Rob is an NBA cap savant and contributor to The Five By 5.
With the current news breaking of the Blake Griffin trade, everyone is going nuts wondering how each team faired in the deal. My first inclination and thoughts were elsewhere: How does this affect the chances of LeBron ending up in LA next season? Well, some of this gets complicated, and would need a little luck (and some help from other teams) but honestly, in todays NBA’s climate? Nothing is impossible. Even more so when you factor in the LeBron variable.
Step 1: Create space for two max salaries.
Two max salaries (Paul George and LeBron James in this case) would require right around $70.5 million in cap space in order for the Clippers to sign them both out right in free agency. As it stands now, the Clippers are projected to have -$3,886,085 in cap space for this upcoming offseason. So, how do we get to that $70.5 million range? It's not easy, but far from impossible. First order of business is getting off of Danilo Gallinari’s contract. Being that Gallinari is owed roughly $21.5 million over the next 3 years, you will almost certainly have to throw in the Clippers/Pistons pick to unload him for expiring contracts (likely the Clippers own pick). A potential suitor could be in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, this is a long shot, but packaging that pick and Gallo for Amir Johnsons $11 million dollar expiring contract and Trevor Bookers $9 million expiring contract gets the deal done. Why for Philly? Philly gets the wing shooter they desperately need and now have two bites at the apple come draft time in June. Additionally, the Clippers might consider making that Clipper pick more attractive by “tanking for LeBron," a strategy we haven't yet seen in the NBA. What I mean by that is that you gut as much of the roster as possible besides key guys like DeAndre Jordan, Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverly. This would keep the attractive “LeBron pieces” together, but it would also allow the Clippers to be just bad enough where that Clippers pick would become that much more enticing to a team that’s willing to take on Gallo’s contract.
Step 2: Cut ties with the coaches kid.
Austin Rivers must also be traded. Now, this gets a little trickier due to the Clippers not owning a 2019 first round draft pick that could be used to dump his contract. This means that the "Stepien rule" would come into effect for the Clippers (can't trade first round picks in back to back years). However, the Clippers could look to trade Rivers for Al Jefferson straight up. If needed, the Clippers could always throw in a future second, or a (far) future protected first round pick to grease the wheels on the trade, but at that point, it’s all about getting LeBron, so who cares about giving up another pick or two?
Step 3: Move the Boban.
To really make sure the Clippers get to the point where they can get both LeBron and PG13, they’d have to trade Boban Marjanovich, who is owed $7 million in each of the next two years. The perfect fit as an expiring contract in a trade that would dump Boban’s salary is (ironically enough) Cleveland’s Channing Frye. Not only do the salaries match, but Cleveland also needs the rim protection that Boban can provide (he has a sneaky good 22 PER this year). In this ideal scenario, LA should probably look to get a 2nd round pick back in the trade, even if it is protected somewhat, but now may not be the time for them to get greedy. This propsed trade would make the Cavs better this year, but it also helps the Clippers clean the rest of their books and clear the path to chase LeBron AND PG13 in free agency.
Step 4: Ride the waive (if needed).
At this point, the Clippers would have a total of $37.77 million dollars committed to their 2018-2019 salary books, and with the cap projected right around $108 million for next year (per Bleacher Report), the Clippers would almost exactly be at the roughly $70.5 million in cap space that would be needed to sign the two big fish. Other final measures to ensure the Clippers have the cap space could include stretching Milos Teodosic or Sam Dekker, giving the Clippers even more cap breathing room. They could also look to waive a few players if both LeBron and Paul George are hell bent on getting the absolute max contracts they’ll qualify for, but by estimations, the Boban deal makes two maxes possible regardless of other cap clearing moves.
Step 5: Make a deal with DJ.
This is where the power of Steve Ballmer comes in. The Clippers will need to make a back door deal with DeAndre Jordan that will have him opt out of the final year of his contract (player option), with the Clippers promising to re-sign him at a later time in free agency to a new (and of course, lucrative) deal. Sound crazy? The Spurs did something just like this recently with Pau Gasol. If they can convince DJ to do it, the Clippers could sign him to whatever contract he wants AFTER they get George and LeBron signed, but they could use the extra cap space to sign those two guys first before taking care of DJ.
Step 6: Pay-up for depth.
At this point, the Clippers are capped out, and can’t really make any more moves. But again, this is where Ballmer comes into play. He’s said before that he’s willing to spend for a contender, and if that’s the case, the Clippers should use their newly gained Bird rights to bring back Avery Bradley on whatever his price tag he asks. His defense and spot-up shooting would be huge additions to a core of LeBron, PG13 and DeAndre Jordan.
Step 7: Add the finishing (and cheap) touches.
To this point, the Clippers have probably got more (if not the most) out of their 2 way contract players and minimum free agent signings. Between those two avenues, and smart use of the mid level exception, the Clippers might be able to find the diamonds in the rough to flesh out the rest of the roster.
This might all sound far fetched, but it's all a legitimate option within the constraints of the CBA. And of course, it's also helpful to have Paul George’s expressed desire to play in LA and LeBron’s sizable investments in housing and businesses there as part of the equation. And while I may have missed a couple small details here and there, don't bet against something like this happening. The Clippers have some impressive and creative minds in their front office, and an owner who has stated numerous times that winning trumps money (and if his team is winning, he'll make more money from the franchise). A starting lineup of Patrick Beverly, Avery Bradley, Paul George, LeBron James, and DeAndre Jordan could really give the Warriors and the rest of the league fits. Plus Tobias Harris as your first man off the bench isn't too shabby either. Yes, this would be an extremely top heavy team, but in this salary cap era, no one will be able to replicate what the Warriors have been able to accomplish anytime soon, so teams (like the Clippers) need to be creative and take creative risks like this. At this point, nothing is too crazy in the NBA, and honestly, does Paul George and LeBron James playing together in LA sound that weird? It could happen, but we’ll have to wait and see.