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NBA Free Agency 2016: Can the Clippers Just Sign Kevin Durant?

They aren't as far away as you'd think.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There's been a lot of talk about Kevin Durant's free agency in the last few days since he announced which teams he'd meet with: Oklahoma City, Golden State, San Antonio, Boston, Miami, and the Los Angeles Clippers.  When discussing possible landing spots, the narrative has been almost entirely dismissive of the Clippers' chances, likely due to a combination of disregard for the Clippers' fit and dismissal of their cap situation.

Both of those issues can be contested, though: San Antonio and Golden State are seen as the more attractive contenders, even though the Spurs lost to Durant's Thunder this spring and to the Clippers last spring.  The Warriors are undeniably the most attractive landing spot if Durant wants a ring, but they'd have to trade away Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut to clear space, as well as let Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Brandon Rush walk.  Adding Durant to their core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green would strike fear in the heart of every front office in the league, no doubt, but they would have to move a lot of the attractive supporting pieces.  Kevin would also be leaving for the team that just eliminated him, taking a far easier way out than LeBron James did when he signed with Miami--a move he was crucified for.

The Eastern Conference teams that Durant is considering are probably the least attractive options of the bunch--the Boston Celtics still have tons of picks and prospects that they haven't been able to turn into a championship core for Durant to play around, and the Miami Heat were an average team in the East last season, and now Dwyane Wade is 34 years old, Chris Bosh may never play again due to his health, and Hassan Whiteside and Luol Deng would likely both have to depart in free agency in order for the Heat to sign Durant.

So, the Clippers.  Why would Kevin Durant choose the Clippers?  I believe that Durant should, and will, re-sign with the Thunder, but I think it's fair to deviate from that realistic pessimism to at least describe what makes them an attractive option.  Chris Paul is the best passing point guard in the league, and he would guarantee Durant both the best floor general and pick-and-pop distributor in the game.  Russell Westbrook is no slouch at point guard, don't get me wrong--but Paul and Westbrook have very different styles, and it's possible that Paul's more efficient and distribution-oriented game would appeal to Durant.  Down low, he'd be teamed up with at least one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and while Serge Ibaka was an athletic roll man, he doesn't have anything on one of Griffin, one of the most skilled and athletic big men in the game, or Jordan, the most magnetic rim-diver in basketball.  Beyond those three, what does Durant need?  A couple shooters, a couple backup big bodies, a backup point guard--all easy enough stuff to find for the minimum when you have a starting lineup featuring Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.

So why is the media being so dismissive of the Clippers as an option?  Well, the expectation is that they'd have to trade Blake Griffin to the Thunder in a sign-and-trade because of their cap situation, and that OKC might not be willing to accept.  That expectation is kind of silly.  Beyond the fact that Blake Griffin is a thousand times more valuable than any sign-and-trade compensation teams have been given for as long as I can remember (normally it's just a trade exception and a future pick, not an All-Star in his prime), the Clippers have no need to send anyone to Oklahoma City.  They could very easily move Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan to a third team for a package that has a lower salary price tag, and then sign Durant outright, as detailed here. But, I get it.  If the Clippers move Blake and sign KD, the Clippers would be really, really good--but would they be a significant enough upgrade over Oklahoma City for Durant to actually leave for that future?  Maybe, but it's far from a sure thing.

I don't quite understand, however, why more people aren't talking about the Clippers just... signing Kevin Durant.  By my estimation, the team can move all of their salary except for the big 3, and offer Durant a salary pretty damn close to his max--a little over 24 million as opposed to his maximum salary of 26.6 million.  If the salary cap comes in higher than the projected 94 million, that gap shrinks, because the Clippers' room grows as the cap does while Durant's max grows approximately 30 cents for every dollar the cap goes up.  That means if, for example, the salary cap goes up from 94 million to 96 million, the Clippers would now be able to offer a little more than 26 million to Durant, and his maximum salary would only have moved up to approximately 27.2 million--shrinking his potential pay cut in half.

What would it take to get that money for Durant?  Well, it wouldn't be pretty, but it's definitely possible.  Right now, the only non-big three contracts that the Clippers have are J.J. Redick ($7.4M), Paul Pierce ($3.5M), and C.J. Wilcox ($1.2M).  Wilcox and Redick are both valuable pieces for their salary and the Clippers could move them to any number of teams free of issue, maybe bringing back future picks in return.  Pierce's contract is a little rougher, but if he refuses to retire the Clippers could easily make him a package deal with Redick, and teams would still line up to take on 11 million of salary for the sharpshooter.  Beyond moving those guys, the Clippers would have to cut Branden Dawson's non-guaranteed contract, trade or renounce Brice Johnson's draft rights, and renounce all of their free agent cap holds.  Then there you have it: the Clippers' cap sheet would consist of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, a $24,063,927 salary for Kevin Durant, and eight roster holds.

The obvious criticism is that the roster would have to be filled out with all minimum-salaried players, but if you put those four stars together in your starting lineup, they will come.  Players like David West last summer would take less money to join a stacked roster, and we saw it in Miami with the big three: if you put enough star talent on a team, limited role players and ring-chasing veterans can do enough around the edges to win you a championship.

In my estimation, this is probably the most attractive offer that the Clippers can make to Durant--not "we'll trade Blake for you" or even "we'll trade Blake or DJ for a cheap package and then sign you", but "we'll get rid of everything else and put you together with three other superstars".  It's a long shot, and the rest of the roster would be thin, but if Kevin Durant makes a commitment to join your team then the other pieces around the edges become incredibly less important.  Why are we willing to discuss the Warriors and Spurs trading an important piece (Danny Green and Boris Diaw, or Andre Iguodala) and letting their free agents walk (Boban, Duncan, Manu or Barnes, Ezeli, Rush) to grab Durant, but the Clippers doing the same thing (with Redick and Rivers, Crawford, and Green) is off the table?

When the Clippers' three stars travel with Doc Rivers and Steve Ballmer on Friday to meet with Kevin Durant in the Hamptons, I think that this might be the pitch that they put forward.  It could end up being a very hard one for Durant to say no to.