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2010 - The Year We Make Contract

When I posted about the Knicks' three year plan of hiring D'Antoni as part of a drive to get LeBron James to New York, I was a little obtuse and remained oblivious to the potential implications for the Clippers.  Fortunately, some of you citizens were not quite so dull-witted, and asked the question:  Would / should / could the Clippers enter the Free Agency 2010 game?

First, some background.  The 2003 draft was historically good.  Four of the first five players picked have become All Star fixtures, and several others from that draft (Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, David West, Josh Howard) have turned into solid pros or better.  But it's the big four of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade that stand out, not just from the 2003 draft but from any of the first 5 or 6 drafts of the 21st century.

As it happens, when those players were restricted free agents in 2007, three of them (James, Wade and Bosh) decided to sign three year contracts, with player options in the fourth year.  This sets up a unique situation in the summer of 2010 when they could become free agents.  Let's face it - there's never been an unrestricted free agent the quality of LeBron James - at the age of 25!  Think about that for a moment.  He's been to the Finals once already.  He's been a serious MVP candidate.  He's a statistical monster rivaled only by the likes of Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson in the history of the NBA.  And he could be a 25 year old UNRESTRICTED free agent.  It's pretty mind-boggling.  And even if you miss out on James, Wade or Bosh could be pretty good consolation prizes.

And even if you miss out on James and Wade and Bosh, as it stands now there could be a lot of other options in the free agent market of 2010.  It could be the greatest free agent bonanza in the history of the NBA.  Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson, Rip Hamilton, Manu Ginobili and Carlos Boozer are all potential free agents that summer.  There are also a host of great players with early termination options in their contracts, led by Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki.  Lots of things can happen between now and then of course to spoil it for teams hoping to land a huge name.  The players with ETO's and player options could decide to wait one more year.  Or any of these potential free agents could opt to sign extensions with their current teams.  But as it stands, there figure to be a lot of quality free agents on the market in 2010.

(You can forget about the classes of 2005 and 2006.  Yes, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are scheduled to be restricted free agents that summer.  But RFA's are a sucker's bet.  Since their team has the right to match any offer, you have to overpay to sign one, by definition.  As for Chris Paul and Deron Williams from 2005, they'll be locked up in multi-year deals by 2010 - no way either of those guys is taking the qualifying offer in 2009.)

OK, so we've established that 2010 has the potential to be an historically good free agent class.  What does this have to do with the Clippers?

Let's focus the discussion on LeBron and Wade.  They're the cream of the crop and they would be good fits for the Clippers (LeBron is of course a fit for anyone since he's, you know, LeBron).  If this scenario plays out, and the Clippers have money to spend in 2010, they could turn their attentions elsewhere if it doesn't work out with either of these two.  But you have to start with James and Wade.

Do the Clippers have the cap flexibility to put together a max offer in 2010?  Absolutely.  As of today, the Clippers have only two players signed in 2010 - Chris Kaman at $11.3M and Al Thornton, still on his rookie deal at $2.8M.  (Here's where Tim Thomas' 4 year deal proves to be infinitely better than the 5 year deal Radmanovic got from the Lakers.)  Obviously they'll have more than 2 players - they're going to have to field a team for the next couple of seasons.  But if they can avoid large, long term commitments, they could certainly have the money to be players in 2010.

Elton Brand is the first order of business.  His extension between now and then would likely have him making around $20M in 2010.  This is not a bad thing.  A potential free agent is going to want to have some pieces in place to have a chance to win wherever they are going.  Elton Brand is an ideal piece - a great player and a hard worker, who also happens to be a quiet leader and doesn't have to have the ball.  Few NBA superstars, if any, would be more willing and more capable of handing over the reigns of a franchise.  And for perimeter players like James and Wade, having a great post presence in place in Brand and Kaman could be very attractive.

Of course, if Brand actually decides to leave between now and 2010, it actually solidifies the money that would be available.  It just makes the team far less competitive, and therefore less alluring.  (Would there be enough money to offer two max contracts, and bring in for instance LeBron and Bosh?  Theoretically yes, but that's a long shot on top of a long shot.)

I'm estimating the 2010 cap to be about $65M.  That's nothing more than a semi-educated guess - no one can actually know what it will be.  But it's $55.8M now, basketball revenues will probably continue to rise which means the cap will rise, so that's the number I'm going to work with.  A new contract for James / Wade will start around $18M.  Brand + Kaman + Thornton comes to about $35M - so that leaves $12M that can be committed to other players beyond 2010.

Here's where it gets hard.  You could blow all of that on Corey Maggette, or on a sign and trade for Corey if you bring back too big a salary for too long.  In a perfect world, you could work the S&T for a player who's got two years left and will be gone by 2010 - like for instance Mike Miller.  But that's way too much to hope for.  Remember, Memphis is well aware of the free agent market in 2010 also.  Players like Miller and Mobley and Thomas who have pretty big contracts expiring in summer 2010 just got a lot more valuable.  The bottom line here is, you may have to let Maggette walk away for nothing if you want to play this game.

If Maggette is off the books, it's a fairly simple matter to stay on course for 2010.  You've got $12M to spend beyond there.  You probably use that money on Shaun Livingston, the 2008 first round pick and the 2009 first round pick.  In that scenario, you enter the summer of 2010 with Brand, Kaman, Thornton and Livingston and the two picks - you make your play for James or Wade - and then you fill out the 2010 roster with the mid level exception and NBA minimum players.  It's not a bad plan.

So let's take a quick look at the other side of the ledger.  Why would LeBron James or Dwyane Wade want to play for the Clippers?

As bad as the Clippers have been, the fact that they have been an afterthought in the landscape of the NBA ignores one simple fact.  It's still LA.  It's the second largest market in the country.  It happens to have a hell of a lot better weather than the other big markets.  And it is the media capital of the country.  For a basketball player whose maximum salary on the court has a fixed ceiling, who is looking to maximize his value off the court, it would be a pretty good choice.

I could make an argument also that the hapless reputation of the Clippers wouldn't necessarily be a negative.  Sure, the storied franchises have a certain luster - something we're seeing this season with Garnett and the Celtics.  So the idea of leading a revival in Madision Square Garden must have some appeal.  But we're talking about wildly confident and competitive people here.  Isn't it possible that LeBron James might look at the possibility of competing HEAD TO HEAD in the same building as Kobe Bryant as an irresistible challenge?  Making New Yorkers pay attention to the Knicks is not particularly noteworthy.  But making Angelinos (and the rest of the country for that matter) take notice of the Clippers with the Lakers still in their prime?  Potentially elevating the Clippers to the same level, or even above the Lakers?  Now THAT would be an accomplishment.  If LeBron is looking for an opportunity to define his legacy while also attending Oscar parties and movie premieres, LA's the place. I'm completely convinced that Kobe gave serious consideration to the Clippers' offer back in 2004, partly because of the potential challenge.  For someone who thinks he can do anything, is it more appealing to repeat history with a formerly great franchise or to make history with a traditionally terrible franchise?  Which is the more noteworthy accomplishment?

This is obviously all just wild conjecture.  But it does put MDsr's quotes back in April in a new light.  When he said the Clippers didn't have any 'bad contracts' was he speaking in general terms, or did he have his eyes on the prize(s)?  Cat Mobley and Tim Thomas don't have good contracts right now in terms of their productivity - but they're not bad contracts with a 2010 mindset.  The real challenge is to try to win in 2008 and 2009, without precluding a big free agency offer in 2010.  But it's not necessarily impossible.  We've already shown that most of the 'core' pieces (Brand, Kaman, Livingston, Thornton and some draft picks) can fit into a 2010 strategy.  And Mobley and Thomas will be on the team and helping out (to the extent they can) in the meantime. 

I think we'll find out pretty soon if this scenario is on the Clippers' radar or not.  Does Maggette sign with the Clippers for more than two years?  Or does he get traded for someone whose contract runs beyond 2010?  If either of those things happen, the Clippers are out of the 2010 derby.  But if they allow Maggette to walk, I think we can safely assume that it's at least a strategy they're considering.