Although the Clippers’ season appears likely to end as soon as Wednesday evening, their inspired playoff run has solidified them as this summer’s premier free-agent destination.
Don’t believe me?
Imagine you’re a top-tier NBA free agent this summer and you want to play in Los Angeles. Now, consider the following pitches:
Los Angeles Lakers: “Well, we missed the playoffs, fired our head coach, had our team president abruptly resign, and one of our top prospects may be in danger of a career-threatening medical issue. But you can play with LeBron James (who will start passive-aggressively subtweeting you by no later than December) and maybe Anthony Davis (assuming the Pelicans do a complete 180 from their stance at the trade deadline), so…there’s that!”
Los Angeles Clippers: “We made the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years, have a championship-winning head coach, have one of the league’s most passionate (and richest!) owners and have a roster filled with hard-nosed, no-B.S. guys who have no quit in them. Oh, and we stole a game on the road from the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the first round with a historic 31-point comeback.”
Pretty easy choice, right?
Frankly, the Clippers shouldn’t even be here. It looked like they were waving the white flag on their playoff hopes when they sent Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic to the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline for Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and a pair of future first-round picks.
Instead, the Clippers stayed the course, sans Harris. They went 16-7 after the All-Star break—the fourth-best record of any team—and finished a resounding nine games ahead of the No. 9 seed Sacramento Kings (and 11 games ahead of the Lakers!).
Heading into their first-round matchup against the Warriors, no one gave the Clippers much of a chance, either. They entered the series with 100-1 odds, making them the biggest playoff underdogs since at least 1988, according to ESPN.com’s David Purdum.
With Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in tow, the Warriors boasted the four best players in the series. (And depending on how you feel about post-Achilles DeMarcus Cousins, it could be five.) That didn’t stop the scrappy Clippers from putting up their best fight, though.
Facing a 31-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 2 at Oracle Arena, the Clippers came roaring back to steal an unexpected 135-131 victory. Lou Williams, the likely Sixth Man of the Year, finished with a game-high 36 points and 11 assists, while fellow Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell chipped in 25 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes off the bench.
Speaking of which: The Clippers have both Williams and Harrell under contract for a combined $14 million in 2019-20.
Williams is signed through 2020-21 at $8 million annually. That should pique the interest of superstar free agents looking to join teams with established role players in place.
L.A.’s young talent is undeniably tantalizing, too. Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson are all locked up on affordable rookie-scale deals through 2021-22. Shamet hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in that historic Game 2 comeback off a feed from Gilgeous-Alexander, who erupted for a season-high 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting in the Clippers’ Game 4 loss Sunday.
“They have a nice blend of young talent with guys who are role players and excelling and thriving in their roles,” an agent told Johan Buva of The Athletic. “If you’re a star and you come in, they already have guys who know their roles. In other situations, you try to bring in role players and have to deal with role allocation and adjustments. I think any star would be a seamless fit with the Clippers.”
The Clippers will also walk into this summer with $50-plus million in salary-cap space, which is more than enough for them to sign a star free agent to a max contract and round out their roster with complementary pieces. If they can find a taker for Danilo Gallinari without having to absorb much salary in return, they could carve out enough cap room for two max contracts.
It appears as though they already have a few targets in mind.
According to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, the Clippers were “rather transparently obsessed with chasing Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant” throughout the season. They sent executives “just to watch numerous Warriors and Raptors games so they’re visible,” including team president Lawrence Frank, as Windhorst reported in December.
The Clippers’ collection of role players and young talent should appeal to Leonard, Durant and other star free agents, but that isn’t the only thing the franchise has going for it. The synergy between the Clippers front office, head coach Doc Rivers and team owner Steve Ballmer also should be appealing to free agents who are otherwise considering unstable (and toxic) situations such as the Lakers and New York Knicks.
Landing superstars is the most difficult part of any rebuild, but the Clippers have retooled on the fly while nailing a number of on-the-margins moves.
When Chris Paul requested a trade to the Houston Rockets just days ahead of 2017 free agency, the Clippers managed to flip him for Williams, Harrell, Patrick Beverley, a top-three-protected 2018 first-rounder and other salary-cap flotsam. They quickly sent that pick to the Atlanta Hawks with Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone for Gallinari, who went on to have a career year this past season in L.A.
Rather than losing Blake Griffin for nothing in free agency after they traded Paul, the Clippers re-signed him to a five-year, $171 million max contract, only to flip him to the Detroit Pistons six months later. It was a cold-blooded, ruthless decision, but it netted them Harris, Marjanovic, Avery Bradley and the 2018 first-round pick they’d eventually flip to acquire Gilgeous-Alexander. One year later, they shipped out Harris’ expiring contract to pick up two more future first-rounders.
While they gave up the best player in each of those three trades, they amassed an impressive war chest of role players, promising prospects and draft picks.
That strategy was a reflection of Ballmer’s organizational philosophy.
“I think bottoming out is a dangerous game,” he said at the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “If you have to play it, maybe you have to play it. Then again, superstars don’t want to go to teams that look like absolute losers. So you really have to make sure [you get] multiple high-level draft picks, and you have to make sure you really hit on high-level draft picks, and you have to be willing to take—not even the financial consequences. In a way. you’re being dismissive of your fans by taking that big a step back.”
Despite the rampant rumors linking Leonard with the Clippers, there’s no guarantee they’ll end up landing a big fish in free agency. (There never is. REPEAT: There never is.)
Perhaps Leonard goes on a Finals run with the Toronto Raptors and re-signs there, while Durant and Kyrie Irving both head to the Knicks. Maybe Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker all stay put on their respective teams, too, leaving the Clippers to sift through an assortment of plan Bs and Cs. We can play the “could, might, should” game forever ahead of free agency.
So up until July 1, the only thing the Clippers can control is their own free-agent pitch.
And between overperforming role players like Williams and Harrell, high-upside rookies like Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet and an increasingly impressive organizational foundation in place, they’ve done all they can to put a scare into any team with an incumbent star heading into free agency.