The Clippers on the Eve of Free Agency -- The Big Picture

Mar 20, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) talks to guard Chris Paul (3) and center DeAndre Jordan (6) during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats the Los Angeles Clippers 102-89. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

NBA teams are allowed to begin negotiating with free agents about eight hours now. The Los Angeles Clippers enter free agency with some very clear priorities. In fact, you have to give the Clippers credit for taking care of the Mo Williams for Lamar Odom deal prior to free agency, because the single biggest advantage of that deal may be that it sharpens their focus as they now pursue additional pieces. With Williams around, they would be juggling an unbalanced lineup, looking for trading partners interested in Williams or maybe even shopping an Eric Bledsoe, trying to solve multiple problems either by trade or by free agency, with each avenue affecting decisions in the other. But in the wake of the trade, the muddy waters have settled considerably.

Go back to the piece I wrote in May. Williams' status and the need for a stretch four and a starting shooting guard were the three main questions at that time. Well you can cross two of them off the list. Whether Odom really works out or not is irrelevant to the task at hand -- he'll be paid $8.2M to be the third big in the rotation and the stretch four, so there's no need to pursue that player now. The Clippers are in the free agent bazaar looking for a shooting guard and some quality depth, and that's about it.

There's one other simple priority of course, which is a long term extension for Blake Griffin. No one in the Clippers front office needs to be spending too many CPU cycles on that one -- the offer is obvious, a maximum dollar, maximum length extension. They need to make sure that Griffin knows he's wanted and remove any obstacles to him signing the extension, but it doesn't affect next season and it doesn't affect the rest of free agency. So we'll leave the Griffin discussion for another time.

Refer also to LJ Hann's salary cap overview from earlier today. There are several key numbers from that, the most important perhaps being the $58.97M (we can call it $59M) that they already have committed in 2012-2013 salary. That leaves a little over $11M to use below the luxury tax threshold, which I think we can safely assume is the upper limit of what Donald Sterling is going to authorize.

That $59M is spread across nine players signed for next season. Travis Leslie's contract is unguaranteed and Ryan Gomes remains an amnesty candidate, and next season's roster could have from 13 to 15 people on it, so the Clippers could be looking for anywhere between four and eight players to fill out the roster. Most likely that number will be around five or six entering the season, so let's see if we can figure out who those six might be.

The depth chart of signed players currently looks something like this:

First string

Second string

Third string

Point Guard

Chris Paul

Eric Bledsoe

Shooting Guard

Travis Leslie

Small Forward

Caron Butler

Ryan Gomes

Power Forward

Blake Griffin

Lamar Odom

Trey Thompkins

Center

DeAndre Jordan

Note that I could call Travis Leslie the starting shooting guard or Ryan Gomes the backup small forward at this time, but for the purposes of this discussion it's useful to note that the Clippers know they have to upgrade those spots. No one expects (or wants really, barring a major step forward for Leslie) either Leslie or Gomes to feature in the rotation next season, so defining them as anything other than emergency depth is just not realistic.

There are essentially an infinite number of possibilities for filling these positions, so in the interest of focusing the discussion, let's make a couple of assumptions. The Clippers seem interested in retaining a couple of their own free agents, namely Chauncey Billups and Nick Young. So let's pencil them in.

However, there remains the question of money. The Clippers can only offer Young up to $4.4M (as a non-Bird free agent, they can give him 120% of what he made last season) without touching their mid-level exception (MLE). Young might be worth more on the open market, so let's assume that if he remains with the Clippers it will be for $4.4M. We'll also assume that they spend all of their MLE ($5M per) and their bi-annual exception ($2M) to fill other holes.

Some quick math gives us $59M + $4.4M + $5M + $2M = $70.4M. Oops. We're already over the luxury tax threshold, without Billups. So first things first -- bye bye Ryan, it's been nice.

The Clippers will have to use the amnesty clause to waive Gomes if they plan to make serious improvements to the roster while avoiding the luxury tax. This will be the real test for Sterling this summer -- not Neil Olshey or his replacement or even Griffin (which is an easy decision), but rather the decision to pay Gomes $4M to not play for the Clippers.

Even then, it leaves very little for Billups, maybe $3M per season reserving some money to sign a couple of minimum players and still avoid the luxury tax. Will Billups be willing to sign for 2/$6M? He will almost certainly be worth more to another team, but might he be willing to stay anyway? It's difficult to say, but for today, let's assume that Billups and Young remain and Gomes is gone. Our depth chart now looks as follows:

First string

Second string

Third string

Point Guard

Chris Paul

Eric Bledsoe

Shooting Guard

Chauncey Billups

Travis Leslie

Small Forward

Caron Butler

Nick Young

Ryan Gomes

Power Forward

Blake Griffin

Lamar Odom

Trey Thompkins

Center

DeAndre Jordan

This is a pretty good starting position. Billups was the starting two guard while he was healthy, and could be that again next season of course. Likewise Young is a viable option at the two, and an eight man rotation of Paul, Bledsoe, Billups, Butler, Young, Griffin, Odom and Jordan is arguably already better (if not as deep) as the team the Clippers rode to the second round of the playoffs last season. A starter quality shooting guard and one more quality big could make the squad quite formidable.

The Clippers will target their MLE for filling the hole at the shooting guard and use the BAE (or a minimum deal if possible) to add some depth in the front court. We'll dig into those specific questions in a subsequent post while you digest the overview.

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