This is the first installment in a series detailing potential paths that the Clippers’ front office could pursue this off-season.
It’s no secret that the NBA is a superstar driven league. In the last decade, 20 teams have made the NBA finals. Of those 20 teams, 7 have featured LeBron James, 3 have featured Kobe Bryant, 3 have featured Stephen Curry, 2 have featured Kevin Durant (including 1 overlap with Steph), and 2 have featured Tim Duncan. That’s 16 out of 20 featuring five of the greatest players ever—and the other four were hardly lacking in Hall-of-Fame talent: a Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic team, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, and the big three Boston Celtics (featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen) two times.
The Clippers have never made it out of the second round in their franchise history. If simply making a Western Conference Finals is their goal, then they might not need to find the next Steph, LeBron or Kevin Durant—the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies made a WCF appearance led by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol (two amazing players, but neither on par with the aforementioned legends). But I highly doubt that a second-round series win is the long-term goal that Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, Steve Ballmer, and Doc Rivers are trying to build towards—they want to win championships. Of course, that’s what every NBA franchise wants to do (unless they’re being run by a Donald Sterling-level cheapskate... cough*Robert Sarver*cough), which is what makes it so difficult.
Of course everyone wants to win titles. Of course everyone wants to find the next LeBron. We’re not exactly in groundbreaking territory here. Still, it’s exactly what the Clippers will have to do if they want the next great Clippers team to be the next great NBA team.
That means that I have to do something that I’m not a big fan of doing: engage in hypotheticals about the Clippers pulling off a Hail Mary and landing a superstar. By my estimation, there are two free agents this summer who really fit the bill: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Even the very best other free agents—extremely talented players like DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, and former Clipper Chris Paul—probably aren’t going to be The Guy on a championship team.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, their free agency prospects seem bleak. The team would have to find a way to move quite a few medium-sized contracts (all movable individually, but the odds of being able to move four of them is quite slim) in order to open up cap space while keeping their core (DeAndre Jordan, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley) intact, plus hanging on to inexpensive prospects. The alternative options would be hoping DeAndre opts out of his player option, and then letting him walk (and losing one of your best players while simultaneously loading up for a championship push), or giving up major assets to dump Gallinari’s contract. Even if one of those long-shot salary-dump scenarios works out, the Clippers would be left with a bare-bones roster, left to depend on minimum-salary players to fill out major portions of their rotation. Is it worth it to sign LeBron or KD? Of course. But if you can’t put a quality roster around them, they’ll be unlikely to come to your team.
If the Clippers are to acquire a superstar, it’ll have to be another way: either via trade, or in the draft.
The Clippers’ draft situation is pretty simple: we’ll find out during tonight’s NBA Draft Lottery if they have struck gold, and can move into the top 3 for a better chance at a superstar. Even if they don’t move up, not all hope is lost: Steph Curry was chosen 7th overall, and Kawhi Leonard was chosen 15th overall. The chances of finding a generational talent are obviously slim, but two lottery picks give the Clippers their best opportunity in years. Even if no Hall of Fame talent is available at the tail end of the lottery, the Clippers will have a chance to add valuable talent, either to support an eventual superstar addition, or to use in a trade to acquire one. It’ll just come down to watching the ping pong balls tonight, and hoping the Clippers strike gold on draft night.
The team’s trade prospects are a little more complex. In addition to exploring sign-and-trade possibilities for the superstar free agents listed above, the Clippers are one of many teams who should poke around embattled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.
It seems incredibly unlikely that the Warriors would sign-and-trade Kevin Durant to a team in the Western Conference (okay, all of these pipe dreams are incredibly unlikely—but that’s laughable), but a LeBron sign-and-trade seems at least plausible. If the Cavaliers are going to lose LeBron in free agency anyway, the Clippers present them with an opportunity to get assets back in a sign-and-trade without taking on long-term salary. There aren’t many teams who have the combination of expendable expiring contracts ($12.7 million to Austin Rivers, $7 million to Boban Marjanovic, $6.3 million to Milos Teodosic, $6.1 million to Wesley Johnson) to make salaries match without impacting Cleveland’s 2019 cap space. Then, it’s just a matter of compensation: some combination of prospects (including the two rookies the Clippers will have selected just 1-2 weeks before) and future draft picks. If Cleveland is really stubborn, the Clippers could center a package around Tobias Harris. It would hurt to lose Tobias, but LeBron would still have Gallinari next to him at the forward positions, and Cleveland would get a really nice younger player to move forward with.
All things considered, the toughest part of working a LeBron sign-and-trade would be convincing LeBron to choose the Clippers over his other suitors, while making arrangements with the Cavaliers shouldn’t be too complicated. I suppose that’s reason for some level of hope, but pitching LeBron will hardly be easy for the Clippers this summer—I’m not sure their supporting cast is the best opportunity he’ll have to challenge the Warriors and win another title.
The Leonard situation is significantly more convoluted than James’ free agency—and he might be even less likely to become a Clipper. It’s no wonder that controversy surrounding Kawhi’s relationship with Spurs management has fans and front offices around the league salivating: at 27 years old, he’s already won a Finals MVP and established himself as a dominant force on both ends of the floor, with two career defensive player of the year awards and a career-best 25.5 point-per-game average during his last full season in 2016-17.
But I’m not sure that Kawhi will really be available in trade talks this summer. The Spurs just recently repaired a tattered relationship with LaMarcus Aldridge, their second-best player, and Greg Popovich and R.C. Buford are well aware that they need a Kawhi-level star to contend for championships. You can bet that they’ll make every effort to work things out with one of the league’s top talents. Even if there’s no path forward for Leonard with the Spurs, the trade market would be brutally competitive, and it could cost the Clippers Harris and both of their lottery picks to get into the conversation (jumping into the top 3 at the lottery would also give them an incredibly valuable chip during any trade negotiations). Would it be worth it? Yes. But for an extremely unlikely pipe dream, a lot of roadblocks remain. Kawhi only has one season left before a player option next summer, meaning that the clock is immediately ticking on convincing him to re-sign next summer, a proposition that, again, is more difficult without Tobias and the lottery talent you’d have traded away.
There’s a dark timeline where the Clippers land Kawhi for a king’s ransom, use that one-year window as justification for giving long-term money to an aging DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley, and then are left in salary cap hell for years to come when Kawhi leaves in free agency anyway after a second-round playoff exit. Let that scenario serve as a mental balance to the super-enticing dreams of Leonard adding more DPOYs and Finals MVPs to his resume as a Clipper.
All in all, the Clippers adding the kind of generational talent that they’ll need to win a title isn’t very likely this summer. But it’s not the kind of thing that will necessarily grow more likely in the future—it takes a perfect combination of skill, luck, and planning. While the front office works on trying to make something spectacular happen this summer, they also have to make sure they position themselves to maximize their odds of adding a star at some point in the future, either via the draft (by stockpiling valuable picks), trade (by accumulating contracts, players, and picks with trade value), or free agency (by maintaining cap flexibility).