Twelve hours after the end of his 10th and most productive NBA season, Danilo Gallinari stood with his back against a padded wall, taking in the view of the courts inside the Clippers’ practice facility.
He was grinning because, to his left, teammate Patrick Beverley was finishing an interview by lauding Gallinari.
“A healthy Gal, he’s one of the top-notch players in the NBA,” Beverley said. “Put him up there against anybody and you can ask Golden State, you can ask different top-level teams, he’s a tough cover.”
That the laid-back Italian forward and feisty Chicago guard ended the season together side by side was symbolic of their two seasons together with the Clippers. Both had seen their first season in Los Angeles, in 2017-18, marred by injury. When both stayed healthy this season, their complementary roles and career-best seasons helped the Clippers win 48 games and earn a first-round playoff appearance.
In the process, they created momentum as the franchise begins one of its most important offseasons ever — and uncertainty about whether either will be back in a Clippers uniform next season.
Though Beverley has pledged allegiance to his teammates on an unusually close-knit Clippers roster, he will become a free agent this summer and could demand offers higher than the Clippers’ price range after his bounce-back season. Losing Beverley has always been a known possibility. Yet even for Gallinari, who is under contract for next season, there is no guarantee he’ll be practicing in the Clippers facility again when training camp opens in September.
For all of the impressive numbers Gallinari produced this season — 19.8 points and 6.1 rebounds — his $22.6-million salary next season in the last year of a three-year deal makes him a candidate for a trade before free agency opens on July 1.
Considering Gallinari’s expiring contract, consistent production and health — injuries have dogged his career since the beginning — he could be an attractive option for other teams unlikely to land a top forward in free agency. The Clippers’ incentive to deal arguably their best player of this season is that offloading his salary is the most straightforward way to create enough salary cap room to pursue top-dollar free agents such as Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
Gallinari called the Clippers’ future bright in his final interview of the season, while acknowledging the uncertainty of whether he’ll be part of it.
“It’s going to be a very important summer,” Gallinari said. “Of course, it’s out of my control. I’m not going to be the one working on the team and working on the franchise during the summer, so we’ll see what the front office will do.”
Even if the front office elects to keep Gallinari and try to create room through other maneuvers, they will have enough salary cap space to sign one maximum-salary free agent this summer. That spending power alone makes this offseason different from any other coach Doc Rivers has been part of since joining the franchise in 2013.
“Previous Clippers offseasons we didn’t have any money,” Rivers said. “Those are the begging ones, those are where you have minimum contracts and try to see who you can strike lightning in a bottle. We don’t have to do that.”
But having money isn’t the same as being required to spend it. Through their blockbuster trades of Blake Griffin in 2018 as well as Tobias Harris and two others in 2019, the front office positioned itself to strike not only this summer but next.
“There are a lot of guys out there,” Rivers said. “If we get the ones we want we’ll use it, if not, we’ll just keep building away.”
Adding a Durant, Leonard, Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving, among other star players, would transform the balance of power in the Western Conference, but landing a marquee name isn’t the end of building a championship contender. For that, the front office will face hard decisions whether to retain familiar faces integral this season in building what Rivers termed a hard-nosed, hard-playing “culture.”
Barring trades, a strong core will return. Gallinari was a rock all season, both offensively and defensively. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, whose deals each expire following next season, were the most potent offensive combination off the bench in the NBA this season, with Williams expected to win his third award as the league’s top sixth man. The rookie backcourt of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet earned invaluable experience starting in a playoff series. Fellow rookie Jerome Robinson’s development was slowed by a foot injury but the team remains high on his potential.
The partially guaranteed contracts for reserves Sindarius Thornwell and Ty Wallace become guaranteed in late June and early September, respectively. Restricted free agents include guard Rodney McGruder, two-way forward Johnathan Motley and Ivica Zubac, a center acquired for almost nothing at the trade deadline and possesses what the team believes is huge potential despite his struggles to stay on the court in the postseason. The Clippers must present Motley, Zubac or McGruder a qualifying offer by June 29 in order to make them restricted free agents.
Among the team’s unrestricted free agent class of Beverley, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and two-way player Angel Delgado, Green and Beverley are expected to be pursued most heavily by the Clippers. The Clippers can exceed the salary cap to re-sign them under the collective bargaining agreement’s Bird Rights.
The 6-foot-9 Green’s versatility offensively and defensively quickly made him a favorite inside the organization after joining the team in a midseason trade from Memphis. His insertion in the playoff starting lineup at center against Golden State helped extend the series to six games.
Beverley’s fearless play on the court made him an avatar for the team’s locker-room culture. His defense and shooting — he made 43.2% of his three-pointers in his final 56 games, including playoffs — came at the perfect time for a player hoping to cash in during free agency. Yet if the most lucrative offers come from other teams, he’ll have to weigh how badly he values playing with teammates such as Gallinari, Williams, Harrell and Gilgeous-Alexander.
“At the end of the day those are good decisions, you know?” Beverley said. “Not like those are bad decisions you have to make. But yeah, you know, my heart is definitely with my teammates.”