The Los Angeles Clippers played the 2018-19 season on two separate timelines—one fully focused on the future and the other centered around perhaps the campaign's least likely playoff run.
Now, they're all back on the same page for what will be a critical, maybe fortune-changing, offseason.
This is the main event.
In one corner is a humbling (if not humiliating) history of sometimes being the NBA's laughingstock and always playing second fiddle to those other Staples Center residents. But in the other lies an opportunity to change destinies with an owner and front office disconnected from those past struggles and desperate to show their fanbase a new existence.
Can L.A.'s other team finally become a coveted destination? Or will ample cap space and an endless supply of optimism yield nothing more than a harsh reality check?
For better or worse, this summer may define what it means to be the Clippers.
Setting the Stage
The Clippers long ago decided being good isn't good enough.
That's why they moved Blake Griffin less than a year after they lavished him with a five-year, $175 million contract extension and labeled him a "Clipper for life." It's why the West's No. 8 seed put its own playoff hopes in jeopardy by dealing then-leading scorer Tobias Harris for a package built around draft picks, a rookie and cap space at the 2019 trade deadline.
"We know we can be a player," executive board member Jerry West told NBA.com's Shaun Powell.
As Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus relayed, the Clippers could have nearly $47 million in cap space with Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson all under contract, plus the rights to Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac and Rodney McGruder. If they need extra room, Gallinari should be easy to relocate as a near-20-point scorer with an expiring $22.6 million salary.
Should the trade market prove a more attractive option—the Clips are said to be one of Anthony Davis' preferred destinations—they have all their future firsts (their 2019 first belongs to the Boston Celtics), plus a lottery-protected 2020 first-rounder from the Philadelphia 76ers and an unprotected 2021 first-rounder from the Miami Heat.
Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet, Zubac and Robinson are all 22-and-unders who could anchor or sweeten an offer.
Priority No. 1: Adding Two Elites
Does this sound greedy? It should.
That's the only way for the Clippers to approach this summer. If they aren't aiming sky-high, then one of Griffin or Harris should've been around to lead this playoff charge.
As frightening as Griffin's injury history might be, he's an all-caps BALLER when healthy. In his first full season with the Detroit Pistons, he snapped their two-year playoff drought and became just the seventh player in the 2010s to average 24 points, seven boards and five dimes.
Harris is a 26-year-old whose career is defined by perpetual growth. He's averaged more points than the previous season in all but one of his NBA campaigns, and he pumped in personal bests of 20.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists this season while flirting with a 50/40/90 slash and navigating through a midseason swap.
Those were major subtractions. L.A.'s additions must be even more significant.
This summer should have an anything-is-possible feel for Steve Ballmer's bunch, and that's how they're treating it. Their "grand plan," as The Athletic's Sam Amick put it, involves inking both Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith gives the Clips a "better than 50 percent chance" of pulling this off.
Granted, that doesn't mean it's guaranteed—or even likely. Leonard might prefer to stay where he might have an annual pass to the Eastern Conference Finals. Durant could keep collecting rings with the Golden State Warriors, attempt to revitalize the New York Knicks or even link up with his old training partner on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Or both could become Clippers and launch this organization into the middle of the championship race. It's a gamble, but the potential payoff is too rich not to pursue at all costs.
Priority No. 2: Building the Supporting Cast
Assuming the Clips strike it rich with a Durant-Leonard combo—or something similar—they'll almost assuredly have lost Gallinari in the process. That leaves just five incumbents with guaranteed contracts: Williams, Harrell, Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet and Robinson.
L.A. could flesh out some of the roster by bringing back Zubac and McGruder from restricted free agency. It could also pick up non-guaranteed deals (Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace) for depth.
But even then, the Clippers would have several roster spots to fill. And the number obviously grows with every cut they make from that group.
They'll need a new starting center if they let Zubac walk. They'll want extra shooting, especially if they're reluctant to give Robinson significant minutes again. They might need a backup point guard if Patrick Beverley bolts. Defensive versatility could be an area of focus, particularly with the second team.
Remember, even if Durant and Leonard arrive, that's still only a two-star squad. That's not to diminish the impact or ceiling—both would be enormous—but having a pair of stars is merely a requirement to compete in the modern NBA. Properly supporting that top-level talent can be a crucial part of the championship chase.
The Clippers should know that as well anyone. Their past iterations built around Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan grew a little too top-heavy, and this version should credit much of its success to a second team that ranked sixth in scoring differential.
Doc Rivers called this "the best bench easily" he's ever coached while noting Williams and Harrell could take the top two spots in Sixth Man of the Year voting. Having both players back next season—at team-friendly rates, no less—will help. Ditto for rostering so many contributors on rookie contracts. But the Clippers must keep searching for bargain ballers who can potentially prop up their stars.
Not having a first-round pick is always a bummer. Not having one because it was sacrificed for Jeff Green is among the most powerful gut punches a team can take.
But if you're ever going to be without a first-rounder, this isn't a bad year to do it. Zion Williamson has the top tier to himself, and not many blue-chippers populate the next rung.
This could be one of those classes in which the most productive prospects come from all over the draft board, so maybe the Clips can find something interesting with the Nos. 48 and 56 selections.
Maybe they'll take the injury-discount route with ACL-tearers Chuma Okeke or Jontay Porter. The former overflows with versatility, armed with a 7'1" wingspan, a 38.7 percent three-point stroke and enough ball skills to play on the perimeter. The latter, the younger brother of 2018 lottery pick Michael Porter Jr., boasts a high IQ, impressive court vision and promising shooting touch for a 6'11" post player.
L.A. could also try to catch lightning in a bottle with a former top prospect who took an unconventional route to the NBA. Players such as Darius Bazley (skipped college for a $1 million internship with New Balance) or Brian Bowen (spent this season in Australia) have more potential than their draft positions will likely reflect.
Every draft pick is a dart throw, and mid-to-late second-rounders are like tosses from the other side of the room. But every once in a while, one connects. Maybe the Clips can get lucky.
Durant and Leonard are the obvious starting point, and the offseason is a wrap—the Clippers are unanimous winners—if they sign on the dotted line.
This conversation gets interesting, though, if they're forced to move past Plan A. Surely, Plan B, C and D exist, but how far down the list do they go before deciding this just isn't the right summer?
"Cap space is fool's gold," West told Powell. "We have to spend it wisely or not spend it. One of the two."
Non-Durant-Leonard combos are worthy of consideration. Swap one out for Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker, and you're still looking at a skyscraper's ceiling. At the right price, Nikola Vucevic could be a fun sidekick, although the Orlando Magic might be pushed to pay him after they made their first playoff appearance in seven seasons.
If the Clips strike out with that group, it's probably best to preserve cap space for a later date. It'd be better to rent that room for picks and/or prospects than to overpay the likes of Harris, Khris Middleton, Bojan Bogdanovic or the rest of free agency's upper middle class.
Looking beyond the elites, L.A. should probably find a way to keep Beverley. His relentless approach is contagious, and the Clippers will need that energy in their attempted ascent to the Association's greatest heights.
"Pat Beverley ... thinks he could beat [Mike] Tyson in his prime in a fight, which is stupid, but he believes that," Rivers said, per Mirjam Swanson of the Southern California News Group. "And I think that rubs off on all our guys."
JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple and Wilson Chandler are OK to keep at the Clippers' preferred price, but they're all expendable if the bidding goes too high. Zubac is in a similar boat, although his youth makes him more appealing than that trio.
External options could include Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, former Clipper Al-Farouq Aminu, Trevor Ariza, Wesley Matthews or Reggie Bullock as plug-and-play support pieces. Tyreke Evans might intrigue on a prove-it pact. If L.A. strikes out on its top targets and treats 2019-20 as a place-holding year, cheap fliers on 23-year-old Noah Vonleh or 22-year-old Stanley Johnson (restricted) are worth considering.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.