The Los Angeles Clippers seemed destined to go in the tank at several different times during the 18-19 season. To begin the year, no one gave the Clippers much of a chance to make the playoffs in a deep Western Conference. Then a mid-season trade saw the Clips dump Tobias Harris and other contributors. Add to it that Los Angeles would have kept their first round pick had they missed the playoffs, and it looked like the Clippers were starting up the tank.
Instead, the Clippers kept winning games at a rate above their expected outcome. They eventually comfortably secured the eight seed and took two games off the Golden State Warriors in the first round. The Clippers got there by having a bunch of players who simply played hard and did what was asked of them. This was largely a group plucked off the scrap heap by Lawrence Frank and the front office, but they all came together to make a really fun playoff run.
Now, the Clippers are dreaming big in ways befitting their Staples Center co-tenants. Going back to when they traded Chris Paul, Los Angeles has been angling to maintain a relatively clean cap sheet. After trading Blake Griffin, it was largely mission complete on that front. Danilo Gallinari is the only player left on the roster with an eight-figure contract. The Clippers have incredible values in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, both Sixth Man of the Year contenders, for a combined $14 million. To top it off, the only other guaranteed contracts on the roster are for three players coming off their rookie years in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet (acquired in the Harris trade) and Jerome Robinson.
All of that adds up to a team that has enough cap space for a max free agent with plenty of spending power leftover. As has been long-rumored, the free agent target list starts with Kawhi Leonard. A year ago, Leonard was clear about his desire play in Los Angeles near his hometown of Riverside. Now, he’s coming off a championship season with the Toronto Raptors and by all accounts his decision has become more complicated than expected. At the very least, he’ll opt out of his current deal and will likely take a meeting with the Clippers. Given that Leonard once asked out of the NBA’s preeminent winning machine in San Antonio, it’s no lock he’ll stay with Toronto. Expect the Clippers to be at or near the top of Leonard’s list of non-Raptors teams.
There are a lot of things that will get the Clippers in the room with all the major free agents besides Leonard. First, they have space to make a max offer. Then, the Clips have good players on the team on team-friendly contracts. Doc Rivers is as respected a coach as there is. Steve Ballmer is a team owner that players seem to enjoy connecting with. The team also plays in Los Angeles, which is the offseason home to many NBA players. And, finally, they have also have a Hall of Fame player and longtime executive in Jerry West, who can pitch free agents on playing for the Clippers.
That all means the offseason will start with chasing stars. Leonard is at the top of the list, but the Clippers may get audiences with any star free agent they want. If Kevin Durant, who will likely miss the upcoming season, wants to take the court with a new team when he returns, he’ll listen to West and the Clippers' pitch. West famously helped win Durant over when he was recruiting him to Golden State. If Philadelphia doesn’t put a full five-year, max offer on the table for Jimmy Butler, expect the Clippers to get involved with him.
After the superstars, the Clippers' spending power allows them to pursue two to three of the second and third tier free agents. Not only do they have money to offer, but they have plenty of rotation spots to fill, at just about every position. That puts them in range for everyone, minus point guards, as that spot seems pretty well-covered with Gilgeous-Alexander.
On the flip-side, there is an argument to be made for the Clippers to be more conservative and bring back some of the players who were part of this year’s run. It seems likely they’ll keep match rights for restricted free agents Ivica Zubac, who became the team’s starting center after the trade deadline, and Rodney McGruder, who LA claimed on waivers late in the year. Those two have small enough qualifying offers and cap holds, that the Clips can easily keep them on the books while doing their other work in free agency.
Patrick Beverley could get a bigger offer elsewhere in terms of both role and money. That would take him out of the team’s plans, but again, they have plenty of depth at the point guard position anyway. That leaves JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple, and they are players the Clippers can go either way on. Both would fill a role, but it’s likely that they’d be squeezed out if the Clippers spend their cap space to bring in new additions.
With a ton of flexibility in terms of money and rotation spots, a great coach, a forward-thinking front office and a willing and energetic owner, it wouldn’t be smart to bet against the Clippers pulling it off.
Guaranteed Contracts (6): Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl Harrell, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, Lou Williams
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace
Potential Free Agents (8): Patrick Beverley (UFA), Wilson Chandler (UFA), Angel Delgado (RFA – Two-Way), JaMychal Green (UFA), Rodney McGruder (RFA), Johnathan Motley (RFA – Two-Way), Garrett Temple (UFA), Ivica Zubac (RFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): None
Maximum Cap Space: $57.4 million
Projected Cap Space: $52.9 million