With LeBron James on board and a bunch of veterans signed to one-year deals, the Los Angeles Lakers appear poised to create a superteam over the next 12 months. Given their ability to carve out enough salary-cap space for a max contract in 2019, James is all but certain to have an All-Star sidekick in a year's time.
The Lakers may not be the only L.A.-based organisation with superteam aspirations in mind, though. The Los Angeles Clippers could soon join them, too.
Fresh off the most successful five-year run in franchise history, the Clippers have been retooling on the fly over the past year. Once Chris Paul forced his way to the Houston Rockets last offseason, the Clippers blew apart the rest of their Big Three, shipping Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in January and allowing DeAndre Jordan to walk in free agency this summer.
While the rest of the Western Conference gears up for what could be the most competitive playoff race in years, the Clippers appear content to slink back into the shadows and rebuild for now. They owe a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in 2019 or 2020 - after which point, it converts into a 2022 second-rounder - which gives them incentive to miss the postseason.
The Clippers aren't intentionally tanking, per se. In October, team owner Steve Ballmer told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe: "I don't want to lose. I like winning. Winning is good. Losing is bad. We think we have a unique opportunity to be a free-agent destination. If you want that, you have to be doing your best every year."
To that end, the Clippers this summer signed veterans Mike Scott and Luc Mbah a Moute to one-year deals with their mid-level exception and re-signed Avery Bradley to a two-year, $25 million partially guaranteed contract. They can roll with a veteran starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and Marcin Gortat, with reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams joined by younger prospects off the bench.
Regardless, the Clippers appear to have fallen behind in the Western Conference arms race. Luckily, help may be just around the corner.
The Clippers will enter next offseason with roughly $39.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for the 2019-20 campaign. With the NBA having projected the salary cap for that season to be $109 million, the Clippers wouldn't have to do much to create two max-contract slots outside of renouncing all of their free agents. They won't be the only team capable of creating enough space for two maxes, but the allure of the L.A. market is tough to ignore. (See: James, LeBron.)
Who might become the next face of the Clippers? They'll have no shortage of options to target over the following 12 months.
Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, according to multiple reports. Which team he prefers to land on is less clear.
Dating back to mid-June, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Leonard "has Los Angeles -preferably the Lakers - at the center of his preferences for a trade destination." (Woj remains steadfast on that.) While that initial report appeared to leave the door cracked open for the Clippers, James' decision to join the Lakers may have altered his thinking on that front.
"I think initially the idea of L.A. was fine to him. He preferred the Lakers but was open to the Clippers," Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod earlier this month. "But now that LeBron is in L.A., I think the idea of going head-to-head with LeBron - to have you with the Clippers, him with the Lakers, and to maybe feel dwarfed by that is...I'm told that's become far less appealing to him."
So, that settles it, right? When Leonard becomes a free agent in 2019, he'll join LeBron with the Lakers, and that's that?
Not so fast.
"The Lakers are not Kawhi’s preferred destination anymore," ESPN's Michael C. Wright told Tom Haberstroh on the Back to Back podcast."He wants to go to the Clippers. Because he doesn't want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron. That's what I was told, and I was told by somebody that would know."
"… I talked to people within the Spurs organization, and they're like, 'Well, yeah. He wants to go to the Clippers, but their assets are [bad] at this point,'"; Wright added. "That's what I was told."
During an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania
likewise said James's presence on the Lakers may steer Leonard to L.A.'s other team. "Around Kawhi, what's been made abundantly clear is there's not an interest to go join a super team," Charania said. "I don't think he’s jumping for joy that LeBron James is in L.A. with the Lakers. If anything, that's going to make him look maybe more toward the Clippers. Because this is a guy that won Finals MVP against LeBron James. You think he’s amped up and wants to join LeBron now?"
If the Lakers, Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers decide to go all-in for Leonard this offseason, it will be difficult for the Clippers to outbid them. They could dangle some combination of expiring contracts (Harris, Gortat, Boban Marjanovic, Wesley Johnson), non-guaranteed deals (Beverley, Milos Teodosic) and young prospects (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson), but that wouldn't beat offers built around Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown or Markelle Fultz. Williams will become trade-eligible in early August, but a 31-year-old microwave bench scorer likely won't push the Clippers over the edge, either.
Instead, if they're confident that James's presence on the Lakers will deter Leonard from joining them, they could bank on the power of the Los Angeles market next summer in free agency. If Leonard is resolute on heading to L.A. but doesn't want to join James, he'll only have one other option, right? And given the amount of salary-cap space the Clippers can create, they could potentially secure him a sidekick at the same time, too.
Jimmy Butler + Kyrie Irving
If Leonard is off the table, the Clippers may instead turn their attention to a dynamic All-Star duo that reportedly hopes to join forces next summer.
According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving and Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Jimmy Butler "are still trying to figure out a way to play together." Unless Boston or Minnesota ponies up to acquire Butler or Irving, respectively, the two may have to decline their 2019-20 player options to find a new home together.
Since both Irving and Butler have already been traded, they aren't eligible for the five-year supermax extensions that might entice them to stay with their respective teams. Because they each came into the league in 2011, their max salary in 2019-20 will be 30% of the salary cap that year, or a projected $32.7 million.
If the Clippers waive Gallinari next summer and stretch his remaining $22.6 million over the ensuing three years, they would have enough to sign both Butler and Irving outright. They would have a bare-bones supporting cast - Williams, Gilgeous-Alexander, Robinson, their
2019 first-round pick (if they finish in the lottery) and a handful of other young
prospects - but the opportunity to build a team from scratch may appeal to Butler and
Irving, as they wouldn't have to share co-billing with anyone else.
Would a roster built around Butler, Irving and Williams deserve the "superteam" moniker? Hardly. But the Clippers would be far closer to that designation than they are now.
Leonard, Irving and Butler aren't the only three All-Stars who could hit the market next summer. If Klay Thompson doesn't agree to an extension with the Golden State Warriors, he's set to be an unrestricted free agent. Kevin Durant could join him if he declines his $31.5 million player option, as expected.
On the big man front, DeMarcus Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent after signing a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors. Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Al Horford could all join Boogie by declining their respective player options, while the Denver Nuggets will have to weigh whether to pick up Paul Millsap's $30 million team option for 2019-20. And if Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets can't find common ground this summer, he could sign his $4.7 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent next July.
Guard seems to be less of a need for the Clippers, but the likes of Kemba Walker, Ricky Rubio, J.J. Redick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Darren Collison will all be looking for homes next offseason. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton lurks as an under-the-radar two-way wing who is likely to get a max or near-max deal.
Cap space in and of itself is no team-building silver bullet. If the Clippers miss out on the likes of Leonard, Durant, Butler and Irving next summer, they will have to resist the temptation to take shortcuts by handing bloated multiyear deals to middling role players. Mucking up their cap sheet would send them right back to NBA purgatory.
Stars will become available in future years. Player movement is not a short-term fad. Thanks to the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement, it's now the way of life.
In the meantime, the Clippers have the pieces in place to feign competitiveness for the 2018-19 season. The're no threat to topple the Warriors, but another 35- or 40-win season isn't out of the question. If young players such as Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson show out as rookies, the Clippers' blank slate could make them an appealing superteam destination next summer.