KD to the Clippers?

Editor’s note:  It’s been years since we’ve posted anything here, but the possibility of Kevin Durant changing places was too big a spur to stay silent.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of Kevin Durant going to the Warriors next year. Motivating the discussion in part is the idea that Durant, who will be a free agent this summer, badly wants to win and the Warriors would seem to represent his best shot at winning a championship.   From a financial standpoint, there are many who argue that the no-brainer move for Durant is to sign a one-year contract with the Thunder, run it back another year with Westbrook, then make a long-term decision next year when Westbrook will also be a free agent and the cap will balloon to even greater heights than it will this year. But maybe, the thinking goes, the second-round playoff flameout that is looming for the Thunder will drive a frustrated Durant to jump ship this year.

To get Durant and stay under the salary cap, the Warriors would have to part with a number of key players, but not their supposed “Big Three” of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. I say “supposed” because I don’t buy the “Big Three” notion. I think there is a Big Four, and the four include those three and Andre Iguodala. I count him as at least as central to the ability of the team to win a championship as either Thompson or Green, all three of them a step behind the game-changing baby-faced assassin.   Lose any one of those four and the team doesn’t suddenly become uncompetitive, but it’s margin for error drops precipitously. You just have to look at how they’ve played when Iggy has been out to see what I mean.

But ok, let’s avoid the quibble over Big Three or Big Four. Whatever. It looks like the Warriors could fit Durant in and still keep their Big Core. The cost would be the decimation of the rest of the roster. And the question of whether that’s something the team ought or ought not do has been the subject of much chatter.

Personally, though, I dispute the basic premise that Durant would be up for joining the Warriors. Sure it’s a possibility – it’s a great team, good guys, winning pedigree, great city.

But the problem is that it’s a no-win situation for Durant. If he goes and they win, well, that’s what they were supposed to do. And it’s hardly likely that even with Durant they can top what they’re doing this year, assuming they win the championship, which is a good bet, though not a sure thing. On the other hand, if the Warriors with Durant were to fail to win a championship, well, he gets a bunch of the blame. So win and it’s, “Meh,” or lose and you’re the goat. How is that more appealing than a situation with a great chance of winning, where he’d be seen as a savior in the event of a championship, but still wouldn’t be seen as a failure without?

Well, you ask, what team or teams might fit that bill? In one sense, Durant would make a whole lot of teams serious contenders. But there’s a difference between contender and favorite. The Thunder right now are dark-horse contenders. But favorite, or at least co-favorite? I’m here to argue that, if they do it the right way, the long forlorn Clippers of Los Angeles plus Durant become at least the co-favorite.

Before going into that, I should point out that in a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the very thoughtful and entertaining Joe House raised the possibility of the Clips as a Durant destination (and also noted the critical importance of Andre Iguodala).  Simmons dismissed the notion that KD could end up with the Clippers on salary cap grounds and just kept moving. But not so fast. Unless salary cap issues would prohibit Durant coming to the Clips, and I don’t think they do, then expense alone should not be seen as a deal-breaker.

It was recently reported that Clipper owner Steve Ballmer is the richest owner in sports, followed by fellow Microsoft alum Paul Allen. And let me tell you, Ballmer is into it.   He’s been spending a bunch to up the Clippers experience, and it shows. There are a lot of giveaways at games this year, more advertising around town, new offers for season-ticket holders, and Ballmer himself was so amped-up (as he is wont to get) about the new team mascot that he used a springboard to do a slam-dunk himself and gave away free Converse sneakers to everyone at Staples Center.

So what about the money?  Per Basketball Insiders, the Clippers are $11.6M over the cap this year, with a total payroll of $96.3 million, and have $84 million committed in salary for the 2017-2018 season. Blake Griffin ($20.1M), Chris Paul ($22.9M), DeAndre Jordan ($21.1M), and JJ Redick ($7.4M) account for nearly $72M of that $84M on the books for next year. About $5.8M of the remaining $12M or so is set to go to Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Cole Aldrich, all of whom hold player options. Johnson in particular ($1.2M) seems like a good bet to opt out because his play this year and the league-wide demand for active swingmen suggest he’s due for a raise. That $82M doesn’t include Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green, or Luc Mbah a Moute, none of whom are under contract for next year.

Next year, the salary cap is expected to rise to about $92M, and the max that a free agent could sign for is $25.1M. Say Johnson were to leave to seek greener pastures, and they signed Durant for the max. That would put the payroll at around $108M for nine guys: the starters – Paul, Griffin, Durant, Redick, Jordan – and a bench of Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers, C.J. Wilcox and Cole Aldrich (who’s a lot better than you think if you haven’t been watching Clipper games). That starting five is a beast, but the bench won’t get it done. Maybe it takes on the order of another $10M to sign enough talent to bolster that bench, bringing the grand total for the whole roster to $118M. A big number. Yeah it is. That’s $26M over the tax. And the Clips would be a repeat tax offender, which would push what they owe up even more, but how much more is not clear. I don’t know all the vagaries of the repeater tax, and it’s complicated. See http://basketball.realgm.com/analysis/235761/The-Overhyped-Specter-Of-The-Repeater-Tax for a good discussion of the complexities. The bottom line, however, seems to be that even as a repeat offender for a couple of years, the penalty the Clips would face might not be overwhelming.

So, back to the big number. $26M over the cap to field a credible bench behind what almost certainly would be one of the most imposing starting fives in the league. Yeah, that’s a lot. But consider the Cavaliers who, in their quest to get a ring, are $22M over the current cap this year. Dan Gilbert has a net worth of $4.5 billion, and that team is in Cleveland, OH. Ballmer, who paid $2 billion for the Clips, has a net worth nearly five times that of Gilbert, and his franchise is in the center of the fountain of money and media known as Los Angeles, CA. And my impression is, he’d really like to win a championship.  And if he did, he’s probably got several dozen ways to make back that excess money spent to assemble the team. In fact, my guess is he’s probably got some kind of plan to develop any number of online and mobile platform offerings based on this team that will monetize the spit out of it.

And consider the alternative to going to that level to put Durant on the Clippers. If he decides not to pursue it, does he have a realistic chance to win a championship any cheaper than that?  I doubt it.   It is hard to see any combination of players with the Clips core four that makes them at least a co-favorite to win it all, nor any combination of trades and free agents that put them there.

So comes the question, did Steve Ballmer buy the Clippers for $2B only to shy away from spending at the same level that Dan Gilbert is willing to take on in Cleveland Ohio in order to give himself a realistic shot at owning an NBA champion and talk of the league. Is he willing to field a talented also-ran team rather than go for the big prize so he can save a dozen or two million dollars?  Me, I don’t think so.  I bet they give it a try.

Having dispensed with the notion that it is out of the question from a financial point of view – it may be reaaaallllyyyy expensive, but Ballmer’s reaaaallllyyyy rich, and the value of a champ is reaaaallllyyyy big – then we have to ask, does Durant really make the Clips at least co-favorites to win it all, if so, would he think it would give him his BEST shot, and lastly, even if it were, would he be up for it?

First, the fit. Let’s think about this for a minute. For the last two years, the Clippers have had one of the most efficient offensive starting five in basketball. That’s with guys like Matt Barnes (underrated in my opinion), Paul Pierce (great if it’s 2011), Lance Stephenson (great if it’s 2013), Wesley Johnson, and so on at the 3. No knock on any of these guys, all of whom are credible NBA players, but it’s hard to envision any of them, or anyone comparable, being a key starter on a champion this year or next. Durant has labored for years on top-heavy teams with critical holes in the lineup, and knows what that’s about. You’re always straining to cover up the problem area in crunch time, when stacked, disciplined teams are taking away best first and second options.  Ask LeBron about that, too.  He’ll tell you about that frustrating, sinking feeling as you watch it slip away because, as a group, you just don’t have quite enough.

The Clips have four to a straight, but they need a three to complete the wheel. They have the perfect point guard to feed great scorers the ball in perfect position, one of the top three three-point shooters in the league by percentage at the two, an explosive four with a great handle and an effective midrange game, and a great athletic, rebounding and defending five. A three, a transcendant three, is really all they need to be an utter beast. There are three transcendant threes in the league right now, and their names are Lebron, Kawhi, and Kevin.  Add one of those three to the Clippers core four and you have a dominant team.  Not a second round flameout, not a “we can beat good teams when we get hot” pretender, but a bona-fide championship threat.

Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Hard to imagine a stronger starting five anywhere in the league.   Would it make them a favorite to beat a deep and talented Warriors team comparable to the 2015-2016 edition? Maybe, or maybe it “only” gets them to the level of co-favorite.  But it would represent the most compelling roster in the league to challenge them, and the talk of the league. KD fits perfectly in the hole the Clips have. Griffin and Jordan are in their peak prime years. Paul and Redick are in the late stages of their peaks, with every indication that they’ll remain potent for at least the next couple of years. The team is at that point where anything less than a championship isn’t going to satisfy them. They’ve been knocking on the door of the Western Conference finals for several years now, and have the air of a team that wants to go all-in to finally get over the hump. They’re ready to make the kind of sacrifices that Paul Pierce, KG and Ray Allen made, or Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made to have LeBron with them.  That is, they’re past the point, I think, of wanting personal glory because they know there is no personal glory when the team fails.  In short, they have a bunch of guys in much the same frame of mind as KD about what matters most. KD puts them over that hump.

What of some of KD’s other possible landing spots? Certainly the Spurs have a great roster, a great pedigree, a great coach, and a great organization. They’re a serious team of no-nonsense guys focused on team play and championships. But their point guard is aging and though Patty Mills has a lot of pop in his game, he’s not at the level of the top point guards in the brutal Western Conference. More importantly, Kawhi Leonard plays the three, and is, as noted, one of the three transcendent players in the league at that position. One possibility is a small-ball lineup with KD at the four and LaMarcus Aldridge at the five, but neither guy has shown a burning desire for the pounding those positions entail. Another possibility is to shift down a slot, letting Kawhi play the two, or have KD and Kawhi as a swapping, positionless kind of wing duo, but it feels like a lot of duplication of talent. That said, great players can make it work. We have no idea how long Pop plans to stick around, but if he stays, it’s hard to imagine anyone better at helping them figure it out. So San Antonio’s a possibility, sure. But it does lack the kind of perfect fit that the Clippers roster offers.

If Durant wanted an up and coming team, he might take a look at the remarkable job that Portland has done, and see the potential there. They have great surrounding talent with a hole right in the spot Durant plays. A lot of versatility, a great coach and a mountain of cap room to fill out the roster. And I get the sense Durant may prefer smaller, down-to-earth towns to glittering metropoles.   But Portland is still young, with not many crunchtime playoff reps among the bunch of them.  Damian Lillard, great as he is, duplicates a lot of what Russell Westbrook can bring to the table, but without the overpowering athleticism and fury. More importantly, as comments KD has made of late indicate, he’s past the point of wanting to be on a developing, young team. He wants to be surrounded with established, serious guys who have been through some wars and are all-in on winning it all.

Memphis might get a look from Durant, what with how they’ve hung in to the five seed while bodies drop like flies all around. But there’s no telling if Mike Conley’s coming back, and the heart of grit and grind, Tony Allen and Z-Bo are very much on the steepening downsides of their career arcs. And besides, while I love the way Memphis has been a home for guys who march to the beat of their own drummer, I’m not sure KD would be cool with that much volatility on one roster. Houston may make a pitch, and he may give them a look, but of late there is a high degree of static and a distinct lack of stability around that franchise that would probably give him pause.

Or he could look East, to where the road to the Finals is somewhat less daunting than it is out West. Boston, Toronto, Miami, and Atlanta all make some sense as teams with strong supporting rosters with good schemes, good coaching, and organizational stability.  Toronto in particular has a great situation because they have the best point guard of the bunch in Kyle Lowry.  A strong case could be made for each. If Cleveland could find a way to shed Love or Kyrie they might have the money to make a bid, but it’s hard to see how right now.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there is no other roster in the league into which KD would fit as perfectly as he would with the Clips. CP3 would love nothing better than delivering a steady diet of passes right into KD’s shooting pocket, and the number of weapons around him would make it easy. Blake’s a great passer, though I have to admit that the phrase “moves well without the ball” doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of him. But when he’s healthy, he’s still a top ten player in the league, with great versatility. If the Clips could hold on to Jamal Crawford, then between him and Redick they have the needed floor spacers, and a great rim runner, shot-blocker and rebounder in Jordan.  Imagine a small-ball lineup with Griffin at the five and Durant at the four to challenge the Warriors end of game “death lineup”.  Think about how the Clips could have at least two of the three of Paul, Durant and Griffin on the floor nearly every minute of a game, and possibly every minute in big games.  Every position on the floor would be solid around KD. It might come down to the question of what kind of bench the Clips could cobble together with the little money they might have left over after spending the max on KD.

What stands in the way then? Well, it might be the Clippers themselves. Recent articles have suggested that the Clips may well be the most hated team in the league. A combination of a perception by others of entitlement that hasn’t been earned, a reputation for whining that has been earned, and a frank lack of chemistry among the principles (something Sam Cassell bluntly alluded to on the inaugural episode of Kenny Smith’s exercise in self-congratulation masquerading as a podcast) might all turn KD off. Blake and DJ are younger guys who still seem to want to enjoy themselves on and off the court, while CP3 is serious as a heart attack, and no one will ever confuse JJ Redick with Nick Young. Los Angeles is a town with a lot of distractions, and we don’t have any indication that KD would care to be at the center of the media universe, rather than a small town that lives and dies with its local club.   Still, with the possible exception of Toronto, I don’t see any team in the league that hasn’t done it already that seems as serious about scaling the mountaintop as are the Clippers. In Doc Rivers they have one of the five head coaches who’s won a ring. And more than anything, if KD comes, and they get there, he’s rightly anointed as the guy who got them there. He’s the savior.  He’s The Man.  With a deep-pocketed owner like Ballmer and the free-agent draw of playing and living in LA, there’s every likelihood they could set the groundwork for an extended run.

The world is KD’s oyster right now. He’ll have his pick of almost every team in the league. Maybe he’ll pick them, and maybe he won’t, but don’t dismiss the Clips without thinking long and hard about it. My guess is, KD will at least do that.

 

 

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