Can you imagine LeBron James and Blake Griffin running down the court in transition with Chris Paul leading the charge and waiting to throw an alley-oop to whichever of the two uber-athletic targets presents him with the best option?
No, this isn't some far-fetched scenario in which the NBA's two conferences mix All-Stars and play a pickup game during the midseason break.
It's supposedly a realistic possibility, as LeBron and the Los Angeles Clippers apparently have some mutual interest.
"The most intriguing move on the mind of James and his camp, sources told Yahoo Sports, would be a sign-and-trade scenario with the Los Angeles Clippers in which James could play with close friend Chris Paul and under president-coach Doc Rivers," reports Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski while discussing the offseason options of the four-time MVP, who recently opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat.
"Intriguing" doesn't mean it's actually going to happen, though.
It's fine to dream of LeBron wearing those baby blue uniforms and helping CP3 advance to the conference finals for the first time in the point guard's impressive career, but do so while recognizing that it's still nothing more than a pipe dream.
If you sorted the list of candidates for LeBron's services by their realistic chances of landing him, the Clippers would be quite far down in the rankings. Behind the Atlanta Hawks. Behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Behind everyone with a remote chance of gaining access to James' talents.
Clearing Cap Space Is an Impossibility
According to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi, "The Clippers' current salary is slated to be $73,660,731 if Glen Davis, Darren Collison and Danny Granger opt out, as ESPNLosAngeles.com reported they will. That figure also includes their first-round draft pick (No. 28) and empty roster charges."
LAC could also save itself nearly $1.5 million by cutting ties with Willie Green, who's operating on a non-guaranteed salary, though the cap hold for the empty roster spot would negate much of what's gained.
With well over the salary cap already committed to current pieces, could the Clippers possibly clear up enough space to have a shot at a maximum-salary player?
That's the question Markazi asked Larry Coon, the foremost expert on all things dealing with the salary cap and the NBA's collective bargaining agreement:
Let's say they dump Jordan, Crawford and Dudley, and also get rid of the No. 28 pick while they're at it. They'd then be at $53,625,152. This assumes that all assets are dumped for future considerations only, with no salary coming back to the Clippers. The team would need to get down to $42,540,368 to make LeBron a max offer. They're over $11 million short.
It's worth noting that the 2014-15 salary cap is projected to come in at $63.2, a figure that also comes from Coon (h/t BasketballInsiders.com's Eric Pincus).
So, at this point, the Clippers would be able to offer LeBron a salary just under eight figures. That's probably not going to cut it, huh?
If they also dump Reggie Bullock and Matt Barnes for nothing, they will get down to $50,042,854. That's still about $8 million short. So there's still no way. This also presumes the Clippers will be able to dump five players with no salary coming back, which is a pretty tall order.
There are a couple things to note.
The Clippers would be able to offer LeBron just over $13 million at this point. Then they could fill up the rest of the roster with cap exceptions and players willing to operate on veteran minimums. But as the CBA expert hints at, the figure LeBron makes might be even less than that.
This plan requires trading DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock and Matt Barnes to teams with enough cap space to absorb their salaries without going over the threshold. Otherwise, they'd be left trading salary back to LAC in order to make the deals legal.
That's hard to do with one player, much less five—especially when Jordan is set to make $11.4 million in 2014-15.
Additionally, let's think about the core of players who would be left.
LeBron—assuming he even signed, as the Clippers could be gutting the roster without receiving anything useful for the 2014-15 campaign—Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick and Green.
Technically, Redick could be dealt in similar fashion while the Clippers cut ties with Green, but they'd still be pressed up against the cap with only three rostered players after signing the Miami standout. Is that really a championship core? Better yet, is that a championship core in the Western Conference?
LeBron looked exhausted during the 2014 NBA Finals, the result of playing a season's worth of extra games over the last few years. The responsibility of carrying the Miami offense, the extra playoff games and the Olympic experience clearly took their collective toll.
Would he really sign up to star on an even thinner roster in a tougher conference?
The Clippers have way too many hurdles to overcome for this to be a realistic possibility.
They'd have to trade almost all their players for nothing but future draft picks. They'd still have to convince LeBron to sign for less than a max deal. Then they'd have to fill up the roster in such fashion that LeBron wouldn't wear down, and that's saying nothing of the toll Paul's notoriously fragile body might take with such a heavy responsibility.
This may as well be impossible. Fortunately for the Clippers, there might be another option—with "might" being the operative word.
Forget About a Sign-and-Trade
Should James seek a max contract, he could still find his way to the Clippers, but the Heat would have to help facilitate a sign-and-trade deal. Right off the bat, that's quite unlikely.
As Wojnarowski writes, the Heat have never shown any signs of being willing to consider such a transaction:
As for sign-and-trade scenarios, in which Riley would have to assist James in getting his maximum financial payout with a new team, the organization has been privately adamant that they'd never do it, league sources said. If James wanted to force his way to the Clippers, he'd have to create the fear within Miami that it could lose him for nothing to a team with the salary cap space to sign him.
This is a big assumption, but let's just pretend that the Heat would be willing to facilitate.
Should LeBron still be working with a max contract, the Clippers would remain mired in financial trouble, regardless of who they sent back.
"Even if the Clippers completed a sign-and-trade that sent Griffin to Miami for James after he re-signed to a maximum deal, Coon said the Clippers' cap would be about $74 million and hard-capped at about $81 million, leaving just $7 million to fill out the rest of the roster," writes Markazi.
The CBA includes restrictions for sign-and-trade deals, one of which indicates that a team on the receiving end can't go above the "apron," which is set at $4 million above the luxury-tax threshold.
That serves as the hard cap that Markazi and Coon are referring to up above.
In this scenario, the Clippers are looking at rostering only a handful of players, losing Griffin and having $7 million to sign about six veterans and rookie-scale players. Does that really sound like a good situation for LeBron?
There's one other problem here as well. The Clippers have been rather adamant that they won't trade Griffin. Not under any circumstances.
"While the Clippers would need to move significant players and money to make a run at either James or Anthony, sources told ESPN that Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers has told Griffin on numerous occasions that he considers him 'untouchable' in any trade," reports ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
That's rather significant, as it knocks the one option Miami would strongly consider out of the equation. There's a chance Rivers could budge on that stance if LeBron-for-Griffin was a swap that awaited just his signature on a dotted line, but why would LeBron even agree to play for a capped-out team on which he and CP3 were the only stars?
Too many logical leaps are required in this scenario.
The only realistic possibility involves a different sign-and-trade, one in which the Clippers don't cut salary beforehand, require LeBron to take a significant pay cut and then send the Heat back a monetary equivalent.
"The big question is would all three opt out and take [$13 million per] to allow the Heat to build their roster back up?" an NBA executive asked Fred Kerber of the New York Post. "Miami then would have flexibility for another $13-$14 million player. But as we saw in the Finals, it’s not about your payroll, but team chemistry."
If LeBron is willing to take that type of massive pay cut to stay at South Beach, who's to say he wouldn't do the same thing in order to play with Paul, one of his best friends, and Griffin, one of the more intriguing young talents in the game?
The earning potential from endorsements in Los Angeles would surely trump the loss in salary, after all.
Let's roll with this assumption for the sake of the argument. As you might have noticed, these assumptions are already piling up in these pipe-dream scenarios.
Because the Clippers will be at roughly $73.7 million once Glen Davis, Darren Collison and Danny Granger opt out, as discussed earlier, money would still be tight—even tighter because that $81 million hard cap would still exist after the completion of a sign-and-trade.
So if LeBron really were willing to sign for $13 million in a sign-and-trade agreement, the Clippers would have to send Miami just about that much money.
The ideal way would be trading Jordan and Dudley, who are set to make a combined $15.7 million during the 2014-15 season, to South Beach in exchange for the four-time MVP.
Another option would be combining Redick, Crawford and Bullock into one package—really, any combination of Redick, Crawford, Dudley, Barnes, Green and Bullock that adds up to around $13 million would work.
But what's the appeal for Miami?
There isn't any, which is why Jordan—assuming Griffin really is off the table—must be included.
Parting ways with the promising big man would be difficult. The Heat taking on his expiring contract with no guarantee of re-signing him would be even tougher. And, remember, that's assuming Pat Riley budges from his "no sign-and-trade" stance.
Even then, the Clippers would have a roster comprised of Paul, LeBron, Griffin, Redick, Crawford, Barnes, Collison and Green with only about $10 million left before hitting the hard cap.
There's no center on the roster, much less a starting-caliber one to help LAC survive the rigors of the West, nor is there a backup big man at either power forward or center.
Long story short, there's no way to get LeBron into a Clippers uniform while making the finances work, convincing LeBron it's worth his while, getting the Heat to agree to their part and keeping the roster strong enough to be competitive while fighting through the Western gauntlet.
Each route involves too many unlikely twists and turns, and even the ones that are relatively simple would involve LAC losing the appeal that would draw LeBron there in the first place.
He wants to win championships while playing with friends, not play with friends at the expense of having a realistic shot at rings.
So enjoy those dreams of LeBron and Griffin bolting down the court and waiting to see who CP3 chooses as the recipient of his inevitable lob.
Your head is the only place such a scenario will ever take place.
Salary information courtesy of ShamSports.com.
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