While Magic Johnson was at LeBron James’s house, forging a partnership that could shape the NBA for the next decade, Los Angeles’s other team had its sights set on the star of “The Decision” … the other one. All-Stars came off the board quickly at the start of free agency, some before midnight even struck. The Clippers, without much open cap space to burn, remained dormant on Day 1 outside of a reported meeting with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the following news flash: “Sources: Top brass from the Los Angeles Clippers have flown to Dallas to meet with free agent forward Anthony Tolliver in his home.” One hour later, LeBron’s agency announced his agreement with the Lakers in a brief, hyphen-ambivalent press release. Caldwell-Pope soon joined him. Tolliver eventually agreed to a deal with Minnesota.
As the Lakers construct (or stifle) a title contender, the Clippers are searching for an identity. By saying goodbye to Austin Rivers and DeAndre Jordan in the lead-up to July 1, they have turned over almost the entire roster from the 2016–17 season, Chris Paul’s last in L.A. The only vestige of the Lob City era is Wes Johnson, whose chalk outline will remain on the Staples Center floor long after his contract expires next summer. In that team’s place is a more professionalized top-to-bottom approach. Since personnel decisions were officially removed from Doc Rivers’s purview last August, a reshuffled front office has come out a net positive in nearly every major transaction; for instance, Avery Bradley, who played only six games for the Clips after arriving midseason via the Blake Griffin trade, recommitted on Tuesday for about the same price as Caldwell-Pope, plus a partially guaranteed second year that provides the team more flexibility. But until Boban Marjanovic takes over the John Wick franchise, none of the new faces have the wattage worthy of a billboard, or even the placards they place over the Lakers’ banners on game nights.
Yet it’s hard to believe that Steve Ballmer shelled out $2 billion for the team, then DeMarcus Cousins money for Jerry West to serve as his ultimate Phone-a-Friend, just to compete for the West’s eighth seed. Indeed, while competency is no small feat for a franchise that has finished under .500 almost three times as often as it has above, the Clippers are in position to take a giant leap forward in the very near future. The capable veterans that make up the bulk of the roster should keep the Clippers respectable next season—the merits of such a strategy, during a time when every other West team wants to win, are debatable—but the biggest value for most of them comes from what they are not: signed past next season. As of now, with Montrezl Harrell’s restricted free agency still unresolved, only two Clippers players are due fully guaranteed salaries next summer. Add in their two recent first-round picks and Bradley’s partial guarantee, and the team could have enough for two max contracts in the summer of 2019, when franchise players like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Kyrie Irving may hit the market.
The problem is the Clippers won’t be the only team holding a bag or two next offseason. With some of the gross overpays signed in the boom of 2016 coming off teams’ books, and the cap projected to jump about $7 million after flattening out the past two summers, there will be plenty of cash to go around. As many as 11 teams can open up enough cap space for at least one max deal in 2019, including all seven teams in the top five U.S. media markets, if they don’t add long-term salary in this offseason’s home stretch. Most aren’t being coy about how they plan to use it, either. Knicks president Steve Mills said before this year’s free agency began that his team will be back in the star-chasing business in 2019. New Knicks coach David Fizdale doubled down on Wednesday: “As we get our culture in place, [Kristaps Porzingis] gets healthy, we start moving into next summer, I really feel like we’ll have the bricks in place to make some big moves.”
Although the Clippers may not have the history of the Knicks, or the gravitas that seemingly helped their Staples co-tenants land LeBron without another All-Star in hand, they do have their own Lakers luminary to lead any pitch meeting and the most attractive market in the sport. Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, who apparently knows Kawhi well (?), outlined, in detail, on FS1 this week that (a) Leonard only wants to be sent to Los Angeles, not the Lakers specifically, and (b) Leonard would welcome a chance to shape the Clippers in his image. Maybe. But the Lakers could easily outbid most teams in an asset arms race before Kawhi ever gets to free agency, making the Clippers scenario unlikely at best.
If Leonard is out of the picture, it’s hard to figure who the Clippers, or any other team expecting to big-game hunt, would turn to next. Things change; no one could’ve predicted Paul George’s embrace of Oklahoma City, and documentary filmmaking, one year ago. But finding the necessary motivation for next year’s best options to leave their current situations is a more difficult exercise than finding reasons for them to stay. Kevin Durant becomes a flight risk the murkier his motives get, yet walking away from a fully operational title machine would be unprecedented. All signs point to Klay Thompson re-upping with the Warriors, just at a steeper price than what was expected two months ago. With the East suddenly wide open, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford could be coming off a trip to the NBA Finals. Jimmy Butler’s reported unrest in Minnesota made the rounds this week, and he very well could try to escape Thibs’s grind house; then again, he’d have to turn down a $110 million extension this summer and play out his age-29 season months after meniscus surgery. Marc Gasol and Kevin Love would also have to decline $25.6 million options at the ages of 34 and 30 to enter the fray.
Every team would love to easy-bake a contender in one summer. But while the Heat’s success in 2010 free agency led them to four straight Finals and paved a path to where we are today in star-player movement, the Knicks also set a course for irrelevance by settling for Amar’e Stoudemire when their hard sell to James went nowhere. The possibility of teams having money next year but no one to spend it on seemed to be on agents’ minds this past week, as long-term security was eschewed en masse in favor of trying again in next year’s more player-friendly market. Through Thursday morning, there have been 29 one-year deals, four one-year deals with player options for a second year, two one-year deals with nonguaranteed second years, one one-year deal with a team option for a second year, and Bradley’s one-year deal with a partial guarantee in the second. Most of the major restricted free agents also remain in limbo, and some could wind up playing out next season on the one-year qualifying offer.
At the same time, teams have adjusted. The Bulls and Hawks, like the Sixers before them, have turned open cap space into storage units for unwanted deals for the price of a draft pick or two. And the one-year-contract bonanza has presented teams with just as much future flexibility. Reaches still happen—Danilo Gallinari is owed $44.2 million, and Blake Griffin $141.7 million—but another Travis Outlaw pupu platter feels unlikely; we’ve seen too much.
The Clippers have options. And so do a third of the league’s other teams.