Swanson: Lakers, Clippers have holes to fill as trade deadline nears

One building, a couple NBA games, countless decisions.

Spur-of-the-moment stuff, instinctive or deliberate, all adding up to two more losses for the home teams at Arena.

There were decisions for fans to debate. Like Thursday, when the Lakers’ record fell to 19-23 after Coach Darvin Ham elected, with a three-point lead and 11.8 seconds left, to trust his defense to deny a game-tying Luka Doncic 3-pointer rather than chance a four-point play by fouling him.

The result: Doncic hit that game-tying 3 and then another late in the first overtime of the Mavericks’ 119-115 double-overtime victory.

The next night, in the Clippers’ 115-103 loss to Denver, Coach Tyronn Lue decided to play John Wall for the final 19 minutes. Pushed the still-swift 32-year-old newcomer toward his apparent minutes limit, pairing the 6-foot-3 guard for the entirety of the fourth quarter with 6-4 Norman Powell “just, you know, to get us into our stuff faster.”

The result: Even without two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets used a taller, springier closing lineup to outscore their hosts 29-22, including eight second-chance points, thereby gift-wrapping the Clippers’ seventh loss in eight games and dropping them back to .500 at 22-22.

There were other questionable calls, sure. Like when officials decided not the whistle a foul after Lakers’ shooter Troy Brown Jr. was hit on his follow-through late in regulation (a good call, the NBA declared the next day) or for the contact LeBron James took on a drive late in the first OT (a bad call, the league later shrugged).

Encouraging calls, too. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard decided, in his 20th game this year, to hammer home his hardiest dunk since June 14, 2021, when he suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. Earlier that fateful night, Leonard threw down such a ferocious slam on Derrick Favors that Joel Embiid lost his train of thought when he caught a glimpse of it during a news conference in Atlanta.


— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) June 15, 2021

Joel Embiid reacts to the Kawhi Leonard poster dunk midway through his postgame presser

— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) June 15, 2021

And, yes, fashion choices. Injured Clippers star Paul George decided to go with salmon-colored sweats Friday for his 14th game on the sideline this season; injured Lakers star Anthony Davis with a gray ball cap for his 17th.

But the biggest decisions are looming yet.

The NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline is fast approaching, and if these teams would prefer for their paying customers to go away feeling satisfied with the product on the floor, they’ll do something to improve it.

What might help the Lakers better defend Doncic, withstand those inevitable questionable calls and ease the load on 38-year-old LeBron? A wise man (LeBron) said recently: “It’s not rocket science.”

Find that man a proven shooter and some additional defensive length. Ante up for Detroit wing Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s shooting 48.7% from the field and 41.3% from 3-point range. Or if not him, make the deal for San Antonio’s Doug McDermott (a career 41% 3-point shooter) or Josh Richardson (36.4%).

The Clippers, meanwhile, are supposed to be contenders with their carefully brewed modern NBA makeup. Instead, the season has been a case study in roster constipation, with restrictions and redundancies (and injuries) making it tough to move forward.

They need athleticism, and they also need some edge, some energy, some give-a-crap.

Indiana’s 26-year-old shot-blocker Myles Turner would fit the bill, or Atlanta’s high-flying John Collins, 25, could work. Or perhaps another big, like Utah’s Kelly Olynyk, who has range, floor vision and isn’t known for being particularly polite on the court.

Or – and this is a joke – how about Robert Covington for Patrick Beverley, the Clippers’ too-seldom-used defensive wing for the Lakers’ pesky-but-maligned guard who was, for years, the heart and soul of the team down the hall?

That won’t happen, because the last time L.A.’s teams traded among themselves in 2019 was the first time they’d done it since 1983. And that last time was the Mike Muscala-for-Ivica Zubac heist.

Coming from Philadelphia, Mike Muscala was redirected without ever playing for the Clippers, landing instead with the Lakers, for whom he played 17 games and averaged 5.9 points and 2.6 rebounds. (Also included, Michael Beasley, whom the Clippers promptly waived.)

Zubac has developed into the Clippers’ mainstay in the post, now their longest-tenured, most-reliable player, who’s better by the season and even had himself a 31-point, 29-rebound game this season.

The Lakers have not made a single deadline deal since that trade. That’s in some part because they’ve been active shoppers in the buyout market, but that won’t be open to them this season, not as a middling team that’s outside looking in at the playoff picture.

If they’re going to capitalize on James’ – and Davis’, while he’s played – elite production, the Lakers will have to stop procrastinating and make the trade they put off in the offseason, and for the first 10 games of the season, and then for the first 20 …

The Clippers aren’t nearly so gun-shy. They’ll shake something from the bushes this trade deadline, because that’s what they do every season.

In 2019, the season they dealt for Zubac, they traded away six players (counting Muscala), waived two, and brought aboard five (counting Muscala) while also netting four draft picks.

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In the three seasons since, they’ve traded away eight players and brought in four guys at the deadline, including Covington and Powell last season.

I trust they’ll find someone to help plug holes in their listing ship, even if no one aboard seems concerned that they’re taking on water in the regular season: “The way people talk about us, like we’re the 12th or 13th seed,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said. “We’re the sixth or seventh seed – without Paul. We’re gonna be all right.”

Officially, the Clippers’ easy-to-ridicule slogan this season is “Give No Quarter,” but everyone knows what it ought to be: “Just Wait Till __ Gets Back.”

At the moment, it’s George they’re waiting on. As Marcus Morris Sr. told Janis Carr, who covers the team for the Southern California News Group: “Hell yeah … for sure he’ll make a big difference.”

The Lakers feel that.

“Ever since we made the trade for AD to bring him here, our whole thing was about health… We haven’t had the best luck of health I would say, especially this year now again.”

LeBron James on whether the Lakers can figure things out for the rest of the season

— 𝐓𝐚𝐥𝐤𝐢𝐧’ 𝐍𝐁𝐀 (@_Talkin_NBA) January 13, 2023

“Ever since we made the trade for AD to bring him here, our whole thing was about health,” James said after Thursday’s loss. “It’s not changed. You guys said before the season started, ‘Do we think Russ (Westbrook) can work?’ And I said, ‘How can we know that if we’ve not been on the floor together?’ We haven’t had the best luck of health, I would say, especially this year now again.”

Pray for health, but trade for reinforcements.

Decisions, decisions.

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