Last season, it was all so easy.
By this time a year ago, most attentive Clips Nation readers could have, with relative accuracy, predicted the off-season to come. The Clippers would, presumably, overpay to keep Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Green, their three bird rights free agents. Then, they’d be left with the Mid-Level Exception, Bi-Annual Exception, and Minimum Salary Exception to find two more forwards and a backup big man. Leading options for those slots were returners Cole Aldrich, Wesley Johnson, and Luc Mbah a Moute. Then, the team would need to seek out a minimum-salary point guard to replace Pablo Prigioni.
Cole Aldrich was paid more than LAC could afford, which was expected, and the Clippers used their two exceptions to keep Johnson and Mbah a Moute around, which was also expected. They found a minimum-salary backup center (Marreese Speights) and point guard (Raymond Felton), which was expected. They overpaid to keep Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, which was expected because the only alternative would have been to replace them with minimum-salary players. The only curve ball was the sudden departure of Jeff Green for the Orlando Magic. Add in a couple young guys (Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone), a couple minimum-salaried veterans for depth (Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass), and the unfortunate continued presence of Paul Pierce, and the 15-man roster looked pretty much how we expected it to before free agency.
The Summer of 2016 was straightforward for the Clippers. They knew exactly what they wanted to do, and they accomplished almost all of it. They knew exactly the spots that they needed filled, and they did a respectable job with the tools that they had at their disposal.
The Summer of 2017 is pure chaos in comparison.
There is a very real chance that two months from today, the Clippers feature their strongest roster to date, adding Carmelo Anthony around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s shiny new 5-year contracts and piecing together solid defensive role players at a discount.
There’s also a very real chance that one year from today, we’ll be excitedly anticipating a high Clippers selection in the 2018 NBA Draft following a dismal season that resulted from the departures of Paul and Griffin in free agency.
So, you can see why “5 veteran point guards who could be available for the minimum salary” isn’t as compelling a headline as it was a year ago. It’s entirely possible that Raymond Felton moves on and the Clippers are left looking at a list like that and choosing between calling Jose Calderon and Aaron Brooks to back up Chris Paul. It’s also possible that those 30-year-old veterans will be totally off the radar, as the rebuilding Clippers look for younger pieces with their new-found cap room.
Despite the murkiness, off-season preparation must go on. Based on some sketchy indications passed down throughout the season, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both seem likely to re-sign with the Clippers. One or both could still take meetings with other teams, and ultimately end up leaving, but it seems as though LAC remains the front-runner in each case. For that reason, I think that off-season preparation time is best spent focusing on the answer to “What’s next?” after the signings of Paul and Griffin. If those guys leave, and the cap sheet is blown wide open, the Clippers will likely suck regardless of if or how they spend their money. The return of those two stars is the only hope of the Clippers’ smaller roster moves even mattering at all.
Even if we assume that Paul and Griffin are back, there’s still a lot up in the air. The Clippers could attempt to use their taxpayer mid-level exception in an attempt to retain Speights (although it’s likely that the $5.2 million salary wouldn’t be enough anyway), but if they land Carmelo Anthony, Doc Rivers could be looking for a more defense-oriented backup center. Additionally, an Anthony trade would likely cost the Clippers Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Wesley Johnson—three pieces of SG/SF depth. Such a deal could open the door for a SG/SF to be a larger MLE priority than a C.
On a smaller scale, Raymond Felton’s potential availability for the league minimum would likely thrill the Clippers, who could lock up solid play at the backup point guard position for cheap. However, if he seeks (and is offered) a greater salary, he might bolt, leaving the Clippers looking for a new point guard (or third guard if the Clippers deplete their depth for Melo).
If Chris and Blake return, we can sort the Clippers’ summer into two potential paths—with Carmelo, and without.
Without a Carmelo trade, the Clippers’ starting lineup doesn’t change much—they have to re-sign Luc Mbah a Moute, and if they don’t keep J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers can slot in at shooting guard while Jamal Crawford remains as the 6th man. The Clippers’ holes are everywhere else on the bench, with just Wesley Johnson, Brice Johnson, and Diamond Stone remaining on the roster beyond those front six. Even if J.J. Redick is also re-signed, the Clippers will need to add a point guard again and seek more wing help, while still tackling the issue of backup big men. They will have just the taxpayer mid-level and minimum salary exceptions to fill those four second-unit posts, except for being able to offer slightly-above-minimum deals to Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, and Mo Speights using their non-bird rights.
So, the path forward looks something like this: identify one semi-big splash to sign with the taxpayer mid-level (worth only 5.2 million in a summer with a higher cap than last year, when Austin Rivers got over double that), and seek bargain-bin minimum guys to fill out the second unit—guys like Felton and Bass could return at that price point, while Speights would likely need to be given the mid-level.
In this case, next year’s team looks remarkably similar to last year’s, with the main possible changes being J.J. Redick’s potential departure, the addition of a $5 million bench player, and some changes among the minimum-salaried guys.
If the Clippers do swing a Carmelo trade, the equation obviously changes. There are a wide variety of options regarding an Anthony package, but the general pieces would include some combination of Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, possibly Paul Pierce’s expiring contract, and a J.J. Redick sign-and-trade.
The three important pieces here are Redick, Crawford, and Rivers, because those are the three rotation players who would be of value to the Clippers in a post-Melo world. The Knicks have serious interest in Redick and Rivers, but are less enthused with Jamal Crawford’s contract. The Clippers view Redick and Rivers as viable starting shooting guards, but prefer Crawford as a bench player. This means that a deal sending both Redick and Rivers to New York and leaving Crawford as the Clippers’ only shooting guard is likely off of the table.
So, the Knicks have two options—either let Crawford replace one of those two guards in the package, or send back Courtney Lee, their current starting guard (whose long-term deal they won’t need with their new additions). I believe this to be the most likely scenario: that the Clippers send all three of those guards, along with some other pieces, for Anthony and Lee.
That leaves the Clippers with those two incomers joining the existing three starters, and a blank slate on the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute should obviously be retained as a backup combo forward, leaving the Clippers with the same taxpayer mid-level exception and a bunch of minimum deals to fill out their roster.
So, just like in the non-Melo scenario, the Clippers would need to find one quality player at that $5 million price point, and then dumpster dive for quality contributors at the minimum.
Since that’s going to be the strategy for the Clippers in either case, that’s the groundwork that we’ll aim to lay down at Clips Nation in the coming weeks—looking at potential MLE signings to serve as key bench cogs at different positions, as well as examining the relatively unappetizing options that will be available at the league minimum. Unlike in past years, when this search may have been limited to 2 or 3 positions, we’ll examine players from every position, as the Clippers will likely need to sign at least one new point guard (even if they keep Raymond Felton, they could use a young third-stringer), a couple of wing players, and a couple of big men.
Who will be the best fit to get the taxpayer mid-level? Where can the Clippers find serviceable rotation parts for the minimum? These are the questions we’ll be tackling in the weeks to come.