The year-over-year turnover for the Los Angeles Clippers is absolutely astounding. At this time last year, they had finished another 50-win season and were narrowly beaten by the Utah Jazz in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The quartet of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick were among the best in the league, posting a +15.6 net rating in more than 2300 possessions together in the 2016-17 regular season. A year later, only Jordan is left in Los Angeles, as Paul and Griffin were traded away and Redick left in free agency, and even he may not be long for the Clippers. Jordan’s potential free agency is just one of many things with which their front office will have to battle as the team truly begins its post-Griffin era, the first successful era in franchise history.
It seems like just yesterday that Jordan was being held “hostage” by his Clippers’ teammates in an effort to get him to re-sign with the team. Jordan did eventually choose to return to Los Angeles and break the verbal agreement he had with the Dallas Mavericks. Three years later, Jordan is the only one left, and his player option for 2018-19 will weigh heavily in their plans for the rest of the offseason. Now with ten years of experience, Jordan is eligible for the largest max contract in the league: five years, $205.0 million, starting at $35.4 million for next season, a full $11.3 million more than he’s slated to make on that player option. That said, just because he’s eligible for the full max doesn’t mean the Clippers will give it to him, nor does it mean that any other team will give him the four-year version totaling $152.0 million. In a different market, there would be a strong argument for Jordan being worth that kind of contract, but with cap space so limited this summer and the center market overflowing with above-average talent, Jordan and his agent have a real decision to make whether he can get more than $24.1 million next season, and whether a slight pay cut in 2018-19 would be worth the security of a long-term contract, in Los Angeles or elsewhere. He may also follow in his ex-point guard’s footsteps and hunt for an opt-in-and-trade to a place that would otherwise not be able to sign him, like Toronto or Cleveland.
Jordan’s isn’t the only player option that will impact the Clippers’ summer: guards Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic are also able to become free agents this summer, if they so choose. Rivers is set to make $12.7 million for next season and there has been precious little reported about his decision to lead anybody to believe he would opt out of his deal. A fine backup combo guard, Rivers is likely overpaid at that number in this market and will take that payday for 2018-19 without much hesitation. Still just 25 years old, there’s no concern for Rivers that he won’t be able to get a contract in 2019 after completing his deal with the Clippers. Teodosic, on the other hand, is already 31 and doesn’t have a particularly friendly option for next season; even if he opts in, his $6.3 million is only guaranteed for $2.1 million, which would allow Los Angeles to cut him any time before July 15th and he’d not only lose out on that extra $4.2 million, but he might find himself out in the cold after the rest of the market dries up in the first two weeks of July. Because last year was his rookie season in the NBA after spending the majority of his career overseas, Teodosic is eligible to be a restricted free agent, but that would require a fully guaranteed $7.5 million qualifying offer from the Clippers, which would obviously be a much-improved contract over his current option. He’ll likely opt out and either sign the qualifying offer if it comes from the Clippers or test the market as an unrestricted free agent, both in the NBA and in Europe.
The team’s only two players who will absolutely be free agents are Avery Bradley and Montrezl Harrell, both of whom were acquired via trade within the past year. Bradley, like most players with whom Danny Ainge is willing to part over the years, saw his value dip quite a bit after being moved to Detroit and eventually Los Angeles, as he was hampered by injuries in 2017-18 and, due to his involvement in two trades and 2018 free agency, has had his game picked apart from top to bottom with more earnest than most others. Bradley is the quintessential 3-and-D player for which every team is looking, made even better by the fact that he can defend point guards, but he fashions himself as something bigger than that, which hurts his overall value. A solid spot-up shooter at 37 percent from three for his career, he just doesn’t take enough of them to boost his overall efficiency. He’s long been a fan of trying to create his own mid-range jumper rather than take threes in the flow of the offense. While his on-ball defense is quite good, he sometimes lacks awareness off the ball and his effort level will dip at times, which hurts his value on that end of the floor as well. There’s a lot to like about Bradley’s game, but between doing too much offensively and too little defensively (at times), he takes a lot off the table as well.
Harrell was brought to the Clippers in the Paul trade this time last year and turned into quite the gem for Los Angeles. Harrell featured in 76 games in 2017-18 for the team and played a consistent role off the bench, flashing good finishing inside on increased usage for the third consecutive season. One of the many personnel surprises last year for Los Angeles, he’ll likely command more than his minimum qualifying offer will give him and the Clippers will have no hesitation in tendering that offer to him in order to retain their match rights in restricted free agency.
While a confluence of opt outs and a decision to completely remake the team could lead to the Clippers having significant cap space, it’s far more likely that they’ll be operating over the cap for the 2018 offseason, leaving them with the full mid-level exception and bi-annual exception to add players to their team, in addition to the 12th and 13th picks in Thursday’s draft. Depending on where their incumbent free agents end up signing, their needs could run the spectrum of positions and roles, from a point guard to replace Teodosic to a wing in Bradley’s spot to a big in Jordan’s. In particular, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet or Chicago’s David Nwaba would be interesting restricted targets for them who likely won’t have offers past their mid-level exception, as well as unrestricted players Joe Harris, Aron Baynes, James Ennis, and Tyreke Evans. With a lot of roster flexibility, the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception at their disposal, and the fact that so many teams around the league will have very tight finances this summer, there will be deals to be had by a prudent front office.
Before July even starts, the Clippers can begin their offseason work. They’ve already been linked with disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, as Leonard’s camp leaked to the media that he’d like to play in Los Angeles, near where he grew up and went to college in Southern California. While the Lakers were the main focus of Leonard’s interest, San Antonio is under no obligation to deal him there and will absolutely be looking for packages from a host of teams across the league. While at first glance the Clippers don’t make a lot of sense in the face of an offer from Boston or Philadelphia, they may actually be more competitive in the Leonard sweepstakes than many think. President of Basketball Operations and head coach Gregg Popovich is not long for his job, with reports and rumors circulating that he’s looking to retire from the NBA in 2020, which may open the door for the Clippers to give the Spurs a better offer than they could get from Philadelphia or Boston. While the 76ers and Celtics have young players and future assets with which Los Angeles cannot compete, the notoriously competitive Popovich may not be looking so long-term and instead may want to get back veterans who can play a key role in San Antonio for the next two years. A package centered around Tobias Harris and Patrick Beverley, with one or both of the Clippers’ first-round picks in this draft thrown in, could well get the job done.
Additionally, Los Angeles still has $7.3 million of the traded player exception generated in the Paul trade last summer that expires before the end of the league year. While they don’t have to use that exception to acquire another player (or two), there may be teams looking to dump salary before free agency opens on July 1. Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, and Jason Smith could all be interesting targets for a variety of reasons—Korver and Crowder would immediately contribute to the team and Smith would come with an asset attached to him from the Wizards, though a first-round pick is not likely in that scenario.
This summer will tell us a lot about where the Clippers see themselves competitively and what their priorities are in terms of team-building for short- and long-term goals. For now, their cap sheet is incredibly clean for 2019 and beyond and if they’re careful with their spending this year, they could be a force to be reckoned with on the 2019 free agency market, which could include the aforementioned Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Boston’s Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler. Then again, if Jordan returns at more than $20 million per season and they spend on multi-year contracts for Bradley, a mid-level exception signing, and more, they could price themselves out of multiple big names next year.