be Leonard or George, it’s nearing time for the Clippers to officially, “hold their L.” Leonard is trade-eligible and is under contract with a three-year, $150 million deal. It might take some time to recoup his value given his four straight years of being unavailable in the postseason, but there’s certainly a team out there that would convince themselves to take a chance on Kawhi and his history of lower leg injuries.

The more plausible scenario, however, involves George. The Clippers and Knicks reportedly discussed a trade package involving George around the 2023 NBA Draft, but New York backed out after being informed that George is seeking a max deal. His postseason performance didn't help his cause, but as long as there's someone out there willing to give him what he wants, the thought of him leaving has to be taken seriously.

As ClutchPoints reported a few weeks ago, there have been rumblings that George, 34 years of age and entering his last big contract, wanted the fourth year as part of extension talks. The Clippers, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, had been reluctant to add that fourth year and were not offering him the max as of right now.

Now, if George remains with the Clippers on a team-friendly deal that would still have him well-compensated, but also fit what the team needs, then it's a much easier decision to keep him. From there, you can try to see if this core has what it takes to stay healthy and get through a postseason or trade him as soon as he's trade eligible to start the retooling process.

With a player option to decide on there are various scenarios for the All-Star to consider. George could opt-in and extend for up to three years, or he can opt-out and extend for up to four years. There is always the chance that he opts out to ultimately test free agency. George can still re-sign with the Clippers should he opt out of his deal, but with no max offer currently on the table and reported interest from teams like the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers this summer, that’s a dangerous game to play.

The Clippers could lose Paul George for nothing. At the end of the day, LA will probably need to move on from him, but they can’t afford for this scenario to play out. At an absolute minimum, you need to do whatever you can to retain George’s services, only then continuing to seek out suitors once he becomes trade eligible. Hopefully George has also recouped some value, but again, losing him for nothing in free agency would be the worst possible scenario. Given their salary cap situation and the cap holds of Harden and George, assuming he opts out, the Clippers have no way to replace their star.

Lastly, the Clippers just have to hit on their draft picks more often than they have. For a team that's had a very limited amount of assets, it's an understatement to say that hitting on a couple of draft picks in the late first or anywhere in the second round would've significantly helped. To date, their only real draft hits in the last decade are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Terance Mann.

Here are the Clippers picks over the last decade:

2014 — Rd. 1, Pick 28 – C.J. Wilcox
2015 — No Picks
2016 — Rd. 1, Pick 25 – Brice Johnson
2016 — Rd. 2, Pick 33 – Cheick Diallo (Traded to Pelicans for David Michineau and Diamond Stone)
2017 — No Picks
2018 — Rd. 1, Pick 12 – Miles Bridges (Traded to Hornets for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
2018 — Rd. 1, Pick 13 – Jerome Robinson
2019 — Rd. 2, Pick 48 – Terance Mann
2019 — Rd. 2, Pick 56 – Jaylen Hands (Traded to Nets for pick that turned into Saddiq Bey for Mfiondu Kabengele)
2020 — Rd. 2, Pick 57 – Reggie Perry (Traded to Nets in Luke Kennard deal)
2021 — Rd. 1, Pick 25 – Quentin Grimes (Traded to Knicks for Keon Johnson)
2021 — Rd. 2, Pick 51 – Brandon Boston Jr. (From Pelicans)
2022 — Rd. 2, Pick 43 – Moussa Diabate
2023 — Rd. 1, Pick 30 – Kobe Brown
2023 — Rd. 2, Pick 48 – Jordan Miller

There are still a number of players who could go on to become rotation players, but the Clippers have seemingly either banked on selecting three or four-year college players with the hope that they'll be able to contribute sooner rather than later or tried to pick athletic players with the hope that they'll develop into NBA-caliber players.

Unfortunately, neither has really worked for them so far. It's difficult to hit on draft picks past the midway point of the first round, especially in an age where athleticism has taken center stage and fundamentals are not always established. Because of that, it is tough to fault them too much for their shortcomings. But teams like the Miami Heat or Los Angeles Lakers prove that hitting on those late or undrafted players can make a legitimate difference for an already high salary roster.

With the firsts and swaps the Clippers owe, they can't completely throw in the towel on this era and ‘tank.' They do appear to have some options to reassemble their roster and if they do finally get some health luck, they could break through. But it starts with admitting that they lost the Paul George-Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trade and this specific core's run, as hard as they've tried, is likely over.