LOS ANGELES — Though no team openly talks of tanking in the NBA — and few even wink as they discuss the process anymore — the Los Angeles Clippers might have as much reason as any to spiral down the standings.
They traded away their best player, Tobias Harris, last month and brought back a handful of young players and draft picks. And if they make the playoffs, they will surrender their lottery-protected first-round pick to the Boston Celtics.
But they have won six of 10 games heading into a Sunday afternoon matchup with the Knicks and have moved into seventh place in the Western Conference standings.
Opposite them will be a Knicks team that also dealt its most valuable asset before the deadline, waived other veterans and endured an 18-game losing streak before finally picking up three wins in the last five games.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said of the Clippers’ moves — and continued success. “I see stuff, nothing surprises me anymore. They obviously have a plan that they have in place that they’re trying to do and execute. To their credit, they’ve built a nice, tough team full of guys who understand their role.”
One of the keys to the Clippers’ success has been the ascent of rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 20- year-old, who teamed with Knicks rookie Kevin Knox last year at Kentucky, claimed the starting job in the 10th game of the season and has steadily grown into the role.
“I keep up with all my college teammates,” said Knox, who noted that the two texted a day earlier. “I always look at the stats, see how they’re playing. I know he’s playing really well. He’s kind of taken control of that team as the point guard. It’s kind of hard to do as a rookie, but he’s done a really good job of doing that. So I definitely keep up with all his stats, how he’s playing and highlights and everything like that.
“Same thing happened last year at Kentucky. He kind of started off a little slow, put his work in, and toward the middle, end of the season, he took control of the team. He kind of led us in a lot of games. Whatever he’s doing now with the Clippers, in that role as the point guard, he had to go in and just kind of lead the team, make the right reads, make the right passes and stuff like that. He’s doing a really good job.”
One player from an earlier incarnation of the Clippers could return to action against them. DeAndre Jordan, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with the Clippers before signing with Dallas last summer and being dealt to the Knicks in the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Mavericks, has missed the last three games with a sprained left ankle. He participated in most of Saturday’s practice at UCLA and is listed as questionable for this game.
“You always want to go play in the places that you once played at,” Fizdale said. “He had such a profound impact on their success, I think they really love him here. I know how that is. You want to play in front of those fans. But I don’t want him to do it where he hurts himself more.”