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Clippers Free Agency 2016: Is Luol Deng a Real Possibility?

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The Clippers like Luol Deng. Can they afford him?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

According to Yahoo! Sports, the Clippers made a call to Luol Deng in the first hour of free agency to express interest.  Deng, a 31-year old former All-Star small forward known for his defensive talents, is exactly the type of talent that the Clippers have needed in their starting lineup for years.  Unfortunately, he could come at a cost.

The ideal situation would be for Deng to take a paycut to join the Clippers, win tons of games in Los Angeles, and get tons of open shots as the fifth man in their lineup.  If he's willing to come for the Mid-Level Exception, the Clippers could add him while keeping their bird rights on bench players like Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Green.  They'd also have the Bi-Annual Exception to add one more above-minimum player.  Unfortunately, Deng for the MLE isn't going to happen.  The most that the Clippers can offer with it is a starting salary of $5.628 million, with the maximum potential for 4 years and $24 million.  Deng hasn't made less than $9 million since his rookie contract, and he's coming off of making over $10 million in Miami last year.  With the cap jumping and Deng due for one more payday at 31 years old, convincing him to take the MLE would truly be the steal of free agency.

What's far more likely is that Deng is the Clippers' fallback of sorts.  Presently, they're well over the salary cap due to their cap holds on bird rights players like Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Green.  However, all of those three players have taken other meetings, and if the Clippers are unable to retain them or unwilling to match other teams' contract offers, they will either renounce or lose their bird rights and the cap holds that come with them.  Without those three cap holds, the Clippers can create just over $12 million in room to sign a player like Luol Deng.  Is that enough?  It's hard to know, but now you're at least in the conversation.  If Paul Pierce retires, the Clippers would have almost $15.2M in room--definitely enough to make a very competitive offer.

Unfortunately, if you create that $15.2 million in room and sign Deng with it, you're left with a bare-bones roster.  After the tremendous starting unit of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luol Deng, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, they'd be left with all prospects on the bench--a second unit of David Michineau, C.J. Wilcox, Branden Dawson, Brice Johnson, and Diamond Stone.  The Clippers would only have the room exception (worth $2.9 million) and minimum salaries to fill out the bench.

Deng is good, but is he worth it?  The cost is losing bird rights on Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and Jamal Crawford, as well as losing the MLE and BAE, the Clippers' two best tools to add outside talent.  Deng is definitely a better talent than anyone that the Clippers can nab with the MLE, but are Deng and a 2.9M free agent more valuable than the Clippers' three bird rights players, a 5.6M free agent, and a 2.2M free agent?  Probably not.

However, if the Clippers are in a situation where they believe that they're losing two of those bird rights players, they could do worse than giving up the last one and the MLE for a fringe star like Luol Deng.

I expect that the Clippers won't really extend an offer to Deng until at least July 4th, which is when Kevin Durant will reportedly make his decision.  If, as expected, Durant returns to Oklahoma City, the Clippers will immediately begin scrambling together their fallback options (mostly to re-sign players from last year).  Maybe then we'll see the Deng chatter really start to pick up.