The Los Angeles Clippers have put themselves in a position to enter the LeBron James sweepstakes this summer. But sorry to break the news to the ever-faithful and patient Clippers fans, your franchise still doesn’t appear to be fit for a “King James.”
The Clippers did what appeared to be the unthinkable by trading projected Clipper-for-life star Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons on Monday. It was just last summer that the Clippers talked statue and legacy with the five-time NBA All-Star while also showcasing him on a T-shirt with Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and others before signing him to a five-year, $171 million contract. San Antonio Spurs big man Pau Gasol once famously said that it’s great being wined and dined as a free agent, but once you sign the deal, you lose your power. Without a no-trade clause, a powerless Griffin was dealt with forwards Brice Johnson and Willie Reed for forward Tobias Harris, guard Avery Bradley, center Boban Marjanovic and a first- and second-round draft pick.
By making a money move that they believe is best for their future, the Clippers could have as much as about $27 million this offseason available in free agency if they waive guards Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. (Thank you, ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks, for the financial help.) That would basically leave James or any other marquee free agent to play with Harris, oft-injured forward Danilo Gallinari, guard Austin Rivers and perhaps a heralded rookie next season. Now, if James signed and was patient, the Clippers could have potentially $40 million to $60 million available in the summer of 2019, when All-Star guards Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler become free agents.
The Cleveland Cavaliers forward, however, doesn’t have room to be patient, as he is in his prime in his 15th NBA season at 33 years old. As great as James is, competing against the Golden State Warriors and the rest of the Western Conference’s elite with Harris, Gallinari and Rivers would be akin to Julius Erving’s undertaking with the fictional Pittsburgh Pisces in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. And with the glory days of Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan (the next domino most likely to fall) now over without a Western Conference Finals appearance, there is no allure to joining the Clippers other than being in sunny Los Angeles.
Coach Doc Rivers, general manager Lawrence Frank and Hall of Fame executive Jerry West would have to make a water-to-wine sales pitch to James for the Clippers to even be in consideration. As of now, James is not expected to consider the Clippers as a free agent, a source close to him said. A source close to the Clippers said they also don’t expect James to consider them in free agency. But the Clippers have to make the call.
So, what is next for the Clippers?
Don’t be surprised if Jordan and hot-scoring guard Lou Williams both obtain change of address cards by the Feb. 8 trade deadline. A source said the Clippers are still open to re-signing the two free-agents-to-be at the right price. To acquire Jordan or Williams, talented young players, talented veterans with short contracts and draft picks would be attractive trade bait. While it was painful to trade the franchise’s star in Griffin, the Clippers did it in hopes of having long-term flexibility. The NBA free-agent class of 2019 is attractive to the franchise, too, when there will be money to spend with just Gallinari and perhaps recently drafted young stars remaining on the roster.
The Clippers (25-24) maintain that they are not tanking but rather reshaping and planning on making a run at a seventh straight playoff berth. But outside of the lottery, the 2018 NBA draft starts to thin quickly. Not making the playoffs to ensure the Clippers’ own first-round pick is in the lottery would be more beneficial than getting a certificate of participation in the first round of the playoffs.
The crosstown rival Los Angeles Lakers will have the money, young talent and sales pitch from Magic Johnson for James this summer. James gave a Twitter birthday shout-out on Monday to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who also is expected to make a pitch this summer. The Cavaliers are struggling, but don’t count them out for the future as they are still James’ home state team and capable of making a fourth straight trip to the Finals.
Keep in mind that Paul and James are close friends and the coveted free agent could be interested in joining Paul and fellow All-Star James Harden with the Houston Rockets. How? James probably would have to make a similar sign-and-trade power move with the Cavaliers that Paul used to get from the Clippers to Houston.
The media will certainly grill James relentlessly during the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend about the possibility of joining the Lakers or Clippers. Yes, the Clippers have their lotto ticket now to make it a legitimate question. James will certainly be asked about his offseason homes in Los Angeles and being involved in movies and documentaries in Hollywood. In doing his due diligence, what would James have to lose by talking to the Clippers?
Well, the truth is the all-time-great-legacy building James has no time to reload and be patient with the titleless Clippers. And to the Clippers’ credit, they are realistic about not expecting a tap on the shoulder from the NBA megastar. Sorry, long-suffering Clippers fans, even with a king’s ransom now available, word is you’ll need much, much more to be attractive to King James.
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