Rumors are flying and the big-name free agents are preparing to take their meetings with a slew of top teams, the Los Angeles Clippers included. The basketball world is focused on the handful of guys who really swing championships, a bunch of which are up for new contracts this summer and may be on the move. Los Angeles has done a great job of ensuring they’re in a great position to land one or two of these players, with the latest rumor being that Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have discussed playing together for the New York Knicks or in Los Angeles with the Clippers, as those are the two teams with double-max space to accommodate both of them, considering it seems like a done deal that Kyrie Irving will take up one of Brooklyn’s two max slots.
Clearing out double-max space for the Clippers requires an extra move, but one that should be relatively easy to complete – they’ll have to do something with Danilo Gallinari’s $22.6 million salary for next season, whether that’s trading him to a team with cap space to take him in or stretch it over three years. Whether Gallinari is a positive value on his contract and they could get a draft pick or something for him is an interesting question and one that is unfortunately entirely tied to his health. If you knew he was going to play 65 games and be ready for the playoffs, then he’s well worth that contract, but there’s just no way to guarantee that and any team taking him on will have to weigh his availability heavily against his contract and what he does bring to the table when healthy.
There are quite a few teams who can take Gallinari into cap space, which could create a bit of a bidding war, though the Clippers don’t want to take back any salary in the deal. Of the teams walking into the summer with cap space, the Nets are my favorite landing spot for Gallinari, as they look to have Irving locked up but aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for any of the top free agent forwards. Of course, if one of Durant or Leonard choose Brooklyn ahead of Los Angeles or the other destinations, then the Nets have no reason to make the trade for Gallinari, nor would the Clippers have any reason to move him; trading Gallinari is entirely contingent on the Clippers landing both Durant and Leonard.
From the Clippers’ point of view, Gallinari would fit on next year’s team in any situation except if they land a pair of max players. If it’s Leonard alone, then Gallinari slots in next to Leonard on the forward line and the Clippers can move forward with about $20 million in space to fill out the rest of the roster, but they wouldn’t necessarily need all that much to do so. A backup forward and a starting center would be the two main targets, as they really don’t have anything behind Gallinari and Leonard at the 4 and definitely do not want to rely on those guys for heavy minutes in the regular season. Grabbing another center to play ahead of Montrezl Harrell would be an addition for the postseason, as Harrell’s defensive deficiencies make him a tough fit for the latter rounds of the playoffs. Additionally, retaining Lou Williams and Harrell on the Clippers’ backup unit would keep those lineups very potent offensively and allow Los Angeles to extensively rest Gallinari and Leonard.
Filling in the roster if they land both Durant and Leonard would be a difficult task, particularly because Durant is likely going to be out for the entire season and they’d lose Gallinari in the process. They’d be left with the Room Exception and minimum contracts to fill their remaining holes on the roster, which could prove somewhat difficult – they’d need a starting 4 to replace Gallinari on top of another forward (or two) to provide depth in addition to the starting center problem. Finding a center at the minimum or with the Room Exception isn’t all that difficult, but forwards are some of the most coveted players in the modern NBA and finding capable guys to surround Leonard this season is far from guaranteed. It would be a one-year problem, as Durant will return in 2020-21 and create the best forward line in NBA history with Leonard, but they might not be as competitive in 2019-20 as they’d like to be. Of course, Leonard would sign up in Los Angeles knowing that Durant is going to miss the first year, which would allow them to rest him very heavily after a long season in 2018-19 that resulted in Leonard’s second title.
What happens if they land neither star and suddenly have more than $50 million to spend? A lot of their future moves would depend heavily on what sort of contracts those players take – if Leonard signs a 1+1 to remain in Toronto for the 2019-20 season, then Los Angeles can sign a bunch of one-year contracts and try again next year. If Leonard re-ups with the Raptors for a full five-year max, then the Clippers turning their attention toward the 2020 free agent class doesn’t make as much sense, considering how poor that class looks at this point.
Their incumbent free agents would be good signings on either plan; Patrick Beverley is reportedly looking for a multi-year contract, but if they blow him out of the water with a one-year, $20 million deal, he’d get a massive raise over what he “should” get on the open market and they’d have the ability to create double-max space next summer once again. They could also keep him around on something with multiple years, should Leonard stay in Toronto long-term. The same logic applies to JaMychal Green, who would play an important role on the Clippers next season and they could give him a lot more for one year than he would get in annual value elsewhere. That general principle could be applied across the board this summer, should they want to keep the powder dry for 2020.
Building toward the long-term would be a distant third option for the Clippers, but a possibility if they realize they’re further away from landing a superstar than they thought. Retooling around their young core, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, isn’t a bad backup plan, particularly since we know that their front office is smart about talent evaluation and would target the right players to fill their cap space to make the team competitive for a long time. It’s clearly not their preferred outcome, particularly after all the time, energy, and money that has been devoted to recruiting Leonard in the last year, but there are worse places to be as a club.
Free agency officially begins tomorrow, though it’s merely the finish line for a race the Clippers have been running for nearly a year, ever since they set their sights on Leonard as their key 2019 addition. Whether they can win this particular race is anybody’s guess at this point, with news and rumors coming out every day that wildly swings the general consensus about where the top superstars will end up when it’s all said and done. Whether they end up with two, one, or zero max guys, the Clippers are still in a good spot, though expectations are wildly different depending on how many max players decide to choose Los Angeles over other choices, including their Staples Center cotenants.