There have been so many versions of the Clippers in the past 15 months it makes your head spin. There was the post–Chris Paul, Lob City Twilight team, with an aging DeAndre Jordan and a Blake Griffin who fancied shooting over dunking. There was the post-Blake team of second-chancers and castoffs, led by Tobias Harris, who came to the club from Detroit in the Griffin blockbuster. And there’s what we have now, the post-Harris squad, featuring a few crafty veterans leading what is, for the first time in seemingly forever, an exciting young core that gives hope to a fan base that’s long been used as a leaguewide punch line.
“This franchise was really stuck. There was nowhere for it to go,” the Clippers’ Jerry West told The New York Times months after the Griffin trade. “You have to figure out how far away you really are and how we can get there.” The Clippers were locked in to an aging, expensive group without any title hopes after signing Griffin to a five-year, $171.2 million contract the summer prior; trading him gave them financial freedom. A front office led by West, Lawrence Frank, and Michael Winger (who recently turned down the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations job to stay with the Clippers) could now build the roster however they wanted to; their decisions since then, namely drafting guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and flipping Harris for rookie guard Landry Shamet and draft picks, helped lead to a 48-win season and a playoff berth as the 8-seed. On Wednesday night, they provided one of the most thrilling upsets of the postseason, staving off elimination to beat the Golden State Warriors, 129-121, on the road, in Game 5 of their first-round clash.
Not too long ago, the Clippers were average. Now they’re envied. Few teams are as well positioned as they will be this offseason. They’ve made the jump from afterthought to nice team to watch. Now things get interesting. We do a lot of prognostication around this time of year, but you don’t need to be a fortune-teller to see how this team could go from being a nice story to a true contender. All in just one year.
In Game 5, Kevin Durant put on a stunning 45-point performance, nearly dunking the Dubs to a comeback victory. It was tantalizing to imagine him suiting up in red, white, and blue next season. It’s been no secret that the Clippers plan to pursue two maximum-salaried free agents this offseason. I reported at the time of the Griffin trade that their intent was to create one or two max slots in 2018 or 2019. They will be armed with those slots this summer, and as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst first reported in December, the Clippers will go after Durant and Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard. The sense from those around the team, and across rival front offices, indicates as much: The Clippers are thinking big. Even if they don’t land Durant or Leonard, they’re in the conversation.
League sources have long maintained that the Clippers are a strong threat to sign Leonard away from the Raptors, since playing at home in his native Southern California is enticing to Leonard and his family. People around the league still expect Durant to join the Knicks if he leaves Golden State this summer, but uncertainty has increased in recent months. Joining forces with Kyrie Irving in New York appealed to Durant, but Irving could stay with the Celtics. Plus, LeBron James just found out about the pitfalls of joining a team that lacks stable management. Would Durant be willing to take the same risk? As one front office executive put it to me last week: Everything should be viewed as on the table since Durant has proved to be unpredictable, especially when the Clippers can also offer a massive media market and a superior product on the court.
The Clippers have all the ingredients commonly found in championship teams—save for the stars. They have an ageless spark plug scorer in Lou Williams, who should win his third Sixth Man of the Year award after arguably the best season of his 14-year career. Williams has a perfect pick-and-roll partner in center Montrezl Harrell, an energy guy who’s a tough defender and loud dunker. Williams and Harrell, among of the league’s best duos all season, dismantled Golden State’s defense on Wednesday, combining for 57 points off the bench to bring the series back to Los Angeles for a Game 6. They’re often flanked by Shamet, a sharpshooter who’s made significant strides as a defender.
Their starters are bolstered by a backcourt of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley, two gritty, versatile defenders. SGA has steadily improved his offense all season, working closely with Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell. Doc Rivers just finished one of the best coaching performances of his career. The Clippers are loaded with assets, too: They have all their first-round picks after the 2019 draft, plus Philadelphia’s top-14-protected 2020 first and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first. All the Clippers are missing is a superstar, but they don’t need one now since they’re set up to build from within. If a player like Durant or Leonard does join, the roster is built to seamlessly fit.
The story writes itself for Durant: He joins a franchise with a sad history that is missing only a star. He leads them to success in the playoffs, and possibly wins one or multiple championships. The Clippers become Los Angeles’s team of the 2020s, stomping on LeBron James and the Lakers. From a legacy standpoint, what better way would there be for Durant to change the perception that he is just a dynasty coattail rider than to lead, of all teams, the Clippers?
Durant could pair with a proven star in Leonard too. It was reported last summer that Leonard had eyes for Los Angeles before requesting a trade from San Antonio last year, and that he preferred the Lakers to the Clippers. The latest buzz around the league suggests that the Clippers have become his preference, considering the circus surrounding the Lakers, though it would be foolish to rule them out. Leaving Toronto would be less about basketball and more about family life, since what Leonard has now with the Raptors is close to ideal on the court. This season the Raptors were able to both feature him as their star player and perfectly manage his minutes, helping him on his way to a career-best offensive season. Also, he’s surrounded by a blend of veterans including Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and improving young players such as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. It’s not like Toronto didn’t understand the risk when it dealt for Leonard; Masai Ujiri essentially swapped three years of likely playoff failures with DeMar DeRozan for at least one swing at a title. The challenge to keeping Kawhi is that the Clippers can also offer an enticing core with a road to a championship. And if family and lifestyle are the driving forces behind his decision, as is widely believed, it’ll be hard for Toronto to create a pitch that contends with what Los Angeles, the city and the franchise, can offer.
It’s not likely that Leonard and Durant will join the Clippers. Two superstars joining forces rarely happens in sports. But it’s surprisingly simple to make it happen, though. The Clippers would need to create $70.85 million in cap space to outright sign both players. If the salary cap is $109 million, as it’s projected, they could create $78.2 million in space by (1) renouncing the rights to all their free agents other than center Ivica Zubac and (2) trading Danilo Gallinari. If Leonard and Durant were signed, then the left-over cash could be used to re-sign Beverley, and they’d have the rights to Zubac.
Front office executives I’ve chatted with don’t think it’d be challenging to find a suitor for Gallo; he’s on an expiring contract and just had a career-best season. Not many teams could outright absorb his $22.6 million salary, but a few make sense, such as the Nets or Mavericks, or a club looking to accelerate their rebuild like the Hawks, or a playoff team looking to get over the hump like the Jazz or Pacers. The Clippers could have to sacrifice a future pick for a team to help them create two maximum slots, but that’d be a worthy price to pay.
There are hurdles anytime stars join forces—like there were in the first season of the Heatles, or after Durant first joined the Warriors. If one of them wanted to lead their own team on their own terms, it wouldn’t work anyway. But Durant would want to join a second star in New York anyway, and if Leonard joins the Clippers, they won’t stop at one, whether that player comes via trade or free agency. If the two star forwards were to link up, they’d have upside to be one of the greatest duos the league has ever seen. Durant is one of the greatest scorers ever, while Leonard’s play with the Raptors induces flashbacks of Michael Jordan; they are both elite defenders when they want to be, too. Leonard has spent most of his career sharing the ball with other players, while Durant has grown with the Warriors as a playmaker, and in the past shared with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The current core, with players who shine within their roles, would be ready to accommodate and complement the stars’ offensive prowess. The team makeup would reflect less of LeBron’s Heat, and more of the 2007-08 Celtics. That team won a championship in the first season that Rivers coached Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, and it featured both young and old role players.
For now, the Clippers can only dream. There is a long time to go before free agency begins. The Knicks could win the lottery, and Durant may see appeal in playing with Zion Williamson; maybe Irving, Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler will decide they want to go to the Big Apple, too. Durant could always just decide to stay with Golden State, as Leonard could with Toronto. But just the prospect of sincerely being part of the conversation to land Durant and/or Leonard shows how far the Clippers have come in such a short amount of time.
The front office took a risk few teams would be willing to make when it traded Griffin. There was always going to be public blowback when they dealt their franchise player, six months after calling him a “lifelong Clipper.” With Griffin under contract they could have at least remained competitive, but as West told The New York Times, “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.”
It takes courage to admit mistakes, and even more courage to do something about it. Doing so requires ownership approval, and Steve Ballmer has already proved to be one of the league’s best owners; he’s invested heavily, financially and emotionally, in the Clippers. Not all teams benefit from having owners willing to take calculated risks for the greater good, nor do all of them have competent front offices willing to even propose those changes. We see it across the league: The Grizzlies and Suns couldn’t complete a trade because they mixed up MarShon Brooks with Dillon Brooks; Magic Johnson quit on the Lakers before informing Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka; Robert Sarver continues to run the Suns into the ground with short-sighted decisions; James Dolan uses his power to ban media and fans from Knicks games just for criticizing him. Clippers fans know all about it: The team was once run by Donald Sterling. The Clippers once had organizational scoliosis, and now have perfect posture.
Not all NBA teams are playing on even ground. Ownership decides what the front office’s priorities are, whether it’s the bottom line or building a championship contender. The front offices must have the right people to make those decisions. The Clippers have all their goals aligned, and built a young, talented roster that should only get better; that’s a rarity in sports. What the Clippers have is already special.