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NBA Free Agency 2019: Re-calibrating the Clippers’ target list after a crazy opening day

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The top name is still there, but lots of others are off the board.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, in advance of entering the 2019 free agency period at 6pm eastern time, I wrote a massive post preparing for the chaos to come—and listing several dozen potential Clipper targets. Then, in a flurry of moves that began several hours before the free agency window was technically supposed to open, the league decided to spend over THREE BILLION DOLLARS on new player contracts by 12:30am eastern. Twenty-three of CBS Sports’ top-25 free agents were off the board in the opening hours of free agency.

So what are we looking at for the Clippers, in a league and free agent market that looks drastically different than it did 24 hours ago?

It’s still all about Kawhi

Almost everyone in the NBA made moves yesterday. Like I said, three billion dollars got spent around the association. Three teams stood out: the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, and L.A. Clippers. Why? All three teams, as far as we can tell at this stage, believe that they have a legitimate shot at convincing Kawhi Leonard to wear their team’s uniform next season. In an off-season that had 95% of its movement in the blink of an eye, Leonard is moving at a slow and mysterious pace. On ESPN’s free agency special yesterday, the Adrian Wojnarowski/Ramona Shelburne/Brian Windhorst/Dave McMenamin contingent of NBA insiders admitted that they don’t know if Kawhi is even taking meetings, which teams he is meeting with, or when the meetings are.

That information is normally basic and public, even when a guy’s decision is up in the air.

There’s risk attached for each team as they wait, whether they land Kawhi or not. Raptors starting shooting guard Danny Green (also a rumored target for both L.A. teams) has an offer on the table from the Dallas Mavericks—how long do the Mavs and Green wait for Kawhi’s decision before the Raptors lose out on a starter? In a summer where half the league had major cap space, the Clippers and Lakers join the Mavs as the three teams remaining with big-time flexibility. The other top free agents have all signed with other teams. Role players that the Lakers were rumored to target if they don’t land Leonard, like Seth Curry and J.J. Redick, are already off the board.

We don’t know where the Clippers stand with Kawhi, or what direction he’s leaning. Ignore the noise from the non-insiders. Kawhi is running a closed-door operation. The Clippers and Raptors are similarly silent, even if the Lakers can’t resist being the center of attention. All that’s left to do for these three franchises is continue waiting. The potential payout is worth the risk.

Landing a second star seems unlikely

We know the Clippers were in pursuit of Kevin Durant—and according to Brian Windhorst, Kawhi actually called Durant over the weekend to explore the possibility of teaming up with LAC. But Durant chose to stick to his plan to join the Brooklyn Nets with Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. At some point, they put their name in the Al Horford sweepstakes, but it would be unsurprising if the Clippers’ frugal front office balked at his price (and Horford to Philadelphia appears to have been predetermined). It’s unclear if the Clippers ever had legitimate interest in Jimmy Butler, but he quickly reached an agreement to be signed-and-traded to Miami. That trade between the Sixers and Heat is remarkably complex, as the Heat need to off-load a bunch of money to get below the hard cap and the Sixers need to preserve their space to give Al Horford his new contract. It is still possible that the deal falls through—but at this point, I am betting on Pat Riley knowing he can make it work, and doing what he needs to do to get Jimmy in the door.

I said yesterday that “it feels at this point as though adding a second star is one of Leonard’s requirement.” That was all of the chatter from the last several days, with Windhorst saying on TV yesterday that the idea had gained a lot of momentum. Now, virtually all of the second star options are off the table, and the Clippers still appear to be in pursuit of Kawhi. We’ll test the notion that a second star was necessary in the coming days.

Aside from hoping to swoop in if a Butler-Heat deal does truly fall apart, the Clippers’s best hope at a second star could be free agent center DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins is not quite the player he used to be, and all of the issues with his composure and health are well-documented. But at 28 years old, there’s certainly room for a stretch of good health to return Cousins to prime form. We aren’t that far removed from a 2017 season when Cousins averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 36% from three on 5 attempts per game. He’d be cheaper than the maximum salary, and you should be able to get him without long-term commitment, but it’s unclear if the Clippers’ 14M in remaining cap room after adding Leonard and re-signing Patrick Beverley would be enough—but looking around the league, it might be. Cousins’ other options at this point are likely with the Lakers in a no-Kawhi situation, back with the Warriors, or perhaps on a small deal somewhere unexpected.

Are the Clippers running it back?

A lot of Clippers fans have fantasized for months, as the existing core went on an improbably run, at the prospect of “run it back + Kawhi,” plugging the reigning NBA Finals MVP into a 48-win young core. And if the Clippers miss out on Kawhi, we’ve long expected that the team would try to stay flexible with short-term deals and keep this competitive, gritty group together.

  • In a crucial step towards either “run it back” scenario, the Clippers re-signed Patrick Beverley to a 3-year, $40 million deal late last night. Beverley’s deal could run something like 12.3M in the first year and 13.3M and 14.3M in the final two, given the maximum-allowed 8% bird rights raises. But the Clippers will likely sign Beverley last, holding on to his 9.5M cap hold while they use up their remaining room so as to maximize their cap space. At that point, LAC could consider front-loading Beverley’s deal, starting him at 14.5M and decreasing his salary to 13.3M in year 2 and 12.2M in the final season.
  • As the league spent 3 billion dollars yesterday, the Clippers can at least breathe one sigh of relief: Ivica Zubac and Rodney McGruder were not targeted with big offer sheets. With qualifying offers of $1.9M each, they’re two quality role players that the Clippers can hold on to with small placeholders and then exceed the salary cap to re-sign after bigger pieces fall into place. A large offer sheet for either would have messed with LAC’s flexibility or cost them a valuable player, but fortunately one did not come—despite a weird dream I had last night.
  • We’ve talked a TON about potential Danilo Gallinari trades in recent weeks. At this point, I’d consider such a move unlikely (though still possible). The main motivation in any Gallo deal would have been to open a second max salary slot. With no max targets remaining other than Kawhi, Gallo likely stays on with the Clippers heading into next season. The Clippers could still potentially explore moving Gallinari for the sake of freeing up a little extra room (if they want to chase Cousins, for example) or simply replace him with someone less injury-prone on a longer contract.
  • The market for JaMychal Green has been almost unbelievably quiet so far. Taj Gibson and DeMarre Carroll have new contracts, and even Jared Dudley has drawn interest from teams. I’ve said from the start that Green’s market is incredibly hard to gauge, and the odds of him returning to the Clippers were heavily linked with whether or not he slipped through the cracks in the early days of free agency. It’s beginning to look like he has—making me wonder if he could be an option with L.A.’s room exception after they use up their cap space. He could make $4.8M in year one with a $5M player option for the second year—and if he declines the option next summer, the Clippers would have his bird rights to keep him around long-term.
  • One Clipper who has moved on is Garrett Temple, who is joining Irving, Durant, and Jordan in Brooklyn on the same room exception deal I just mentioned for Green. Temple and Wilson Chandler are two players who were expected to leave the Clippers, but could have been back as depth pieces in some scenarios. Chandler is still available in free agency.
  • There’s no indication yet on the futures of Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace, who both have non-guaranteed contracts. If the Clippers don’t land Leonard, they will have more cap space than they know what to do with, and have no reason to cut either young guard for financial reasons. If Kawhi does come, then releasing one or both could be part of increasing the team’s cap room to add another player.

What other guys are left?

With so much going on around the league, the Clippers have lost out on a lot of potential targets, with or without Kawhi on the roster. Let’s take a look at how things are shaping up.

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, 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.

  • Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson, both of whom were linked to the Clippers, have found new deals with the New York Knicks. Al-Farouq Aminu, Rudy Gay, Trevor Ariza, Thaddeus Young, Mike Scott, and DeMarre Carroll have all also agreed to terms with teams. Some of those names could have also been options as stopgap starting small forwards in a non-Kawhi scenario.
  • As I mentioned above, JaMychal Green is still a real option for the Clippers as the potential market for him around the league shrinks.
  • Marcus Morris is one of the best free agents remaining, and would be a great target with the Clippers’ remaining cap room if Leonard chooses LAC. I think a Morris-Gallinari pairing could work at the forward positions when the Clippers load manage Leonard. Between Morris’ shooting, Gallinari’s offensive versatility, and Morris’ ability to defend at either forward position, I think it’s viable. I also wonder if Morris could be a JaMychal-esque small-ball 5. He was never asked to do it in Boston because of the presence of Al Horford.
  • Anthony Tolliver remains unsigned in free agency. It almost feels inevitable that the Clippers will offer him a contract at some point this summer, but if he gets above-minimum money or guaranteed playing time somewhere else, he might not end up on L.A.’s roster.

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.

  • DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Enes Kanter, Dewayne Dedmon, Ed Davis, and Maxi Kleber have all already agreed to new contracts around the league.
  • DeMarcus Cousins, as noted above, remains an option for the Clippers to try and add top-end talent in both Kawhi and non-Kawhi scenarios.
  • The Sacramento Kings rescinded their qualifying offer to Willie Cauley-Stein, making him an unrestricted free agent. With the market drying up, Cauley-Stein could be available on a cheap, short-term deal as he attempts to build up his value around the league.
  • After acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade deal, the Golden State Warriors are hard capped at the apron. Not only did that move force them to off-load Andre Iguodala’s contract to avoid the hard cap, but it also makes it incredibly difficult for them to keep young big man Kevon Looney, who could emerge as a cost-effective option for the Clippers to add a young big man with significant playoff experience.
  • Khem Birch and Luke Kornet both remain available as young upside plays if the Clippers lose out on Kawhi or perhaps lose Zubac to an offer sheet.
  • If a more exciting center addition isn’t made, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Doc Rivers push the Clippers to pursue Joakim Noah on a minimum deal so that Doc has a reliable veteran and defensive leader next season.

Some other notes:

  • The Clippers have been linked to Raptors wing Danny Green. Green has been Kawhi Leonard’s partner on the wing for basically their entire careers in San Antonio and Toronto, winning two championships together. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley all in the fold for LAC, it’s unclear how Green fits into the Clippers’ rotation unless he is going to play most of his minutes at small forward instead of shooting guard, and how he fits into their financial plans given their more pressing needs in the frontcourt. He’s likely to wait for Kawhi to make a decision before choosing between the Raptors, Clippers, Lakers, and Mavericks.
  • I surveyed a few potential reclamation projects who should be available for cheap this summer. While Mario Hezonja signed a minimum-salary deal with the Trail Blazers, Stanley Johnson, Cheick Diallo, Henry Ellenson, and Frank Kaminsky are all still available as names the Clippers could look to take fliers on, likely in non-Kawhi scenarios.
  • As I said above, if the Clippers miss on Kawhi, they will have more cap space than they’ll know what to do with. One potential starting point: eat money from other teams. The Bucks might give you an asset in exchange for absorbing Ersan Ilyasova’s team-friendly deal. The Miami Heat have an urgent need to offload money in order to be able to acquire Jimmy Butler, opening the door for a team with cap room to get serious draft compensation. I don’t envision the Clippers taking on any deals longer than two years, which mercifully rules them out of an Andrew Wiggins trade, but Miami has several short-term contracts that wouldn’t sting too much to absorb.