"Flags fly forever." That's the phrase our friends at Baseball Prospectus use to argue in favor of teams making bold moves to maximize their chances of winning championships, even if they come with long-term costs. That's the kind of opportunity the Los Angeles Clippers may have in front of them if Kevin Garnett is willing to accept a trade to L.A. The chance of putting a Clippers banner in the rafters of the Staples Center to go with the many banners the Lakers have hung there is precisely why the Clippers should do so, if possible.
The Sporting News reported that the Clippers approached the Boston Celtics about a deal for Garnett before the two teams played Sunday in Boston. While sources told our Chris Broussard that the teams have not talked, they may begin discussions before the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
Pelton: Would deal boost title bid?
Any package for Garnett would surely be built around promising third-year guard Eric Bledsoe and small forward Caron Butler, whose presence is necessary to make the salaries match. The teams could also throw in Leandro Barbosa and Ryan Hollins, playing on identical one-year contracts, to balance out each other's rosters. (View this trade in ESPN's Trade Machine.)
In the short term, the Clippers would have to replace two members of their rotation and revamp their stellar second unit. Though Butler is a starter, he would be easier to replace because the Clippers have tremendous depth at small forward. Matt Barnes has turned in the best season of his career and is actually playing more minutes off the bench than Butler is as a starter, while Grant Hill is back in the lineup and capable of ramping up his minutes if the Clippers trade Butler.
Replacing Bledsoe would be trickier. For one, he's starting at point guard while Chris Paul deals with a bruised right kneecap. No timetable has been set for Paul's return. The Clippers also don't know when they'll have Chauncey Billups back in the lineup or what kind of play they can expect from the veteran, who has suffered from peroneal tendonitis since returning from a ruptured Achilles. That leaves Bledsoe as the lone healthy point guard on the roster. Jamal Crawford has filled in for Bledsoe with the second unit, but Crawford is a natural scorer whose game suffers when he's asked to also serve as a playmaker.
In the long term, the Clippers would hate to give up Bledsoe, their most promising prospect and someone we recently picked for Insider's list of the Top 25 NBA players under age 25. Bledsoe represents their insurance in case Paul unexpectedly leaves as an unrestricted free agent next summer or experiences long-term problems from the torn meniscus he suffered in 2010. (The bone bruise that currently has Paul on the sidelines affects the same knee.)
Garnett would be a perfect fit next to Blake Griffin in the Clippers' frontcourt. Coach Vinny Del Negro has gotten improved production from center DeAndre Jordan this season, and Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf are a solid pair of backup big men. However, none of the three is a reliable counterpart for Griffin down the stretch. Jordan is vulnerable to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy and poses little threat on offense, so Del Negro has tended to finish games with Odom and Griffin together. That duo lacks shot-blocking skill and relies on defenses continuing to respect Odom's jumper even though he's 6-of-50 from 3-point range this season.
Imagine replacing Odom in that finishing lineup with Garnett. Suddenly, the Clippers have one of the league's best defenders anchoring the paint and making opponents think twice about driving. At the other end, Garnett's well-honed midrange game would complement Griffin in the post. He also would give Del Negro another option in the pick-and-roll game with Paul.
How much might that upgrade be worth? My SCHOENE projection system says a little better than three wins over the course of a full season. That might understate the case, since Garnett's defensive impact can't be quantified from box-score stats. Adjusted plus/minus shows Garnett, 36, as one of the league's best big men -- 3 points per 100 possessions better than Jordan, 4 better than Odom and 5 better than Turiaf.
Sealing the Deal?
The Clippers may not have to make the tough choice on a Garnett trade. Not only must the veteran approve any deal because of his rare no-trade clause, but the Celtics' win over the Clippers on Sunday was their fourth in a row. Even without Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge might be inclined to keep his veterans rather than sell them off before the deadline.
If everything else falls into place, I think the Clippers must take the risk on Garnett. For one, they're going to have to make a decision on Bledsoe at some point. He is eligible for an extension this summer and would be a restricted free agent in 2014. If the Clippers re-sign Paul, it seems unlikely they would keep Bledsoe around as a backup, especially since another team will surely offer him starter's money.
More than that, I think the opportunity is too unique for a franchise that has never so much as reached the conference finals. Already, the Clippers have shown a win-now mentality by signing veteran free agents like Crawford and Hill last summer -- moves endorsed by Paul, who's in a hurry to contend. Adding Garnett could be enough to elevate the Clippers to the position of co-favorites in the Western Conference, helping them on a path to the NBA Finals that figures to go through both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Against teams of equal talent, the difference between Garnett and the other options next to Griffin would be magnified.
Even the conservative assessment of a three-win difference shows that adding Garnett would increase the chances of a Clippers championship by 50 percent in simulations (from 6.5 percent of the time to 9.4 percent). Realistically, the difference might be even greater. And while organizations can't hang partial banners, improving the chances of flying the real thing makes trading for Garnett worth it for the Clippers.
It's hard to find teams in the Eastern Conference that have the right combination of need, assets and the opportunity to win for a Garnett trade to make sense. The Chicago Bulls could be the exception, if they were willing to trade second-year wing Jimmy Butler, but their timetable is more long-term since Derrick Rose won't be 100 percent this season. Besides the Clippers, there are a couple of other possibilities in the West. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most intriguing destination. Upgrading from Kendrick Perkins in the middle would make the Thunder the overwhelming favorite to win the title, and Oklahoma City has enough young assets (including rookies Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb and the rights to Toronto's protected first-round pick) to make a deal like this without overhauling its rotation. The Houston Rockets also have prospects to spare and an appetite for stars, though they are probably too far away from contending to make a Garnett trade work in their favor, as the Clippers can.
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