We've already been over the Los Angeles Clippers current salary cap position and the broad strokes as the free agency period begins. Whether the Clippers are able to re-sign Nick Young (whom they can pay $4.4M without dipping into their mid level exception) and Chauncey Billups (whom they can pay about $3M without exceeding the luxury tax threshold, assuming they also amnesty Ryan Gomes) doesn't alter the basic situation: their top priority is a new starting shooting guard.
Both Young and Billups would be reasonable options as the starting two, but bear a few things in mind.
(1) Young seems better suited to coming off the bench as a designated scorer for the second unit;
(2) Billups is returning from a MAJOR injury at the age of 36 and will not be ready for the start of the season;
(3) the Clippers also need depth at both wing positions.
Even with Billups and Young both penciled in as the backups at shooting guard and small forward respectively, you still need a starter at the two, and if you assume one of them is the starter, you need a backup that you plan to feature prominently in the rotation, at least until Billups is fully recovered. The bottom line is, the lion's share of the MLE needs to be targeted to a wing player.
Bear in mind also that other than their own free agents (Billups, Young and Randy Foye as far as guards are concerned) the Clippers are limited in what they can spend because they are over the salary cap. They can use the MLE (which starts at just under $5M per season), they can use the bi annual exception (the BAE which starts at just under $2M per season), and they can sign as many minimum salary players as they like (it varies by years of experience, but assume about $1M per). The MLE could conceivably be spread over more than one player, but it's impractical to speak of spreading the BAE over more than one player since at least one of those would be getting the equivalent of the minimum salary. So the bottom line is that the Clippers can use their two exceptions to sign two players (one worth $5M and a second worth $2M) or at most three players (say one at $3M, and two at $2M) -- but that's it. The payment options are pretty limited.
The good news is that there are several targets that "fit the suit" of the guy the Clippers seek -- namely a shooting guard with good size. The bad news is that most of them are pretty uninspiring. Let's go through some of the potential targets:
The Unrestricted Guys:
Ray Allen -- This is probably as good as it gets for the Clippers. The down side is that he's about to turn 37 years old and that his numbers definitely declined some last season. On the bright side, he's still one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA because of his ability to make threes, with an effective shooting percentage and a true shooting percentage to die for. He's also got great size for the position (something the Clippers will likely insist on after a season of playing NBA midgets on the wing) and was once a very good wing defender, though he's clearly lost a step. He's a proven winner, and let's face it, if you are looking for someone to spread the floor for Blake Griffin in the post and to open driving lanes for Chris Paul, you could do worse than the NBA's career leader in three pointers made. The big question with Allen will be trying to understand his motivation as he considers offers. What does he value most? Money? There are teams who can offer him more than the MLE, though it's not clear that any will. Loyalty? He could stay with the Boston Celtics and try to make one more run with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Rings? The Miami Heat will reportedly pursue him aggressively, offering the mini-mid level of $3M per season and a great chance at another title. Role? All players want to be featured prominently on their team and Allen is no exception. The Clippers exist at a reasonable crossroads of those considerations -- they can offer the full MLE (more than Miami can) and they provide an opportunity to compete and to make a major contribution as the starting shooting guard. Whether it's enough to entice Allen to the West Coast remains to be seen.
Jamal Crawford -- If Ray Allen has shooting efficiency numbers to die for, Crawford's just make you want to kill yourself. Crawford's career TSP is .525 and he was an abysmal .506 last season. Compare that to Allen's TSP numbers of .579 (career) and .608 (last season). Still, Crawford fits the profile of a scoring wing with size, and the Clippers are rumored to be in the hunt for him. Frankly, if the Clippers do indeed re-sign Young, Crawford is completely redundant -- Young is a younger version of Crawford essentially. Crawford has the ability to make tough shots, and when he gets hot he can seem unstoppable. When you see him get into that zone, it can be very seductive, and he seems better than his overall numbers. But in the end he's probably a bad investment, as Portland found out last season. Certainly if Young sticks around there's no reason to consider Crawford. Let's hope that Crawford is nothing more than a third or fourth choice.
J.R. Smith -- The Clippers were very interested in the former Nugget when he returned from China last season, but J.R. wound up signing with the Knicks. He's now an unrestricted free agent but like the Clippers and Young, the Knicks do not have Smith's Bird rights, limiting them to all or part of their MLE to re-sign him. So the Clippers can compete on price if they want to, but most reports indicate that Smith is happy in New York and intends to remain there.
O.J. Mayo -- The Memphis Grizzlies chose not to extend a qualifying offer to the third pick in the 2008 draft, which tells you something right there. He's also not really that tall, just an inch taller than Foye with the same wingspan more or less. But Mayo has a distinct advantage over the other names on this list, which is that he's younger, and some team is almost certain to offer him more than the MLE. Mayo of course played his college ball in L.A. at USC -- he might consider coming back to town to play for the Clippers, but he'd have to take a pay cut to do so (and I'm talking from his college days).
Brandon Roy -- Roy could be amazing for the Clippers -- if his knees are functioning joints. Supposedly he's looking to come out of retirement, but it goes without saying that he'd be a major health risk.
The Restricted Guys:
Eric Gordon -- By far the best free agent shooting guard on the market, EJ is clearly not an option as he'll command a max or near max deal this summer.
Courtney Lee -- The Houston Rockets played better with Lee starting at the two than they did when Kevin Martin was starting, so it's highly unlikely that they'd allow him to sign elsewhere for a paltry $5M a season. Too bad -- he's a nice fit for the Clippers needs.
Brandon Rush -- I know there's some sentiment for Rush among the citizens of Clips Nation, but the guy scares me. His stellar shooting numbers in Golden State last season -- 50% overall, 45% from beyond the arc -- are complete outliers as compared to his first three NBA seasons. Some team is probably going to seriously overpay for Brandon Rush this off-season based on an unsustainable level of production and I hope that team is not the Clippers.
Danny Green -- If you're looking for a guy who can defend and can make an open three pointer, you could certainly do worse than Danny Green. There is however the nagging suspicion that the elixir of Gregg Popovich's magical offense will not work outside of San Antonio and Green will turn into a D-league player again if he leaves the Spurs.
Landry Fields -- So many people realized that Fields was underrated as a rookie that he seemingly became overrated in his second year. It's really difficult to value him as a player right now, and likewise difficult to know how the Knicks might value him. With all the hype around Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony and the signing of J.R. Smith, Fields was a bit lost in the shuffle. He's from the LBC and played his high school ball at Los Al, so maybe he'd like to come home. But what would you be willing to pay him?
The Rest of the Guys:
Mickael Pietrus, Marquis Daniels,
Anthony Parker, DeShawn Stevenson, C.J. Miles -- there are a host of players who meet the legal definition of "shooting guard with size". None of these guys would be upgrades over Foye in anything other than height, none of them would deserve to start over Billups or Young, and none of them are worth the MLE. However, if all else fails, starting Billups and signing someone like Pietrus to a minimum deal to play some backup minutes is always an option.
There are other names of course, but this is my best guess at a list of potential two guard targets. At the end of the day, Allen is the most attractive name by far. If it's my decision, I start there and move on to an alternate plan if he says no. Getting a feel for what it might take to lure the RFAs is an important step as well -- remember that if you submit an offer sheet for an RFA, that money is tied up while the player's original team considers the offer, so pursuing an RFA can really hamstring you in terms of contingency plans.
Which may leave the Clippers in a situation where it's Allen or bust.