The Clippers’ biggest task of this free agency period was done before July 1st even came. At 6:26 PM Pacific time—over two and a half hours before free agency began—Shams Charania of The Vertical reported that the team had agreed on a 5-year maximum-salary deal with Blake Griffin.
After that, it’s all about filling out the roster around Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and new point guard Patrick Beverley. The Clippers will need to secure a backup point guard, and they’ll likely pursue a veteran big man to bolster their second unit (maybe a Zach Randolph return?). But the team’s priority, by all accounts, is to add help at the small forward position, where they’ll need to upgrade shooting and playmaking in Chris Paul’s absence. Luc Mbah a Moute was a stellar defender at the position, but the Clippers’ new look will require more offensive production from the team’s starting small forward.
Their list of targets, released the day before free agency by L.A. Times reporter Brad Turner, was impressive and comprehensive: Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gay, Jonathon Simmons, P.J. Tucker, and James Johnson. But they might prove too ambitious for their own good.
The Clippers have reportedly scheduled meetings on Saturday with Gallinari, Ingles, and Simmons. Some reports have indicated that Iguodala is a priority, but it’s unclear if that interest is mutual or if the sides will meet.
Unfortunately, the path forward with the three forwards that the Clippers are meeting with seems rocky at best. Gallinari just opted out of a $16 million player option, and Ingles and Simmons are both restricted free agents, which means that the Jazz and Spurs, respectively, can match any offer tendered and retain their players. Unless Gallinari is looking for a steep paycut from his option and the 4-year, $100 million contract he reportedly desires, he seems to be an unrealistic target for the Clippers, who can only offer 4 years and $36 million using the mid-level exception. To manufacture a bigger offer, the team would have to dump salary from their second unit to create cap room.
For Ingles and Simmons, a mid-level contract would surely be matched, doing nothing more than wasting the Clippers’ time in a fast-paced free agency environment. Creating cap room for a larger deal would be a questionable choice—with Utah replacing George Hill with Ricky Rubio’s cost-controlled contract, it would take a massive overpay to scare the Jazz away from signing Ingles. Simmons, on the other hand, is a less than remarkable player—he shot just 42% from the field and 29% from deep as a bench player for the Spurs last season. Making moves to sign Simmons for more than the mid-level would likely be a mistake.
As for the team’s other targets, the perfect fit is hard to find. Committing long-term money to Tucker or Johnson is questionable, and both seem motivated to re-sign with their previous teams—the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat. Rudy Gay, coming off of a torn Achilles, is likely seeking a raise over the $13 million player option that he declined. Andre Iguodala might be the only player who is both a significant upgrade and a possibility in the Clippers’ price range.
There’s some pressure on the Clippers to add quality pieces and build a playoff team around Blake Griffin, and I get that. But they shouldn’t overspend now and limit their ceiling going forward. Even if they add the best player in the above list—likely Gallinari—they aren’t going to be competitive at the top of the Western Conference. The team’s real opportunity to vault themselves back into contention lies in their long-term flexibility, and potentially opening a maximum salary slot next summer. An overpay for the injury-prone Gallinari would limit the team’s future flexibility and possibly leave them stuck in a slightly worse situation than they were in before—winning 45-50 games a year without many option to improve.
So here’s my message for the Clippers: I’m happy that you’re being active. You go girl. Take those meetings. Offer some deals. Be a player in the free agent market. But when Gallo tells you he’s taking $18 million a year to return to Denver, and you’re considering offering massive money to a flawed restricted free agent, take a step back and reconsider. The goal this summer isn’t to make Danilo Gallinari or Joe Ingles your second-best player for the next four years—the goal is to make them a part of your core this season and then add a legit star next summer to form a 1-2 punch with Griffin. The second part of that is far more important than the first, and it would be a mistake to follow a path other than the one I just outlined. Don’t give out a massive salary that takes away from your ability to add a star next summer, and don’t give a multi-year guaranteed deal to guys like Tucker, Johnson, and Simmons, who, while nice players, are not long-term core pieces.
The Clippers need help at small forward this season, but if they can’t find the right fit with one of their big-name targets, there are other, more prudent moves available. A new contract for Luc Mbah a Moute that doesn’t guarantee money past next season would be an acceptable, if underwhelming, stop-gap option. The team could also use their mid-level exception and pursue a player like Omri Casspi, who would help offensively and who should be available at a significantly lower price point than the above targets. Casspi is a 6’9” combo forward who is a very good three-point shooter and an all-around skilled offensive player. While he might not be a long-term starter, he’d be a great role player at the right price as Doc Rivers builds the new version of the Clippers.
L.A. should also think outside the box and consider a run at Gordon Hayward, who may be poach-able following the Boston Celtics’ inability to land a second star to team up with him. Hayward figures to be in line for a maximum deal near $30 million, similar to Blake Griffin’s new contract, but if a deal with Gordon is lined up, they can create that kind of room. In order to make it work, they’d have to downgrade at center to find a cheaper option than DeAndre Jordan (Tyson Chandler’s $13 million deal works, for example) and dump the salaries of Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, and Wesley Johnson. Those moves are all possible, especially considering the Clippers’ new 2018 pick from the Houston Rockets, which they can use as sweetener for a team like Brooklyn to take on Crawford’s deal (the team could also use draft assets that they’ll likely be able to get from a team like Philadelphia for Lou Williams).
That combination of moves would open up $27.3 million in room for the Clippers to offer Hayward, which would be about $2.4 million underneath his maximum salary. If Griffin and Hayward can be sufficiently encouraged to team up, it’s certainly possible that they would be willing to split that paycut and each sign for slightly under the maximum. This addition could also be more easily facilitated as a sign-and-trade, where the Clippers’ outgoing salary to Phoenix and Brooklyn would allow them to take back Hayward at the full max (they could actually keep Lou Williams under salary-matching rules), and would create a massive trade exception for Utah to use to replace Hayward. It would likely cost a first-round pick as sweetener for the Jazz, but would be more than worth it.
The moral of the story is this: the Clippers have options, and none of them pan out properly this summer, they’re far better off maintaining flexibility for next summer than overspending this year for a flawed player. They definitely shouldn’t be locked in to pursuing a middle-tier small forward this summer regardless of cost—if the team can’t make a big splash with Hayward or find a core piece on a reasonable contract, they should be looking at player who will be cheaper or take one-year deals.