With the NBA’s Free Agency window right around the corner after this week’s draft, we’re taking a broad survey of the options available to the Clippers as they look to keep last season’s Western Conference Finals rotation together while making a few improvements around the edges and attempting to prepare for some time–perhaps a full year–without superstar forward Kawhi Leonard.
To do that, we’re going to more or less work off of last year’s model–breaking down the free agent pool position-by-position (guards, forwards, and bigs) this week and then looking within each position’s list of available players to predict which players could be available in the Clippers’ budget and which would be desirable targets for them. This year, however, there are a lot fewer exciting possibilities as the team has significantly less free agency flexibility than they did last season. Last season, the Clippers had the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception to add players above the league minimum, and the possibility of exploring sign-and-trade deals. This year, because of their financial situation, the team is exceedingly unlikely to be able to use the full MLE, BAE, or take in a S&T player unless Kawhi Leonard opts out of his contract and signs with another team. As long as Kawhi is a Clipper, their only meaningful tool with which to chase free agents from other teams is the taxpayer MLE, worth about $5.7M. That’s not very much buying power, and the team’s first priority with that tool should be Nicolas Batum. If that works out, the Clippers’ only newcomers this off-season could arrive via trade, the draft, and minimum-salary deals. That means the “not happening” tier is going to be much more expansive this season. Players are listed along with any options or restricted status, plus John Hollinger’s BORD$ valuation at The Athletic.
John Collins – restricted, Hollinger $26.1M
Richaun Holmes – Hollinger $18.3M
Jarrett Allen – restricted, Hollinger $16M
Andre Drummond – Hollinger $15.1M
Lauri Markkanen – restricted, Hollinger $11.9M
Montrezl Harrell – $9.7M player option, Hollinger $11.5M
For a handful of different reasons, nobody here is a real possiblity for this summer–primarily because the Clippers don’t have cap room and won’t have the flexibilty to acquire free agents in sign-and-trade deals. Without that, you can kiss any expensive free agents goodbye.
If Serge leaves….
Kelly Olynyk – Hollinger $14.2M
Daniel Theis – Hollinger $12.5M
Enes Kanter – Hollinger $11.5M
Paul Millsap – Hollinger $11.3M
Bobby Portis – $3.8M player option, Hollinger $6M
Blake Griffin – Hollinger $5.5M
JaMychal Green – $7.6M player option, Hollinger $5.3M
As we’ve covered in our previous posts this week, the Clippers only have one above-minimum tool with which to pursue free agents: the $5.9M taxpayer mid-level exception. Operating under the assumption that Serge Ibaka will pick up his $9.7M player option following back surgery, we can all but write off the idea that LAC would use that money at the center position where they already have Zubac and Ibaka, and instead focus on a perimeter player (likely a forward). Additionally, that’s the money the team will have to use to re-sign Nicolas Batum, who you’d have to think would be higher priority than any of the players on this list. But if Serge opts out and they can’t use his free agent rights to re-sign him, and Batum leaves in free agency, utilizing the taxpayer MLE on a backup big man becomes more viable. I still think they should look at a forward with that money since you can typically get decent minimum-salary value at the center position, but it’s hard to argue that a guy like Olynyk or Theis would be more viable in the playoffs than many minimum-level alternatives, while someone like JaMychal Green could return to the Clippers in a major role covering at PF and C. Still, let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.
Slip-through-the-cracks minimum possibilities
Hassan Whiteside – Hollinger $9.1M
Cody Zeller – Hollinger $6.1M
Willie Cauley-Stein – $4.3M team option, Hollinger $5.6M
Nerlens Noel – Hollinger $5.6M
I don’t think it’s particularly likely that any of these guys become Clippers, since they’re all probably above-minimum guys and they all probably are looking for guaranteed minutes. But let’s say Ibaka leaves and the Clippers use the taxpayer MLE elsewhere–you can do a lot worse than Hassan Whiteside on a one-year minimum, which he might accept if he sees an open path to rotation minutes. With Serge and Zu in place, these guys should be looking for playing time opportunities.
Patrick Patterson Memorial Stretch 4/5
Nemanja Bjelica – Hollinger $7.8M
Nicolo Melli – restricted, Hollinger $3.6M
Frank Kaminsky – Hollinger $3M
Ersan Ilyasova – Hollinger minimum
Mike Scott – Hollinger minimum
Patrick Patterson – Hollinger minimum
Jared Dudley – Hollinger minimum
Until the Clippers signed DeMarcus Cousins late in the year, Patrick Patterson spent most of the season as LA’s de facto third string center, despite being egregiously undersized at the position. One option, with the team facing a tricky roster spot crunch with Kawhi Leonard’s injury, is to go into next season with a similar arrangement. It’s possible that the team doesn’t view signing another center as necessary at all if they have Zubac and Ibaka–they didn’t last year until a mid-season acquisition when Serge was hurt, and most teams don’t carry three strictly centers these days. But in that case, I’d like to find someone who is just a bit bigger and more effective than Patterson at this stage in his career. Ersan Ilyasova could make for a nice replacement as a guy with a track record as a stretch big who is known for good defensive positioning allowing him to take charges.
Guys who aren’t ancient
Zach Collins – restricted, Hollinger $7.8M
Jarred Vanderbilt – restricted, Hollinger $4.7M
Mo Wagner – Hollinger minimum
Luke Kornet – Hollinger minimum
Harry Giles – Hollinger minimum
Isaiah Hartenstein – Hollinger minimum
Trey Lyles – Hollinger minimum
Marquese Chriss – Hollinger minimum
Anthony Gill – restricted, Hollinger minimum
Juwan Morgan – restricted, Hollinger minimum
Here lies the problem with looking for developmental free agents: young guys in the NBA tend to either be under team control, or not worth being under team control. I’ll let you decide which is which here, but I’m not thinking there are a ton of great options for LAC to go young. Giles, Lyles, and Chriss are probably the combo of guys who could be open to a third-string minumum role while also having a chance at becoming a legitimate NBA rotation player.
Proven Minimum-Salary Backup Centers
Alex Len – Hollinger $3.4M
Willy Hernangomez – Hollinger $3.3M
Taj Gibson – Hollinger minimum
Robin Lopez – Hollinger minimum
Dwight Howard – Hollinger minimum
Tony Bradley – restricted, Hollinger minimum
Gorgui Dieng – Hollinger minimum
Boban Marjanovic – Hollinger minimum
JaVale McGee – Hollinger minimum
DeMarcus Cousins – Hollinger minimum
Dewayne Dedmon – Hollinger minimum
Aron Baynes – $7.4M non-guaranteed deal, Hollinger minimum
Bismack Biyombo – Hollinger minimum
Ed Davis – Hollinger minimum
Here’s where you get into the well of minimum-salary mediocrity that has tanked the NBA’s center market in recent years. With more and more traditional bigs, many on this list, forced into being centers instead of power forwards as the game evolves, and the uptick of versatile/perimeter-based/small-ball center play limiting roster spots for traditional big men (not long ago, Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum would both be considered SFs while Serge Ibaka and Zubac started together at PF and C, each needing a traditional big backup), there are always replacement-level centers available for the minimum. The best guys will look for above-minimum money and/or guaranteed minutes, but those offers don’t always come. The A-team here is probably Len, Howard, Dieng, McGee, and Dedmon–if you can get one of those guys on the minimum, it’s a good insurance policy locked in. But more generally speaking, there isn’t necessarily a reason to spend a roster spot here unless you’re really concerned about Serge Ibaka’s availability for next season. Cousins, Gibson, Dieng, and Dedmon from this list all signed with teams mid-season last year, while McGee was traded for 2nd round picks. It won’t be hard to find one of these guys in February or March if you need them.
Defensive Smallball Bigs
JaKarr Sampson – Hollinger $2.9M
D.J. Wilson – restricted, Hollinger minimum
That’s why, in addition to the aforementioned PatPat 4/5 shooter roles, the Clippers could look at some versatile forward defenders who have been successful playing the center position in the NBA. Rather than play a not-great emergency 7-footer, this would allow LAC to go to the small-ball lineup that Ty Lue preferred in the playoffs without putting massive regular-season minutes and physical burdens on guys like Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum. Sampson is a strong, athletic, versatile defender who could really come in and help the Clippers execute the same switching coverages they utilized in the playoffs. To pull that off with any regularity in the regular season, LA is going to need another defender like JaKarr. The only problem is that the small-ball lineup works because it also provided the Clippers with a 5-out lineup to open up the lane for drivers, and JaKarr is not a shooter by any means. Wilson is in a similar boat, just not quite as impactful defensively or effective finishing as a cutter. But, DJ does have a bit more size (6’10” vs 6’7″) and is a willing but below-average shooter who has a better chance of being a competent corner spot-up guy. If Wilson is made unrestricted by way of the Rockets declining to extend a qualifying offer to him, I’d like either of these guys on a minimum deal for LAC.
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