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What did the Clippers and Wizards Just Do?

Austin Rivers for Marcin Gortat is a strange deal that doesn't move the needle for either team. What happens next?
Photo by Gary A. Vasquez - USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers completed the type of trade that makes zero and plenty of sense at the exact same time. Austin Rivers—a 25-year-old combo guard who can create his own shot, make threes at a decent clip, and play NBA basketball for his head coach father without letting his self-confidence liquefy—was dealt for Marcin Gortat, a vanishing breed of a big man who was a few months from his ninth birthday when Rivers was born.


The money each player is due next season makes the financial ramifications of this transaction negligible, and both will be unrestricted free agents come July 2019. But there are some anticipatory elements that are on display when the trade is viewed with a larger frame.

The Clippers aren’t rebuilding, per se; it appears they’re OK treating 2019 as a bridge season into the start of Jerry West's era. That means their two first-round picks—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson (both guards)—need minutes, shots, and the precious opportunity to learn from their mistakes as soon as now. Patrick Beverley’s contract is non-guaranteed until January 10, 2019, and Milos Teodosic will opt into a deal that guarantees him $6.3 million if he's still around after July 15. The Clippers also have the six-foot Jawun Evans on their payroll and Lou Williams sopping up 30 minutes a night. Guards are something they don’t need, so it doesn’t not make sense to see them deal one whose game tends to eat up more oxygen than it deserves.

But trading Rivers for an established starting center only thickens the plot for those aware of DeAndre Jordan’s apparent desire to leave the only franchise he’s ever played for. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, Gortat is insurance should Jordan opt out of his deal before Friday's deadline. If the three-time All-NBA center opts in, the Clippers will trade him before February. In other words, the primary takeaway here should be that Rivers for Gortat reveals nothing more than another shoe will eventually drop in Los Angeles.

The Clippers also already have Boban Marjanovic under contract for one more year, with Montrezl Harrell (who’s young and very good) about to hit restricted free agency. Assuming Jordan opts in with a desire to compete for a good team that doesn’t have enough cap space to afford him, it’ll be interesting to see what the Clippers get back. Somehow, this team is still thin on the wing.

From Washington’s perspective, as a standalone trade this is weird. Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith are now the team’s only big men (the Wizards could’ve snagged Robert Williams with the 15th pick last Thursday—the exact type of player John Wall has made known he wants to play with—but instead took a 6’7” wing). Rivers isn’t the most awkward fit in the world, and lineups that feature him, Wall, and Bradley Beal should give Washington the sort of off-the-bounce spunk from multiple positions they otherwise haven't had.

With Tomas Satoransky doomed to never earn Scott Brooks’s trust, Rivers can also serve as the reliable backup point guard Wall has never really known, letting the Wizards reduce his minutes and decrease the wear and tear on his surgically repaired knees. But that’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and even though Gortat’s role is far less vital in today’s NBA than Rivers’s, he’s probably a more useful player on this roster, freeing Wall up with some of the most artfully placed screens in the world. Washington badly needs another center to fill some of that void. (The path to acquiring DeMarcus Cousins is murky at best.)

That said, Gortat’s time in D.C. felt worn last season, whether due to complaints over his declining minutes or a public feud with the $200 million floor general who spoon fed him for years. In the end this trade doesn’t really make either team better or worse. It simply hints at more (probably meaningless) moves from each side over the next few weeks.