It’s not exactly a secret at this point that the Clippers’ off-season revolves around Kawhi Leonard. Whatever Leonard decides—and it looks like he’ll either join the Clippers or stay in Toronto—will shape the Clippers’ team-building efforts for years to come. A long-term deal with the Raptors means the Clippers need to re-evaluate their timeline. A short-term deal with the Raptors means the Clippers will have to stay relevant, competitive, and flexible so they can still be ready for him next summer. And, of course, any deal with the Clippers immediately puts Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, and the rest of the front office to work maximizing a suddenly-open championship window.
The other franchise-changing, league-disrupting variable is Kevin Durant’s free agency. I still expect the Clippers to pursue Durant with a maximum-salary contract despite him likely missing all of next season due to an Achilles injury suffered during the Finals. However, injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson have cooled chatter around their free agencies as many in the media seem to be expecting them to return to the Warriors. Kawhi, on the other hand, is being talked about every moment of every day.
But the Clippers don’t have much control over whether Kawhi comes or not. Sure, they’ve done their best—from hiring Lee Jenkins to sending staff to most of Toronto’s games to ensuring they’ll have massive flexibility this summer to build a contender around him—but at the end of the day, it’s his decision.
The Clippers’ biggest decision, then, isn’t about Kawhi or Durant. From the team’s perspective, those decisions are already made—if either or both of those guys wants to come, the Clippers will make it happen. The biggest decision the Clippers have to make this off-season is about Danilo Gallinari.
The veteran forward from Italy was L.A.’s best player last season, posting averages of 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists—all career-highs except for one 43-game season in Denver where he averaged 2.7 assists. He also shot a career-best 43% from deep and played 68 games, his most appearances since 2013. Considered a negative asset just a year ago, Gallinari likely just played the best season of his pro career, earned All-NBA votes, and should have positive trade value with just one year and $22.6M remaining on his contract.
That leaves the Clippers in a bit of a bind. If Leonard does choose to come back to California, he’ll likely want to sit around 20 games again next season for load management. Pairing him at forward with the notoriously injury-prone Gallinari could mean a large portion of the season with a fill-in starter at forward, and multiple games with two. What’s the point in having Gallinari as your second star if you can’t guarantee that he’s going to be available? And when he hits free agency next summer, are you going to re-invest in an aging, injury prone player as Kawhi’s sidekick going forward? The other option at that point might be losing him without a suitable replacement, as the moves the Clippers make to fill out their roster this summer could limit future flexibility.
The situation is similar if Leonard doesn’t come, though the anxiety around moving Gallinari without a suitable short-term replacement would likely be alleviated if the team doesn’t have championship aspirations next season.
But if Kawhi does come, and the Clippers move Gallinari, it’s hard to see how their cap space could be used to get a player of similar or greater quality to support Leonard next season. The easy way out would be Durant choosing to come as well—you find a one-year stopgap at power forward and then have the two best players in the league going forward. Short of that, though, it gets murky.
With Danilo out of the picture, the Clippers would have the cap room to chase another star free agent—Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, etc.—to pair with Kawhi. But is the front office that dumped Blake Griffin’s contract and was unwilling to pay Tobias Harris going to be eager to shell out cash for one of those other second-tier names? Maybe with Leonard already on board, it’s more palatable. Maybe not.
The Clippers could also go away from pursuing a max free agent by chasing some secondary targets. Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Harrison Barnes all declined lucrative player options for next season to pursue longer deals with the Celtics, Nuggets, and Kings, respectively. Would a call from the Clippers and incumbent Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard make either guy reconsider leaving altogether? If you’re the Clippers, any of those guys would make a fine power forward pairing next to Leonard—but none of them are quite at the level of talent that you’d label them the “second-best player on a championship team.” If those guys want big money for multiple years, it limits your ability to add higher-quality supporting stars going forward. If you give Harrison Barnes 4 years and $80 million, you’re committing to him as Kawhi’s sidekick for the duration of the four-year contract you’re hoping he’ll sign this summer. By the end of four years of those guys together, Kawhi will be 32 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet will be done with their rookie deals and on new, bigger contracts.
I’m not saying that that team can’t win a championship or two in that four-year span. And Harrison Barnes is pretty good! But for a team with a three-year window with peak Kawhi and cost-controlled Shai and Landry, you’d really like to have someone a little better—a second All-Star playing forward next to Kawhi. However, given the lack of top-end PF talent in the FA pool this year (aside from Durant, of course), it seems unlikely that the Clippers will find a worthy candidate for a second max. The sub-max players are quality but underwhelming and likely require major commitments. And Gallinari, while excellent last season, is a liability to miss 30 (or more) games any given year.
So, how do the Clippers move forward on such shaky ground? I think there is a good chance that they move Gallinari, either around this week’s draft or during the early days of free agency. While he was excellent last season, I think the Clippers should be scared of his inability to stay healthy, and I anticipate the front office wanting to avoid potentially losing or overpaying him in free agency next July. If two stars are coming, his contract has to go for math reasons. If one star is coming, they’ll want a more durable starting forward and second-best player. And even if the Clippers end up striking out in free agency, they have an opportunity to sell high on a very good player with an expiring deal (read: a way for a team with cap space to add a major piece without making a long-term commitment) in a year where tons of teams have room.
I think that if the Clippers are likely to want to move Gallinari regardless of how the bigger pieces land this summer, then the prospect of a draft-day deal becomes particularly alluring. If you wanted to keep Danilo and were only trading him if you had to open up cap room for two stars, then trading him before getting early-July commitments from free agents would be incredibly risky. But if you want to sell high and avoid his own free agency next summer anyway, then you could potentially maximize value by selling earlier. It seems to me that other teams will offer less for Gallinari if they know that the Clippers need to move him because Kevin Durant is sitting in the conference room waiting for that max slot to be open. A deal would still certainly get done, but the Clippers would lose leverage that they might have on draft night when they could still potentially walk away from a deal and keep Gallo.
The major storylines of the summer, of course, are Leonard and Durant. But the possibilities with those stars are relatively limited—either they come together, only one comes, or neither comes. With Gallinari, there are far more avenues for the Clippers to pursue. And on an-otherwise quiet draft night for the team, with only two late second-round picks, he could be at the center of a major trade.