The Clippers Are Making a Huge Statement to This Summer's Free-Agent Class

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterApril 18, 2019

Los Angeles Clippers' Lou Williams (23) is mobbed by teammates after making the game-winning shot as time expired during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Patrick Beverley has made a career of getting under the skin of NBA stars like Kevin Durant. Two games into the Clippers' first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors—now tied 1-1 after their historic 31-point comeback victory Monday night—he and the Clippers have plenty of Durant's attention. 

If Durant doesn't like playing against Beverley and a team Clippers head coach Doc Rivers describes as "cockroaches," L.A. would gladly welcome Durant into the fold this summer. He's seeing the best kind of free-agent sales pitch up close and in person.

And if Durant isn't taking notice, another star free-agent-to-be surely is. 

"What's the best recruiting pitch in free agency? The playoffs," former NBA executive Bobby Marks tweeted right after the Clippers stole Game 2.

Durant is one of this summer's top prospective free agents, a class that includes Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Jimmy Butler, among others. The Clippers have enough cap space for at least one if not two max stars.

The Clippers front office has been preparing for the summer of 2019 since Chris Paul demanded a trade to the Houston Rockets two years ago. They subsequently traded Blake Griffin (and his massive contract and balky knees) to the Detroit Pistons in January 2018.

The Los Angeles Lakers have always been the marquee team in L.A., but the Clippers are making a strong case for the oft-ignored underdog. At a minimum, they've gotten the Warriors' attention.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Clippers owner Steve Balmer has deep pockets. He spurned tanking, re-signed head coach Doc Rivers and invested heavily in a deep front office led by team president Lawrence Frank (featuring consultant Jerry West, general manager Michael Winger, assistant general managers Mark Hughes and Trent Redden and director of pro personnel Johnny Rogers).

Meanwhile, the Lakers still have LeBron James, but former team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson stepped down last week. Days later, the Lakers parted ways with head coach Luke Walton after they missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

The Clippers don't have a superstar like James on their roster, but they do have an elite bucket-getter in Lou Williams (one of the greatest sixth men of all time). Williams is under contract for the next two years at $8 million per season. Breakout forward Montrezl Harrell is owed only $6 million next year, too. The Clippers also have two promising rookies, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, on relatively inexpensive rookie-scale contracts.

The Clippers executed three deals over a two-day span in February, parting with arguably their best player in Tobias Harris (along with Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and Avery Bradley) while adding two future first-round picks, JaMychal Green, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, Ivica Zubac and Shamet.

"The Clippers front office killed the trade deadline," a former general manager said. "Shamet and Zubac were steals."

The Sixers got Harris, Marjanovic and Scott and finished third in the Eastern Conference with 51 wins. Philadelphia was supposed to be a powerhouse in the East, but it finished with only three more victories than the Clippers. It's too early to judge the trade for the Sixers, who gave up a lot for Harris. But if he leaves as a free agent this summer, it could look lopsided in hindsight.

John Raoux/Associated Press

According to a Clippers executive, the difficult decision was determining they weren't going to reinvest in Harris this summer. Once they decided upon that, they aimed to land valuable first-round picks without hampering their ability to compete in the Western Conference. The Clippers dipped late to the eighth seed, but they finished nine games ahead of the next-best team, the Sacramento Kings, and just two behind the fifth-place Utah Jazz.

The matchup against the Warriors may be unfortunate—Golden State is still the heavy favorite—but the Clippers also benefit from an up-close audition with Durant. The All-Star forward can receive a starting salary up to $38.2 million this summer ($164 million over four years) in Los Angeles. The Warriors can pay him more to stay, but if Durant is looking for a new challenge, the Clippers can pay him without decimating their roster.

If they can't get Durant, the Clippers can chase Leonard or Butler or any of the other big names this summer. They can carve out almost $47 million in cap space while retaining Danilo Gallinari, Jerome Robinson, Williams, Harrell, Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet, along with the rights to Beverley, Zubac and late waiver claim Rodney McGruder.

If Durant's goal is to team up with someone like Irving, the Clippers likely would need to relocate Gallinari via trade, which shouldn't be difficult after his productive year (even with the $22.6 million he's owed in 2019-20). If they did so without taking salary back, the Clippers would be near the $32.7 million they'd need to sign a second star after inking Durant.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The numbers are even easier for two middle-tier max stars like Leonard and Irving.

One former player said Leonard's teammates expect him to leave for Los Angeles after the season, although he didn't specify which franchise. Outside of a few who suggest Leonard might choose the Lakers, it seems almost everyone around the league (dating back to last July) believes Leonard will join the Clippers instead.

This summer could be a true test of the Lakers' brand compared to the organizational stability of the Clippers, along with a roster of players showing they're ready to compete on the big stage. Outside of James, the Lakers are a mixed bag of young players struggling to stay healthy (like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball), and they currently lack a head coach or president of basketball operations.

The Clippers can offer a staror two starseverything they could want except the Lakers' built-in market share. The pitch would be: "Come help the Clippers overtake the Lakers."

That may not be possible. It wasn't when Paul and Griffin annually led the Clippers to the playoffs while the Lakers rebuilt. The Lakers were still the top story in L.A., but the Clippers are out to prove that era is coming to an end.

The Game 2 comeback against the Warriors was a step in that direction. A series upset would be a massive leap forward for the Clippers, one that may pay off this summer in free agency.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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