The Clippers want to be prepared.
And that’s why they hired Jerry West as a consultant.
The grand plan for West and his new Clippers colleagues, president of basketball operations and head coach Doc Rivers and executive vice president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank? Targeting the biggest fish in next summer’s free agent sea: LeBron James.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, West’s potential ability to improve the Clippers’ chances of landing the Cleveland Cavaliers star in free agency in the summer of 2018 was a significant factor in his hiring and in the willingness of owner Steve Ballmer to pay West between $4 and $5 million annually.
The Clippers’ first order of business is re-signing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, which won’t be easy with the Spurs (for Paul) and Celtics (for Griffin) swarming. Retaining Paul is particularly important, considering his friendship with LeBron. But keeping Griffin would also help the Clippers maintain their high level of play, a necessity when competing with the more prestigious Lakers.
But how much of a pay cut?
If they trim their roster to just Paul and Griffin, the Clippers would still project to be fall short of having max cap space in 2018. DeAndre Jordan can also become a free agent that year, and the center is an important cog. LeBron joining for the mid-level exception?
This doesn’t even account for Anthony or exactly how the Clippers would drop Austin Rivers ($12,650,000 player option), Jamal Crawford ($3 million of $14.5 million guaranteed) and Wesley Johnson ($6,134,520) – all of whom have deals that run through 2018-19.
If LeBron wants to sign with the Clippers, they could always trade Griffin. It’d be hard, but possible, to build a championship contender from there. Griffin would fetch something.
It’s a grand plan, one West might be singularly qualified to execute. He brought Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant together with the Lakers when Shaq was the biggest free agent ever and teams picking higher than the Hornets (whom the Lakers traded with) wanted Kobe.
West also shares a bond with LeBron, which stems in part from their shared losing in the NBA Finals. LeBron, a student of the game, surely respects West – and probably appreciates how often West has publicly defended him.
There’s a long way between that mutual admiration and LeBron signing with Clippers. But the upside is so incredible, it’s a swing for the fences worth taking.
Besides, the Clippers’ road to LeBron looks similar to their optimal path forward anyway. Success starts with re-signing Paul and Griffin.