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After Blake Griffin Trade, Can L.A. Clippers Make a Serious Run at LeBron James?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2018

Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, right, drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 118-113 in overtime. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — On late Monday night, the Los Angeles Clippers officially announced their blockbuster trade, sending five-time All-Star Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons. That sure sounds like a headline, but this is the NBA, where everything is really about LeBron James

Shortly after the trade, New York Times reporter Marc Stein reminded the NBA world that clearing Griffin off their books would help catapult the Clippers into the LeBron sweepstakes this summer. Despite his age (33), James is arguably this summer's top free agent, assuming he opts out of his final year with the Cleveland Cavaliers that would pay him $35.6 million.

The Cavs (29-19) have struggled for chemistry after trading Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics before the season. Cleveland has struggled defensively and is behind both the Boston Celtics (36-15) and Toronto Raptors (33-15) in the Eastern Conference standings.

Would the Clippers be an attractive suitor?

First, the dust needs to settle in Los Angeles. The Griffin trade seemed to come out of nowhere, given the Clippers had just re-signed Griffin to a five-year, $171.2 million contract last July, just 19 days after trading Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets.

With Paul's exit, it was clear the days of Lob City were gone, but the Clippers were going to retool around Griffin, or so they said. Suddenly, they're saying something else. 

"While change is hard, my confidence in our front office, led by Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, along with the sage counsel of Jerry West, has never been higher," Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. "I believe today, more than ever, in our ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship."

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

The Clippers clearly believe they can make it onto LeBron James' free-agent short list come July and, according to league sources, will indeed move DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams before the Feb. 8 trade deadline if they can find workable deals to help them in that quest

That's the question: Would adding James help the Clippers get any closer to a championship? He's still one of the most talented players in the league, but what supporting cast would he have in L.A.?

The Clippers' flexibility lies in the decisions of four players who each hold options: DeAndre Jordan (at $24.1 million next season), Austin Rivers ($12.7 million), Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wesley Johnson ($6.1 million). Combined, that's $49.2 million in salary the Clippers may or may not have on their books.

Jordan is the big question. He can earn up to $27.2 million in an extension before July, but he and the team have been unable to come to terms. If he opts out and hits free agency, Jordan can sign in Los Angeles or elsewhere for as much as $35 million.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Paying Jordan and affording James may be prohibitive unless the Clippers are able to clear significant salary. That won't be easy, given the Clippers still owe Danilo Gallinari $44.2 million over the next two seasons.

Instead, if the team feel like there's too large a gap between what Jordan is asking for in salary in extension and what the team is ready to pay, the Clippers should look to move him in a trade before the Feb. 8 deadline. The Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves may each have interest, among others. 

For instance, a package featuring Marcin Gortat, Kelly Oubre Jr., Jodie Meeks from the Wizards might make sense for the Clippers. Oubre could be worth building around, and the Gortat/Meeks contracts are short-term.

The Clippers need to keep their eye closely on the future. Inexpensive long-term talent and draft picks are ideal.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 13:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

Ultimately, Los Angeles is better off moving on from James, setting their sights on free agency in 2019 when the team only has Danilo Gallinari under guaranteed contract. That's when players like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Hassan Whiteside could all hit free agency, among others. Until then, the Clippers should be looking to cash out veterans like Jordan and Lou Williams, who has been tremendous for the Clippers this season. 

Letting go of Griffin was undoubtedly a difficult decision, given the team had just put so much effort into recruiting him. If he feels betrayed, Griffin's $39 million player option for the 2021-22 season should help make up for any lack of loyalty. 

Given his injury history and the team's mediocre status in the Western Conference (ninth, with a 25-24 record), the Clippers made a bold and probably wise move. They should complete the job by getting value for Jordan and Williams before they leave in free agency and by embracing the development of their young players.

In other words, tank for potential 2018 draft studs Deandre Ayton (Arizona), Marvin Bagley III (Duke), Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Trae Young (Oklahoma), Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri), Collin Sexton (Alabama), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State) or Mohamed Bamba (Texas).

Losing isn't fun for any franchise, but it may be a necessary step for the Clippers to build a team the right way, from the ground up.

       

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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