One of the best things about Clips Nation is that we aren’t just an isolated blog covering the Clippers—we’re a part of an expansive network of SBNation blogs, with over 300 team sides, including one for each NBA team.
That gives us a unique opportunity to, at times, work in conjunction with other team sites to enhance our coverage. Today, with free agency looming, all 30 NBA blogs are running some version of this article, pondering what moves would make fans happy or unhappy in the early July frenzy to come.
The answer is simple: after moving on from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin over the course of the last year, the Clippers need to add top-tier talent to their roster. Effective role players, progressing young players, and cap flexibility are all important elements of a good team, but none are as crucial as the fact that, in order to contend for an NBA Championship, you need one (or more) of the league’s very best players. Acquiring superstars is hard, and winning championships is even harder, but those are the lofty goals that Steve Ballmer has set for his front office—and they didn’t hire Jerry West so they could sit idly by and watch the Lakers pursue players like Paul George, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.
Still, high expectations and a good front office isn’t enough to guarantee immediate success. All along, it has seemed far more likely that the Clippers could realistically set their sights on adding top talent in the summer of 2019, when their cap sheet will be almost fully recovered from the luxury tax spending of the Lob City era. That hasn’t stopped them from trying, though: the Clippers made their best Kawhi Leonard pitch to the Spurs ahead of last week’s NBA Draft, reportedly offering Tobias Harris and both of their first-round picks for the star wing. While that offer wasn’t enough, and it seems unlikely that the Clippers can build a competitive offer for Leonard in the current trade market, it’s a safe bet that they’re still doing their best to stay engaged and wiggle their way into trade talks. Additionally, you can expect the Clippers to be among the teams aggressively trying to get into a room with LeBron James in early July, even if that’s a long shot as well. They can’t offer James the best chance at a ring or the biggest market, and they don’t have a clear avenue towards creating cap space to offer him a maximum-salary contract. Still, I’d be surprised if the Clippers front office didn’t have a plan to try and get a meeting with LeBron, and either set up conditional salary-dumping trades or try to hammer out a sign-and-trade agreement with the Cavaliers if they’re able to land James’ commitment.
Barring an unlikely grand slam with one of those superstars, the Clippers’ best strategy this summer will be patience. The team’s new front office sold the fanbase on long-term flexibility when franchise player Blake Griffin was traded in January, with the consensus being that the team would have a better chance at building towards a championship without Griffin’s 5-year, $173 million contract eating about a third of their salary cap every year. It didn’t hurt that the return value (Tobias Harris and a first-round pick) was quite high. Similarly, people reluctantly got behind the decision to explore trading Chris Paul rather than offering him a five-year maximum contract last summer, and receiving Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and a first-round pick in exchange set the Clippers up quite nicely.
But frankly, the fanbase has been less enthused with some of the Clippers’ other moves in the past year. In two trades, the team gave up a first-round pick to give Danilo Gallinari a massive contract in a sign-and-trade, and moved 25-year-old guard Austin Rivers, coming off of a career year, for 34-year-old center Marcin Gortat, who is coming off a year that seems to indicate that his career is nearing its end. In last week’s draft, the Clippers had to give up two future second-round picks to move up one slot in the draft because Charlotte got wind of their plan to select Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and then surprised fans by taking Jerome Robinson with the 13th pick, which some draft experts considered a reach. Additionally, during the season, the Clippers played hardball with two-way contract guard Tyrone Wallace, refusing to sign him to the 15-man roster unless he took a multi-year, non-guaranteed deal. That move forced the Clippers to play several games without Wallace during the final month of the season as they attempted to make a playoff push. And it’s likely that another unpopular trade is coming soon if DeAndre Jordan opts into the final year of his contract and is sent to Dallas for almost no return value.
It’s not likely that many of the fringe moves that the Clippers make will overly excite the fanbase—it’ll take big steps towards building a contending team to do that. But as long as the front office preaches flexibility and asset management, there would be no quicker way to lose the fanbase’s trust than to make further moves this summer that negatively impact the team’s cap sheet or squander potential trade assets.