The Clippers have been linked to all of the top free agents this offseason, and for good reason. A combination of a well-respected front office, an overachieving roster that tested the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, and tantalizing young talent gives the Clippers one of the more attractive futures in the league.
The Athletic’s Jovan Buha did a really excellent job of outlining the team’s plans this summer, particularly in the wake of Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury, but one sentence from that piece really stuck out (emphasis is mine):
Durant, Leonard and Davis are the three best players available and are the only three stars the Clippers are actively pursuing.
There is a deep class of free agents available on June 30, headlined by Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but also featuring Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, and Kemba Walker. Teams with cap space are targeting multiple names on that list, as all of them are All-Stars and would instantly upgrade the talent level on any roster.
What’s interesting about the Clippers’ methodology this summer is that they are only going after an indisputable no. 1 alpha, the best player on a championship team. According to Buha’s reporting, the only names that are on LA’s list are two players who have already led their team to a title, and another who most people believe has that capacity if he is surrounded by the right set of players.
It would be easy to call this offseason a success if the Clippers managed to fill their gaping hole at small forward by signing Butler and rolling back most of the same team, but this time with an honest-to-goodness wing player and perimeter stopper. Personally, I would love that watching that team, given that Butler embodies the no-smoke ethos espoused by so much of LA’s roster. Most every other team in the league (except for Minnesota and Chicago, for obvious reasons) would be delighted to add Butler to their roster without sacrificing anyone else.
But that’s not how the Clippers are viewing this summer. And frankly, they’ve been dropping hints about their long-term plan for some time now.
The way to win a championship in this league is to have a top-five player surrounded by a good mix of All-Stars and role players, along with a coach who is able to make adjustments during the postseason. The Clippers have the role players, they have the coach, and they a couple of All-Star-adjacent players, the kind who would be named All-Stars in the Eastern Conference, at the very least.
What they’re missing is the superstar. And the front office has decided that the only viable use of its best resources (cap space and first-round picks) is to get one of those first-team All-NBA type players. There is no sense in deviating from the plan by signing a free agent who cannot lead this team to a title.
Every move that LA has made since trading Blake Griffin has been towards optimizing that goal. The only contracts that the team has signed have been short-term, low-cost deals (that can be easily traded) for players who can support a superstar. The Clippers have pounced on every opportunity to recoup future assets at the cost of players who they don’t believe will be a part of that eventual championship team.
And if a superstar doesn’t want to come to the Clippers this offseason, the team has made it clear that they are not willing to settle. As we look forward to the summer, keep that in mind as secondary stars linger on the market — that’s not what this LA front office is interested in.
Last season proved that the Clippers can be sufficiently competitive and entertaining as currently constructed. There is no rush to leave the cocoon of low expectations where the young players can develop comfortably. The Clippers are perfectly happy in this intermediate state waiting for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to make the leap. The only reason to disturb that is if the opportunity to immediately become a contender presents itself.
The whims of the free agents on the market are still up in the air, and the NBA Finals could further inform those decisions. For now, all we know is that the Clippers are only interested in going big or going home.