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NBA Free Agency 2019: Previewing the Clippers’ opening-day pursuit of Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant

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What should we expect today?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers-Press Conference Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, it’s here.

The NBA’s Free Agency period officially begins today at 6 pm Eastern time/3 pm Pacific time. After months of breaking the league’s rules to talk to players (and even a couple of days of reaching agreements on the first few deals of free agency!), teams can begin officially recruiting and negotiating with free agents today. Deals can be signed on July 6th, meaning that teams hoping to manipulate the timing of deals for salary cap purposes may need to have all their moves set up by then. That includes the Lakers spending their new-found cap space so that they can execute the multi-team, thousand-player Anthony Davis trade. It could also include a potential Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade for the Clippers.

So, what should we expect the Clippers to do tonight?

Well, we probably won’t get any major news tonight on LAC’s end. The team’s focus remains squarely on reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and while Leonard is likely to make a relatively quick decision, there’s been no indication that he’s prepared to commit to the Clippers—or anyone else—as soon as free agency opened. Reports have indicated that Leonard is going to meet with the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers before giving the Toronto Raptors the final meeting to convince him to return.

The odds that all three of those meetings happen after 3pm on Sunday, and he decides same-day? Slim. It’s likely to be a day or two, at least, before Kawhi is the first domino to fall on a Clippers off-season that should be eventful regardless of which team Leonard chooses. One question as we keep track of what’s going on around the league as the Clippers wait on Kawhi: how many of their fallback options will come off the board between free agency opening today and Kawhi’s potentially-not-the-Clippers decision?

Even though the Clippers are unlikely to start penciling guys into their lineup tonight while they wait on Kawhi, it’s safe to expect that they will be very active. We’ve already seen the team linked to a bunch of other free agents from all over the cost spectrum, and while certain deals for certain guys may be contingent upon the Clippers signing—or not signing—Leonard, they’re still going to reach out to guys in order to register interest and encourage them to wait and give the Clippers time to figure out their primary targets first.

Pursuing a second star

There’s been some fantasizing in the Clippers fanbase over the last couple of months that, in the wake of an unexpected 48-win season with a scrappy, rag-tag team, L.A. would be able to simply slot Kawhi Leonard into the pre-existing lineup and do what fans have called “run it back + Kawhi.” This expectation was probably always unrealistic.

While the Clippers have a strong supporting cast, one of their biggest advantages in pursuing Kawhi is their ability to put another star alongside him while keeping most of their depth intact. By moving the expiring deal of Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers can add two maximum salary players while holding on to starting sophomore guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, restricted free agents Rodney McGruder and Ivica Zubac, and first-and-third-place finishers for Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Put that really strong depth behind two stars and round out the roster behind them with the Clippers’ leftover cap space, and you’ve transformed from “upstart team adds superstar” to simply having a top-class roster.

It feels at this point as though adding that second star is one of Leonard’s requirements, so while the Clippers might not close other deals until they hear from Kawhi, they’re safe bets to be in contact with several potential co-stars as free agency begins today.

Let’s talk Kevin Durant

There’s probably only one guy that the Clippers are interested in with or without Kawhi, and that’s another former NBA Finals MVP: Kevin Durant. Durant is unquestionably one of the most dominant offensive players in the history of the league, combining an elite perimeter scoring skillset and his massive, lanky frame to produce insane volume with lethal efficiency. He also ruptured his Achilles tendon earlier this month.

My stance is that if you can sign Durant, you do it. He’ll miss all of next season as he recovers, and he may never reach his peak performance again. But even if he loses a step, he’ll be one of the best players in the NBA. There’s certainly risk attached to acquiring a player who is about to miss a full season, but the potential reward of having Kevin Durant on the floor sixteen months from now is too great to pass up.

Durant’s other primary options appear to be teaming up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn or staying with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in Golden State. The Nets are in a similar situation to the Clippers with a shrewd front office, some value depth, and tons of cap space. Frankly, the Clippers’ depth is better, their front office is more established, and they have the richest owner in the league in Steve Ballmer. But the Nets have strong connections with Jay-Z, whose agency Durant is signed to. Durant may prefer to be in New York City than Los Angeles—especially given a chance to play in the league’s weaker conference. And the Nets (seemingly expect to) already have Kyrie Irving in place (once he agrees to his deal when free agency opens tonight).

The Warriors, on the other hand, might not be where Durant wants to be—but still might be hard to turn down. We know the legacy stuff bugs him, we know he’s irked that the fanbase prefers the original Warriors core to him, and there’s pretty strong reason to suspect he distrusts their medical staff after he was rushed back and re-injured in the NBA Finals. But returning to the existing Warriors core is more likely to produce additional championships than any other potential path, even if they’re out of the running next year and weaker than we’re used to going forward. And, in what could be an especially significant factor for a player who will turn 31 in September and 32 before he begins his next training camp in the fall of 2020, the Warriors are the only team that can offer Durant a 5th year on his new contract. While the 4-year, $164,255,700 deal that the Clippers and Nets are offering is nothing to sneeze at, the Warriors are expected to offer Durant a 5-year deal worth $221,554,200.

L.A. has a lot going for them, but some interesting young players, a respected coach, and the league’s best front office don’t exactly guarantee contention in the same way that teaming up with Kyrie Irving does, or make up for the promise of championships an an extra $57 million if Durant stays with the Warriors. In an interesting way, the Clippers’ pursuit of Durant may somewhat depend on their pursuit of Leonard—both coming together seems more likely than either coming alone. Can the Clippers convince one star to help pitch the other on a vision of playing together?

Don’t forget about Jimmy and Al

The Clippers’ focus is on their dreams of pairing Durant and Leonard, as it well should be. But missing out on KD wouldn’t doom their chances of adding Kawhi. I expect that a Jimmy Butler signing would be enough for the Clippers to convince Leonard to come back to Southern California. Not only is Butler simply one of the biggest stars on the market this summer (I’d put him 5th after Durant, Leonard, Irving, and Thompson), but his specific abilities—creating offense from the wing and guarding All-Stars at multiple positions—is something the Clippers can sell as part of Kawhi’s load management plan, allowing the team to win games when Kawhi rests, play him fewer regular-season minutes, and ask less of him while he’s on the floor.

Butler’s situation may be trickier to navigate than Durant’s, however. While the Clippers view Leonard and Durant as worth maximum-salary deals on their own, the team seems to question giving such a deal to Butler. While an excellent player, he’s a clear tier below those two, and there’s fear that signing Butler alone would limit future flexibility for a guy who might not be good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Butler should want to be a Clipper in vacuum (and based on reports, it seems like he does), but there are enough other teams dying to give him a max deal that he could turn away from L.A. if he feels disrespected or under-valued. According to reports, both the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat are aggressively interested in Butler, though neither have the cap space to sign him outright and would therefore need to convince Philadelphia to facilitate a sign-and-trade. I wrote a little bit about how if Philly is open to it, a Gallinari-Butler sign-and-trade would help the Clippers have an additional $22M in cap space to pursue another free agent.

While that money could go to any number of players, one Clippers target would be Al Horford, who the team might be interested in as a Kawhi co-star with or without Butler. The perks of a Butler-Leonard-Horford trio are obvious, but if the team misses out on both Durant and Butler, Horford may be their best option for a second splash to entice Kawhi. The team’s other options would be the likes of Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, D’Angelo Russell, and DeMarcus Cousins—it’s easy to see why Horford would be considered their best bet in that group, though I wouldn’t entirely rule out the Clippers at least giving Tobias a call. L.A. offering a large contract to Harris would almost certainly be contingent upon needing him to get Kawhi.

What else could we hear tonight?

So, we’ve talked a lot about a couple of the league’s premier free agents. But in basically every star-acquisition scenario, the Clippers end up with some leftover cap room as well as the room exception (worth 4.8M). Who else could they look at?

McGruder and Zubac: Okay, these are the gimmes. The Clippers have two solid rotation players in restricted free agency with just $1.9M qualifying offers. In an emergency, they could renounce those offers to save a little bit of cap room, but that’s probably pretty unlikely. Both of these guys should be in the $4M-$6M range on a 2 or 3-year deal. Keep an eye out for the chance that other teams register interest or even make an offer. When a restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with another team, their new salary replaces their qualifying offer on their team’s cap sheet and their team has 48 hours to either match the deal or let the player walk. While that 48-hour clock doesn’t start until the league’s moratorium lifts on July 6th, offer sheets can be signed before then, meaning an early offer sheet for either guy could potentially impact the Clippers’ ability to maximize the amount of cap room they have available on July 6th when they can officially sign free agents.

Power Forwards! There are a lot of things that need to shake out with the stars before the Clippers make smaller deals, but in almost every scenario, the team’s biggest hole is at PF. If the Clippers move Gallinari for Butler, they’ll be without a starter at the PF position, and even in the scenarios where they keep Danilo, the team’s most glaring weakness would be a lack of PF depth behind the injury-prone veteran.

  • The Clippers are interested in keeping JaMychal Green if the price makes sense for both parties.
  • They’ve reportedly reached out to Marcus Morris, who is likely to leave Boston, is one of the best options available in terms of both talent and fit, but the Clippers’ ability to afford him depends on how the bigger moves go.
  • The team was linked to Bobby Portis last week, though his status as a restricted free agent introduces complications for pursuing a player who is underwhelming to begin with.
  • Taj Gibson is another rumored target as a very solid (if limited) veteran.
  • Former Clipper draftee Al-Farouq Aminu is another player the Clippers have interest in. While he’s not the shooter you’d like him to be, he still manages to hit a near-league-average rate on a healthy volume, and he brings a lot to the table as a versatile defender and rebounder.
  • While there are a number of other names out there (Rudy Gay, Trevor Ariza, Thaddeus Young, Mike Scott), I’d especially keep an eye on DeMarre Carroll and Anthony Tolliver as two cheap options. Carroll has re-invented himself in Brooklyn in the last couple of years and seems very capable of earning plenty of minutes as a “dirty work” guy on a good team. Tolliver is a fairly versatile veteran forward that the Clippers have pursued several times in recent years.

Centers: I’ve noted a few times in the lead-up to free agency that, while I like Zubac plenty, I wouldn’t rule out the Clippers looking to upgrade their starting center if they end up adding stars and vaulting into contender status. Their resources to make such an upgrade would be limited, since they would obviously prioritize adding the stars and likely also prioritize filling the hole at PF. Still, they may have some options.

  • If Kevin Durant comes to the Clippers, I would not be surprised to see him bring one of his best friends, DeAndre Jordan, back to L.A. for a reunion with Doc Rivers. Jordan isn’t the player he used to be, but in a more limited role sharing time with Zubac, he would bring a lot of value as a veteran leader. For a chance to return to Los Angeles and potentially play with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, I think he’d accept a lower deal in the room exception range.
  • Besides Jordan, the Clippers could look to poach Brook Lopez from Mikwaukee. Lopez was phenomenal last season for the Bucks, mastering the role of a center who blocks shots and hits threes.
  • If Sacramento signs Dewayne Dedmon and renounces Willie Cauley-Stein, he could be an option as an unrestricted free agent.
  • There have been some reports that Enes Kanter could be a Clippers target, though the fit seems questionable on several levels.
  • Dedmon himself, along with Ed Davis, have proven to be solid pros. Dedmon is definitely better, but Davis seems to be perpetually underrated and could end up being a bargain.
  • Even on a lower tier, Robin Lopez and Joakim Noah could make sense if the Clippers simply want to add a veteran seven-footer to give Doc another option down low.
  • I’ll throw Clips Nation’s managing editor Robert Flom a bone and mention that (especially if the Clippers lose Zubac) there are a few intriguing young options here like Maxi Kleber, Khem Birch, and Luke Kornet.

Strike-out: If the Clippers don’t get one of their major targets this week, here’s what they’ll do: build the best roster they can with one- and two-year deals. They’ll sign solid veterans that will hopefully have trade value going forward (remember the Clippers have traded star players at the deadline in consecutive years) and help L.A. stay competitive in the meantime. Steve Ballmer has no interest in bottoming out, but the front office is smart enough to avoid albatross contracts, take good value in trades when they can get it, and stay flexible for when opportunities to add superstars arise.

  • It’s become an unfortunate reality that the Clippers are unlikely to keep Patrick Beverley, who was the heart and soul of last year’s team. But with their pre-existing guard depth and lofty free agent aspirations, affording a new Beverley contract—which could near 3 years and $45 million—isn’t in the cards. Unless they strike out altogether, that is. I still have a hard time seeing the Clippers give Beverley three years, but with his bird rights they could give him an inflated one or two-year deal.
  • JaMychal Green is probably more likely to return to the Clippers in various scenarios than Pat, if only because where Beverley’s $15M/year market seems clear, Green’s market is murkier. Still, he was a big part of what the Clippers did last year and if they choose to keep Gallo and Zubac as their starting PF and C, Green is an excellent option as a backup PF who can play C in small-ball situations. Look for the Clippers to prioritize Green if missing out on stars means they have the flexibility to do so.
  • In a scenario where Kawhi, Jimmy, and Durant all don’t come, the Clippers’ glaring hole at small forward remains. After trading Tobias Harris last February, the team started 6’1” point guard Pat Beverley at SF for most of the remainder of the season. I don’t think the Clippers go for an expensive, long-term deal like the one Bojan Bogdanovic will demand (he’s a more likely target as a third piece if the Clippers land stars), but they could look to really prioritize a two-year deal for Rudy Gay or Trevor Ariza, nicely filling that starting SF role.
  • The Clippers could also look to take gambles in attempts to add talent to their core. Restricted free agents like Malcolm Brogdon will likely be overpaid on long-term deals, which is unattractive to L.A.’s front office. But DeMarcus Cousins, whose value is hurt by his recent injuries, is unrestricted and could be available for a one-year deal. There are worse risks.
  • While Cousins is a former star hoping to return to form, the Clippers could also try to secure team-friendly deals on failed prospects. With teams around the league maximizing cap room, several interesting (though disappointing) young players are unrestricted free agents. Mario Hezonja, Stanley Johnson, Chieck Diallo, Henry Ellenson, and Frank Kaminsky are all recently highly-touted prospects who the Clippers can buy-low on. I’ll leave it up to LAC’s scouts to determine which, if any, of these guys are worth a gamble. The three young big men listed above (Kornet, Birch, and Kleber) also fit into this category of potential bargain prospects, though they were less heralded coming into the league.
  • One other avenue for the Clippers’ cap space could be absorbing contracts to help other teams around the league make their summer moves. The Milwaukee Bucks are looking for a landing spot for Ersan Ilyasova, whose team-friendly 7M deal (with 7M non-guaranteed for the year after) could have re-trade value for a patient Clippers team. If the Nets hope to land both Irving and Durant, they’ll need to move Joe Harris’ expiring $7.7M deal, though he likely has positive trade value. The Heat and Rockets both have a number of contracts that need moving if they want to pursue Jimmy Butler or other free agents. I don’t see the Clippers taking on the truly horrible deals of Andrew Wiggins or John Wall, but adding useful-but-overpaid players for a year or two is a way for L.A. to stay competitive and add assets.

It’s going to be a crazy day—in fact, it’s already starting to get a bit crazy with some Al Horford chaos.

Fasten your seat belts! This is your (first) open thread of free agency.