The best places to be in the NBA: At the top, contending for a Championship, or at the bottom, clearing cap room and stockpiling draft picks.
The LA Clippers were in neither group. Early-season injuries to Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari nuked any shot they had of getting to the playoffs – despite a furious push from Lou Williams – but Doc Rivers got excellent production from reserves and guys you hadn’t heard from in years, like CJ Williams, Tyrone Wallace (well, he did play at Cal), and Jamil Wilson.
So GM Jerry West did the next best thing: Sensing LeBron’s issues in Cleveland, and the fact the 2nd greatest player in NBA history is going to hit the free agent market, why not gut the joint? By clearing Blake Griffin’s $31.8 million salary next year, and as soon as they dump DeAndre Jordan’s $24 million, the Clippers have begun down the path to maybe be able to afford two max contracts in the offseason.
There are other hurdles before Clippers fans get too excited, but this needs to be noted: Clippers owner Steve Ballmer desperately wants to win. He’s got bottomless Microsoft money, and doesn’t care about going into the luxury tax.
Those other hurdles: The contract the Clippers gave to injury-prone Gallinari. It was a risk at the time, and he’s owed $44 more million. When healthy, he’s a lethal stretch 4. But he’s never healthy. Only twice in his 10-year career has he played over 70 games, and that includes missing an entire year with a torn ACL.
But, hey LeBron, would you rather play with three young guys who are still learning how to win – Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball – or Danilo Gallinari, a veteran who has been to the playoffs twice? I know I’d pick the Lakers, but we know Jerry West is not yet done making moves. Consider this: The Clippers have a 2018 1st round pick coming to them from Detroit, and a 2019 1st round pick (protected) coming to them from Boston.
[Aside: This is where Anthony Davis becomes interesting. The Pelicans have all sorts of issues now that DeMarcus Cousins has torn his Achilles. Clippers whiff on LeBron? Fine. There’s always the summer of 2019, when Davis will have gotten Cousins back and have a better idea what his future holds in New Orleans. After next season, LA’s Tobias Harris deal ($14.8 million) is off the books, and so is the Boban Marjanovic contract ($9.4 million). Swing and miss on Davis? Pivot to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just lost his coach in Jason Kidd and there’s no telling where his relationship with the team is headed. Hey Devin Booker, you happy in Phoenix? Kristaps Porzingis, are the Knicks treating you right? Jerry West made the right move cleaning house. Stockpile picks and cap space and start anew.]
If we assume Doc Rivers is coaching his final season with the Clippers, does his son, Austin Rivers, opt-in next year for $12 million? Or does he wait for his dad to land in … Orlando (again?) or another city where he can move to?
The next five months are going to be insanely fun. I’d put the race for LeBron right now at three teams: 1) Lakers, 2) Clippers, 3) 76ers. Many like to include the Rockets, but for now, I just don’t see it.