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A Seat at the Table

This is looking like a busy week or so for the Clippers.

Andy Roeser and Neil Olshey worked overtime during the draft yesterday, getting NBA approval of the trade for Eric Bledsoe around 9 PM, about five hours after the draft started.  And then they immediately turned their attention to two other pressing matters - the hiring of a coach, and the wooing of a free agent.

Kevin Arnovitz has the story on coaches today, reporting that the Clippers are looking at two finalists for their job: Duane Casey, a Dallas assistant and former Minnesota head coach, and Vinny Del Negro, the recently fired head coach of the Bulls.  The plan is to have each of them in for face to face discussions early next week, and they'll need to make a decision right away if they're to stick to the timeline they laid out at the draft Thursday night, which was to have a coach in place by the start of free agency next Thursday.  Presumably, they'll want to have their new guy along for the ride when they head off to Akron to grovel before the king meet with LeBron James.

Because, in case you hadn't heard, there is no longer going to be a LeBron world tour.  They canceled that.  And for the noblest of reasons.

It's believed that James -- who is the face of this historic free-agent class -- wants to keep the focus on basketball and believes hosting teams in Ohio can prevent the recruitment process from turning into a spectacle.

By all means.  FSM forbid that this process turn into a spectacle.  It's all about focusing on the basketball of course.  Nothing to do with exercising power over these guys by making them come to him, by playing the game on his home court as it were.

Of course, the Knicks had to cancel the big party they had planned for LeBron.  And that guy they hired two years ago, the one whose job it is to make an impression on LeBron when he comes to town, I guess they kind of wasted that money.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports is reporting that there will be six teams invited to pitch his royal free agentness:  the incumbent Cavaliers plus Chicago, Miami, New York, New Jersey and the Clippers.  The Clippers are widely considered to be the longest of long shots in this process, to the point that ESPN effectively ignores their existence.  But as it stands today, they've got a seat at the table, so someone considers them still in the game.

Six weeks ago I went through the argument based on the primary factors that I assume LeBron and his people will be considering: team caliber and market size.  Of the six teams on the list, you can certainly make a very solid case for the Clippers.  They all have the money.  LA is the second biggest market, but arguably the best from a media exposure standpoint.  And only the Bulls can even begin to compete in terms of existing roster.

The other teams have countered by simply clearing more and more space.  Knicks GM Donnie Walsh performed a minor basketball miracle in getting rid of Jared Jeffries' contract last February, to free up the space for two full maximum contracts in New York.  At the time, it seemed like an act of desperation.  Now it's just par for the course.  The Heat, Bulls and Nets have all made deals in the last week to free up more space as well.

The Heat are trying for THREE big names.  The Bulls and Nets would like to lure two like the Knicks.  Can they do it?

First of all, let's be as clear as possible about the math. 

The Knicks do in fact have enough room for two full max players, so if LeBron and Bosh want to play together in New York, it is possible.  The Knicks could conceivably then turn Eddy Curry's expiring contract into a third decent player, and New York would at that point have.... three decent players.  OK, maybe that's a little harsh, but they're certainly not building around Danilo Gallinari and Andy Rautins.

Chicago does NOT have room for two full maximum contracts as of this point.  It's pretty close, but it doesn't quite work.  By my math, given their current roster, if the Bulls were to sign LeBron for a full maximum deal of $16.83M, they'd have a little over $14M left for Bosh (or whomever).  That's still a lot of money, but would Bosh take that when another team would be willing to pay him almost $3M more per year (which would add up to over $15M over the course of his contract with raises)?  If the Buls could indeed lure two marquee names, they could have an impressive team to say the least.  Start with Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, add LeBron James, and then add Chris Bosh (or Amare Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer) and that's the best starting five in the NBA.

[Note by Steve Perrin, 06/26/10 10:17 AM PDT - I'm embarrassed to say that I left the cap hold for Derrick Favors and Damion James, the Nets' draft picks, out of the first draft of the original post.  My bad.]  New Jersey comes even closer than Chicago to being able to offer two full max deals, but also comes up a little short has a little less room than Chicago.  My math shows Mr. Second Fiddle, whomever he may be, earning $15.16M $11.7M, assuming LeBron is not offering to take a paycut.  The Nets also have some nice pieces at point guard and center in Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, but even with LeBron and Bosh at the forward spots, the lineup would have a pretty glaring weakness with Courtney Lee at shooting guard.

As for Miami, we know that they have room for two max players - can they fit three?  In a word, no, not three full max guys.  One issue with Miami is that I know that James Jones' deal is only partially guaranteed and that they will waive him to free up space - but I don't know the amount that is guaranteed [Note by Steve Perrin, 06/26/10 10:24 AM PDT - looks like that amount is $1.856M, hat tip to citizen PookeyGuru and the invaluable].  The Heat would also like to get rid of the second pick in the 2008 draft, Michael Beasley, but aren't finding any takers.  My best guess, with Beasley still around and a fudge factor in for Jones, is that the Heat would have around $45M and could pay two maximum contracts and make a third offer starting around $11.5M per.  Not bad.  If they are actually able to find a team willing to take Beasley, this could be the greatest experiment in the history of the NBA - the Heat would be trying to build a team that was made up of three maximum salary superstars, and ten NBA minimum guys, with literally nothing in between.  It could work - but it could also go horribly wrong, and they could end up with a complete mess in South Beach.  The biggest question for Miami is, which three pieces would you want to put together there?  There's an elemental problem with their plan, which is that the marquee names more or less play one of two positions - wing or power forward - so signing three of them has a basic problem.  Sure, LeBron's a small forward and Wade's a shooting guard.  But at the end of the day, they're both wings, and wings that dominate the ball at that.  I've never for a moment believed that LeBron and Wade would end up on the same team.  These are two of the three most visible superstars in the NBA, and I don't care how much they like winning gold medals together every other summer, they're not sharing the spot light for 82 games.  Maybe they'll prove me wrong, but I doubt it.

Which begs the question, what's the best case scenario for the Heat that doesn't include LeBron?  Obviously anything in Miami starts with Wade.  The logical second guy is Bosh.  Whose the third guy?  Stoudemire and Boozer play the same postion as Bosh.  Joe Johnson plays the same position as Wade.  David Lee as your center?  Rudy Gay as the small forward (might as well stick with Beasley)?  So it's great for them that they have room for three players, but who are they actually going to spend the money on?  Frankly, the Heat would be better off starting with Wade and Bosh (or Stoudemire or Boozer) and then using the rest of the money to sign a few solid players rather than blowing it all on a third guy.

Cleveland of course is looking like the sad, boring choice.  Same old teammates.  Same old city.  Sure, there's family and loyalty there, and maybe that means more to LeBron than most people suspect.  But compared to all the shiny new toys other teams are offering, returning to the Cavs might seem a little like getting new underwear for Christmas; or maybe even getting old underwear for Christmas.

Likewise, compared with some of the other teams who are offering LeBron the chance to recruit his wingman, the Clippers may be looking a little outdated at this point.  One max salary slot?  That's so February.  Of course, the Clippers also offer established, legitimate NBA starters at the other four positions, and a clear hierarchy for James.  He's he only guy coming in, there's no question whose team it is.  The ace in the hole for the Clippers may be Blake Griffin.  As a fellow first overall draft pick and athletic freak, Griffin may be the best complement to James among his suitors.  He's inside to LBJ's outside.  He's willing to play off the ball.  He's willing to do all the grunt work, grab the rebounds, dive over the scorer's table.  And he's willing to give James the spotlight. 

In the end, if the Clippers have any chance at all in this beauty contest, it will first come down to the discussions between the free agents themselves.  Because the simple fact is that if LeBron wants to take a date to the dance, then the Clippers aren't an option.  But if he's going to go stag, then the Clippers are probably his best option.  The Clippers were stung two years ago when a free agent romance between Baron Davis and Elton Brand suddenly went south.  It's entirely possible that LeBron won't find a dance partner to his liking.  Bosh certainly seems like the best fit.  If LeBron wants to play with Bosh next season, then the Clippers are out.  But if he's going to strike out on his own, then LA may be the place.

For now, the Clippers have a seat at the table and a chance to make their pitch, and that's all you can ask for at this point.