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Of Eggs and Baskets - the Clippers and LeBron James

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First things first, let's recap the last few days. 

On Monday, the Clippers had Marcus Camby, Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair, and were on pace to have perhaps $11.5M in cap space this summer (an approximation, we'll get into some more exact math later, but there are several moving parts here of course).

On Tuesday, they traded Camby to Portland for Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake (two nice players) and cash.  Since all three players in the deal have expiring contracts, this did not alter their cap situation at all, so it was still $11.5M.

On Wednesday, they participated in a three way trade with Cleveland and Washington that sent Telfair to the Cavs, Thornton to the Wizards, and brought Drew Gooden to LA.  Gooden has an expiring contract, while Telfair and Thornton have one year left each, so this netted the Clippers about $5.5M in extra cap space.  Call it $17M heading into the summer of LeBron.  By the way, a max offer to LeBron James would be about $16.6M.  That's not a coincidence.

Taken together, the two trades have an undeniable symmetry.  Telfair, Thornton, Camby (point guard, small forward, power forward) out - Blake, Outlaw, Gooden (point guard, small forward, power forward) in.  And sure, if the goal is to balance the roster, that's fine. 

But I remain mildly miffed about the first trade, even while admiring the second.  Remember, these are by definition separate trades.  I mean, with completely different trade partners, it's clear that there weren't external forces requiring linkage of the two deals.  So taken on their own merits, the offloading of the Telfair and Thornton contracts is exactly the right move for the Clippers and accomplished what they needed to accomplish.  The Camby trade was almost entirely lateral and it seems there was an opportunity cost there given Camby's resume and expiring deal.  Look at it this way - the Blazers wanted to do it badly enough to throw in some serious coin (both in the form of cash and in picking up all of Camby's bonus money).  It seems as if that extra value could have had some bearing on basketball, that's all.

Having said that, it is as I said essentially lateral and had they kept Camby it would not change the outlook for this summer, which is what we're all about around here now.  You can certainly argue that Blake and Outlaw fill glaring roster holes in the absence of Telfair and Thornton and that having them will help the Clippers be more competitive the rest of this season.  Of course, being competitive in the final 30 games of a lost season is of dubious value.  Whatever - I'm over it.

So what about this LeBron James guy?

A lot has been written on this subject, and no doubt a lot more will be written.  I tend to prefer the viewpoints of those who actually know a little about the Clippers, so I recommend you read Kevin's post on ESPNLA and his TrueHoop post and Eric Pincus' Hoopsworld article.  Pincus in particular nailed the cap issues - I won't be able to resist touching on these issues myself down below, but my strong recommendation is that you read what Pincus wrote about the cap issues, and ignore everyone else (except me of course) because there's a lot of misinformation out there.

In the big picture, I will frame this discussion with a wonderful Lloyd Christmas quote:

Lloyd: What do you think the chances are of a guy like you and a girl like me... ending up together?
Mary: Well, Lloyd, that's difficult to say. I mean, we don't really...
Lloyd: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I'd say more like one out of a million.
[pause]
Lloyd: So you're telling me there's a chance... *YEAH!*

In case you missed it, the Clippers are Jim Carrey in this analogy, and LeBron James is Lauren Holly - only a much, much hotter Lauren Holly (and this is coming from a guy who has a well-documented penchant for redheads). 

The Clippers chances of luring LeBron James to LA may not be particularly good - but if there's any chance at all, you absolutely have to go for it.  This is a franchise-changing opportunity, and if you don't believe me, look at Cleveland's record the five years before and after the 2003 draft.  Moreover, even if the odds don't look good today, you never know what's going to happen in the next few months.  Maybe LeBron and the Cavs will have some sort of falling out.  It's not like he has gone on record saying he's planning on playing his entire career in Cleveland.  I've said before and I still believe that he's most likely, even highly likely, to be a Cavalier next season.  But it's not at all difficult to make the case that if he wants an alternative, the best one is LAC (although the Knicks managed to clear enough space today to make them more attractive than they were yesterday).

So Plan A is LeBron - and only LeBron. 

The Clippers have $32.4M committed to Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon next season, and no, I don't expect any of them to be going anywhere.  (Although the trade deadline has now passed, they could of course move somebody between the end of the season and the start of free agency, but as I said, I don't expect that to happen.)  Add to those fully guaranteed contracts the partially guaranteed and very affordable deal of DeAndre Jordan and you're up to $33.5M.  If the cap comes in at $54M, then they have more than enough money to offer LeBron that max deal, right?  Wrong.

With only five guys and a spot for LeBron, the NBA would add seven six cap holds for minimum contracts onto the Clippers cap number.  Basically, since a team is required to carry at least 13 contracts has 12 players on their active roster, the NBA accounts for 13 12 contracts in calculating available cap space. At a little less than $500K each, take another $3.5M $3M away from LA's available space.  That puts them right around $17M $17.5M available - just enough to max James out if the cap really comes in at $54M.  So first and foremost, cross your fingers that the cap is at least $54M.  (Hat tip to citizen Lawler4ever for clearing up the 12 versus 13 question.  Remember of course that we can get as precise as we like in calculating the Clippers payroll, but it will still come down to where the NBA sets the salary cap for next season.)

Here's where some misconceptions start entering the discussion.

  • Misconception one - the Clippers are in a position to add a superstar to a nice core AND will also have a lottery pick, which could conceivable be first overall John Wall.  Sorry, but that first round pick counts against the cap as well.  Based on the current cap estimate, any lottery pick would preclude a max contract offer - the higher the pick, the less money to offer to LeBron.  Now, the Clippers could trade that pick for future picks to avoid any cap implications, and that's likely what they will do, but if you're dreaming of LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and John Wall, you'll have to trade Baron Davis or Chris Kaman, which won't be easy.
  • Misconception two - with the Bird rights to some nice role players like Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Craig Smith and Rasual Butler, the Clippers could feature a formidable roster of Baron, Gordon, LeBron, Griffin and Kaman backed up by Blake, Butler, Outlaw, Smith and Jordan by resigning those players over the cap after signing LeBron.  Wrong.  Bird rights involve cap holds - at values significantly higher than the player's previous salary.   So in order to clear the cap space necessary to sign a mega star, you have to renounce all rights to everyone else.  This is why I am relatively unimpressed with the Camby trade - the Clippers won't have the Bird rights of Outlaw or Blake under Plan A (or B or C for that matter), so it matters little how much we like them during our eight week rental.  Botom line: the second unit is much more likely to look like Bobby Brown, Kareem Rush, Steve Novak, second round pick and DeAndre Jordan.
  • Misconception three - Marcus Camby loves LA and was happy as a Clipper, so he could re-sign with the team after they sign a mega star.  Wrong again - unless Marcus likes LA so much that he's willing to sign for the veteran's minimum.  After a mega star signs, there will not be any money left for Camby.  And no, you can't use the mid level exception as the team automatically loses that when they go under the cap.

Bottom line is, the big dream begins and more or less ends with LeBron.  That's enough, it's still a most excellent dream.  And yes, some nice players, probably some solid vets, might want to join the Clippers at the minimum to play with LeBron.  But the rest of the roster - that's 8 or 9 roster spots - would come from second round picks and minimum free agents. So start scouring the European leagues now to get familiar with your future Clippers.

The problem is, the eggs in the LeBron basket are the really good ones.  The fall back eggs all seem a little cracked or rotten by comparison.

If LeBron spurns the Clippers advances, LA could turn it's attention to another free agent.  But as Sinead O'Conner (or Prince before her) might say, nothing compares to LeBron:

  • Dwyane Wade looks like more of a long shot and less of a fit;
  • Chris Bosh is even less of a fit, pushing Blake Griffin to small forward;
  • Amare is an older, less effective Bosh;
  • Joe Johnson is widely regarded as the best plan B, but do you want to give a 29 year old a long term contract starting at $16M when he's 'just' an All Star, not a mega star?  I don't;
  • Rudy Gay is out there, but he's an RFA so the Clippers would have to pay a fortune to have a chance, and might not get him even then.

Here's the thing about cap space - if you have it, you feel compelled to spend it.  And other than signing LeBron James, there certainly aren't any no-brainers out there this summer, though there are plenty of big names.

So perhaps the best alternate plan is to return to those Bird right players.  You get to keep the first round pick, you keep Outlaw/Butler at the three, you keep your solid backups in Blake and Smith at the one and four, and you continue to build around Griffin and Gordon.  Then you take the mid-level exception and sign a solid if unspectacular free agent.

That's not a bad plan - except that it is far from a certainty.  All of the Clippers' key FAs are unrestricted - the Bird rights represent a slight advantage, but very slight.  None of them are going to command as much as the mid level exception, which means that almost any NBA team can be in the market for them.  They might re-sign with the Clippers - or they might not.  It's worth remembering that the Clippers' 2004 pursuit of Kobe Bryant cost them Quentin Richardson.  Not that they wanted to pay Q the money that Phoenix was offering, but the pursuit of an external free agent while your own players cool their heels tends to dampen the relationship from both parties' perspectives.  Neither the rebounder nor the reboundee relishes the rebound relationship.

There are other possibilities to be sure.  There are sign and trade scenarios, lesser free agents, literally millions of permutations.  We know that GMMDsr is a wheeler-dealer who, true to his word, is putting workaholic level energy into being a GM now that he's no longer a coach.  If by some miracle LeBron James ends up as a Clipper next season, we know more or less what the team will look like - we know six key players, and the rest of the roster will be on minimum deals.  If James doesn't sign with the Clippers, it's anybody's guess what will happen. 

As for the idea of King James battling Kobe to rule LA, it may be a million to one, but at least there's a chance.