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Clippers and Blazers open NBA trade season as a Ben Simmons-James Harden deal looms

The Portland Trail Blazers traded Norman Powell, left, to the Los Angeles Clippers. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The run-up to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline is officially underway thanks to this season’s first significant deal and a report of a potential blockbuster to come.

In a deal that marked the latest twist in a season of major change in Portland, the Trail Blazers traded Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers for Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and a 2025 second-round pick Friday.

For Portland, the motives were primarily financial. Trading Powell and Covington moved the Blazers (21-32 entering Saturday night) below the luxury tax line and cleared the balance of a long-term contract signed by Powell in August. In his first move as interim general manager, Joe Cronin, who was appointed following the December dismissal of longtime GM Neil Olshey, undid the biggest move made by his predecessor last summer.

“Cap flexibility,” Cronin said in an interview when asked to explain the trade. “The opportunity to clean our books up a little and just create more opportunities for this coming week and beyond, through the draft and free agency. … [Powell is] obviously a very good player that had some really good moments with us. He’ll be missed. It’s just having to move that money to other positions; that’s what the motivation was. Roster balance.”

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Facing pressure to accumulate talent around franchise guard Damian Lillard, Olshey re-signed Powell to a five-year, $90 million contract. But in a turbulent start to the season, Lillard was sidelined with an abdominal injury and Olshey was fired, leaving Portland well outside the group of top contenders in the West.

Powell, a 28-year-old scoring specialist, has averaged 18.7 points per game and shot 40.6 percent on three-pointers, but his lack of size and limited defensive impact made him redundant with the Blazers’ other backcourt pieces. With 22-year-old guard Anfernee Simons enjoying a breakthrough season in Lillard’s absence, moving Powell better positions Portland to re-sign Simons next summer.

“He’s a core piece, definitely,” Cronin said of Simons. “We wanted to create a runway here for him.”

After up-and-down stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans, Bledsoe found some success as a backup guard for the Clippers following his offseason arrival by trade. With a contract that pays him $18.1 million this year and $19.4 million (partially guaranteed) next season, it’s possible he becomes a trade chip for Cronin, though the veteran guard will bring an imposing defensive presence that has been lacking in Portland’s backcourt.

Winslow, a 2015 lottery pick, played sparingly for the Clippers and has been held back by nagging injuries throughout his career. Portland will also get to take a flier on the 19-year-old Johnson, an athletic forward who went one-and-done at Tennessee before being selected in the first round last summer.

While the Clippers (27-27) have also endured a challenging season with injuries to star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, billionaire owner Steve Ballmer remains committed to assembling a championship roster. This trade reunites Leonard and Powell, who played together when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 title, and it adds two capable veterans to an experienced rotation. Powell is best cast as a tertiary scorer, and that should be his role once Leonard and George return.

Covington, 31, is a versatile frontcourt defender whose contract expires this summer. The Clippers will be able to use the balance of this season to determine whether he’s a long-term fit, but Covington’s length and activity align with L.A.'s desire to play small and interchangeable lineups.

ESPN.com first reported the deal.

Shortly after the Trail Blazers and Clippers reached agreement Friday, the Athletic reported the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers were open to discussing a possible trade involving James Harden and Ben Simmons.

The report comes at a time of instability for the Nets, who have lost seven straight games with Kevin Durant out after suffering a knee sprain in January. Harden, 32, was selected as an all-star this past week, but his efficiency has plummeted this season. In recent weeks, the 2018 MVP has copped to “frustration” over Brooklyn’s inability to build continuity due to injuries and Kyrie Irving’s part-time availability because of his refusal to get vaccinated.

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Simmons, 25, hasn’t taken the court for the 76ers this season following an unfulfilled offseason trade request. Philadelphia would need to include an additional player or players to complete the trade, given the discrepancy between Harden’s $44.3 million salary and Simmons’s $33 million. The 76ers have been linked to interest in Harden since hiring President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, who made his name as the lead executive of the Houston Rockets with a 2012 trade for Harden.

A Harden trade would represent a rapid change of direction for the Nets, who acquired the 10-time all-star from the Rockets in January 2021. Brooklyn’s vision of a “Big Three” with Durant, Harden and Irving sounded great on paper and has looked impressive in the few chances they’ve had to share the court together. Yet Irving has been limited to just 11 appearances this season, and the Nets (29-23) have slipped to the East’s sixth seed in Durant’s absence.

The 76ers, by contrast, would welcome a Harden trade for two reasons: Franchise center Joel Embiid has never played with such an accomplished perimeter player, and the Simmons saga has undercut Philadelphia’s own title aspirations. The pairing of Embiid and Harden would give the 76ers arguably the East’s most talented duo, and it would cleanly turn the page from Simmons’s endless holdout.

If a deal isn’t reached before the deadline, the two sides could revisit talks this offseason. Harden holds a $46.9 million option for next season, which could be used to facilitate a sign-and-trade.

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