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NBA Draft 2018: Can the Clippers Trade Up and Snag Luka Doncic?

Let’s indulge in some dream scenarios.

Basketball: Luka Doncic Sipa USA-USA TODAY NETWORK

With less than 48 hours until the start of the NBA draft, it’s time to entertain a fantasy that we’ve ignored for the last few weeks: trading up in the draft to select Luka Doncic. We’ve spent the pre-draft process profiling prospects who are likely to be in the Clippers’ minds with the 12th and 13th picks, as well as a handful who could be options if the Clippers move into the top 10 or move back into the mid-late teens. Largely, we’ve ignored a top tier of prospects who seem to have floors in the top 10 of the NBA draft: guys like DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson, and Mohamed Bamba. In that list, we’ve included Luka Doncic, the Solvenian prospect about whom so much has been written that I’m not sure what to add.

Doncic, at 19 years old, won Most Valuable Player of the Spanish ACB league en route to a championship, and won Most Valuable Player of the Euroleague en route to a Euroleague championship and Euroleague Final Four MVP. His per-36 averages (to account for only 25 minutes per game) were 20.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s the best player in Europe at 19, a 6’8” point guard winning individual and team trophies in a way that no player his age has ever done. There’s a lot to look at in terms of his strengths, weaknesses, and NBA projections, but sometimes scouting is really this simple: anyone performing at this caliber in top-level European competition is going to be a damn good NBA player.

So, how can we make Luka Doncic a Clipper?

It’s no secret that the Clippers’ new front office is in search of a star, a centerpiece player to build the New Clippers around after the departures of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and Blake Griffin in the last 12 months. They don’t have a bunch of assets, high-end prospects, or future picks to throw around to make godfather offers to teams, but they’re going to at least squeeze their way into the conversation this summer when it comes to angling for players like Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and, yes, Luka Doncic.

The big thing to note is that if Jerry West and Lawrence Frank want Luka to be a Clipper on Thursday night, they’ll need some help from other teams in the draft. It starts with the Phoenix Suns, who have the number 1 overall pick. All indications are that the Suns will take University of Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, who has become the consensus #1 pick in mock drafts since the lottery and hasn’t worked out for any teams other than the Suns. Of course, that’s not guaranteed until about 4:35 PM Pacific on Thursday, when Adam Silver calls Ayton up onto the stage as the number one pick. Phoenix recently hired Igor Kokoskov, who coaches Doncic on the Slovenian National Team, to be coach the Suns next season, and it’s impossible to know what discussions could be ongoing behind closed doors regarding the #1 pick.

But, if reports are to be believed, then Ayton is a safe lock to go to the Suns, and the draft really opens up with the Sacramento Kings’ second pick. That’s where things get much, much more uncertain. There’s a very real chance that the Kings take Doncic with the 2nd pick and are sold on him to the extent that they won’t really take any Clippers offer under consideration. There’s also a chance that the Kings take any number of other prospects, in which case Doncic would become available to the Atlanta Hawks at 3, and potentially to the Memphis Grizzlies at 4 and Dallas Mavericks at 5. Adrian Wojnarowski noted on an ESPN2 mock draft special Monday afternoon that while he thinks Doncic will go in the top 4, he considers Dallas at 5 to be Luka’s floor. While Woj would agree that any number of crazy thinks are possible, we’ll go with that guideline here: to have any chance at Luka, the Clippers will need to get into the top 5, but to have a real shot, they’ll need to get into the top 4.

With the #1 pick unattainable and the #5 pick likely not good enough, that leaves the Clippers with 3 options: the Kings, Hawks, and Grizzlies. What do they have to offer? Any package likely centers around picks 12 and 13 in this year’s draft, with possible inclusion of the Clippers’ 2021 first round pick. Beyond that, the team can add value to deals by taking on longer contracts in exchange for some L.A.’s expiring deals. In a last-ditch effort to get a deal done, the Clippers can also try to move Patrick Beverley for a mid-late first in this year’s draft, which could make for the last piece of value necessary to close a deal.

The most available of these picks appears to be Memphis’ at #4, where an effort to dump Chandler Parsons’ massive contract and desire to make one last push with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could outweigh the need for top prospects that most lottery teams have. Unfortunately, acquiring the #4 pick absolutely requires relieving the Grizzlies of Parsons, who has played (and played poorly in) just 70 games in the last two years, and is owed $24 million next season and $25 million in 2019-20. Still, biting the bullet on two years of Parsons is probably worth it if Doncic is on the board at 4, especially since you’ll have that cap flexibility back just as Luka is 21 years and old and heading into his third season.

The harder portion of this deal is actually getting it done. With pending player options for Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic, and Wesley Johnson, much of the Clippers’ potential expiring salary fodder isn’t available to be traded on draft night. Without those players, there’s no way for the Clippers to make salaries work with Parsons unless they include Tobias Harris—their current best player—or Danilo Gallinari, who has a similarly bad contract to Parsons.

Harris’ inclusion drastically changes the calculus of the trade from the Clippers perspective, likely letting the Clippers hold on to picks 12 and 13 and spark a total rebuild around three lottery picks, while Gallinari’s inclusion would require the Grizzlies to abandon hopes of freeing up cap space and be content with making Danilo their new #3 option for the next two years. The first option isn’t ideal for the Clippers, and the second isn’t ideal for the Grizzlies, but it’s possible that one could become a workable framework. Losing Harris stings, but it allows the Clippers to officially hit the reset button, build around prospects, and avoid a potentially huge new contract for Tobias in the summer of 2019. And while Gallinari is notoriously injury-prone, he’s capable of much, much greater contributions than Parsons, who will likely never be a starting-caliber player again.

Another alternative would be for some Clippers players to agree to opt in to the final year of their contracts. DeAndre Jordan likely isn’t a candidate here, but Austin Rivers could be a game-changer. If Austin opts into the final season of his contract, guaranteeing him a salary of $12,650,000 next season, that gives the Clippers a big expiring contract to build a Parsons contract around. In the short-term, Rivers is a shoe-in to start at shooting guard for the Grizzlies and he would pretty clearly be their third-best player behind Conley and Gasol, but after next season, he’d come off of the books, giving the Grizzlies money to play with in the summer of 2019. To make salaries match between Rivers and Parsons, the Clippers have several options that come without long-term burden for the Grizzlies. Boban Marjanovic has a $7 million expiring contract that, in combination with Rivers, would make a deal work. If Milos Teodosic similarly agrees to opt into his contract and be traded, adding him and Sam Dekker to a Rivers deal also makes the finances work, and the Grizzlies have the option of releasing Teodosic by July 15th to save $4.2 million of his $6.3 million salary next season. Finally, Wesley Johnson, who has reportedly already decided to opt in to the final season of his contract next season, would also give the Clippers enough of a boost to make salaries match alongside Rivers and Dekker.

Beyond the fiscal reality of salary-matching and the value of abandoning Parsons’ contract, the Clippers can add draft value to make a trade worthwhile for the Grizzlies. Just the Parsons-Gallinari upgrade, or saving a year of Parsons’ contract by exchanging it for expiring deals, isn’t worth giving up the chance to take Luka Doncic at pick 4. The Clippers adding some or all of picks 12, 13, and their 2021 first round pick helps to make up that difference. While the current front office has been more reluctant to part with future picks than the Doc Rivers regime, the team is open to including future draft assets to acquire a player of Doncic’s caliber.

It’s not surprising that pick 4 is the most available of the three we’re looking at. That, of course, comes with additional risk that Doncic won’t be there, rendering such an arrangement pointless (or at least significantly altering what the Clippers would be willing to give up in order to select Mohamed Bamba). Having a deal set up for the third pick instead of the fourth would allow the Clippers to significantly increase their odds of getting Doncic, but may prove more difficult. The Hawks, unlike the Grizzlies, don’t have established NBA All-Stars to try and build around short-term, meaning that it will be harder to convince them to pass on a top prospect for the long-term.

The Clippers, in hopes that the Hawks aren’t enamored with any of the top-tier prospects, can offer Atlanta a chance for two later picks at 12 and 13, and potentially a future first in 2021. That’s not much, and it’s probably an offer that other teams would be willing to beat if the pick is available. Beyond draft considerations, the Clippers can try to help relieve the Hawks of some bad contracts, but none are quite the obvious negatives that Parsons’ contract is.

Atlanta features three undesirable deals: Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder, and Miles Plumlee, Bazemore makes just over $18 million next season, with a player option for $19.3 million the year after, while Schroder has three years remaining at $15.5 million each, and Plumlee has two years left at $12.5 million each. While Bazemore and Schroder both have negative contracts, they still might be two players that the Hawks are reluctant to dump entirely for free, and Plumlee’s deal, while bad, isn’t the kind of cap-ruining contract that you trade the third overall pick to get out of.

The Clippers’ ability to match salaries in this case once again depends upon their player options. With some combination of their four decently-sized expiring contracts (Rivers, Marjanovic, Teodosic, and Johnson) and end-of-roster filler (Dekker, C.J. Williams, Sindarius Thornwell, and Jawun Evans), the Clippers could absorb any two of those three Hawks deals (I have a hunch that a little creativity could get all three bad contracts for all 8 smaller Clipper salaries, but it get sketchy and I haven’t quite figured it out, and it would have to be completed officially in July). It’s hard to know, at this point in the Hawks’ rebuild, if that’s a needle-mover for them or not.

The most sure bet for the Clippers to be able to select Doncic would be acquiring the #2 pick from the Sacramento Kings, but there’s no indication that the Kings have made the pick available. The Clippers, who have been making calls to gauge the market to move up, were reportedly rebuffed by the Kings when trying to build a deal around swapping the 2nd pick for 12/13.

While the Clippers can offer some additional value, the core of any package would be those two late lottery picks, so this is probably an indication that the Kings aren’t interested in moving the pick—or, if they do move it, they’ll look for deal centered around a higher pick in the 4-8 range. There is wild speculation regarding who the Kings like at #2, and it varies in a ton of different directions. Even if they don’t settle on Doncic, they may want to select Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley at #2, and if they choose to move back for Trae Young, Michael Porter, or Wendell Carter, they’ll still need to do better than the 12th pick.

Additionally, the Kings have no large, long-term contracts for the Clippers to swap expiring deals for, and they also already have a ton of prospects, meaning that one valuable pick is worth more to them than two or three less-valuable picks.

In short, a deal with the Kings seems about as unlikely as one with the Suns, and the situation with Atlanta is murky at best. While I wouldn’t rule out the Hawks, I’d say that if the Clippers want a shot at moving into the top 5 in the draft, they’ll have to set their sights on the Memphis Grizzlies and try to take advantage of the woeful Chandler Parsons contract. Will Doncic still be on the board at 4 for the Clippers to make such an effort? Even if he’s gone, will the Clippers try to talk to the Grizzlies in an effort to land Mo Bamba? We’ll find out on Thursday.