Five questions for the Clippers entering free agency
The Clippers took the first step Wednesday in disassembling and rebuilding the roster they will open training camp with Dec. 1 by engineering a three-team trade that netted them fourth-year guard Luke Kennard from Detroit. Gone are Landry Shamet, who is Brooklyn-bound, and Rodney McGruder, who will head to Detroit.
The Clippers also added rookies Daniel Oturu, a 6-foot-10 center from Minnesota, and guard Jay Scrubb, the national junior college player of the year, in the second round via trades.
Next is free agency, which begins at 3 p.m. PST Friday and will usher in a frantic few days as the league’s 30 teams — few of whom have significant salary cap space — enter a market that is not considered especially deep.
Here are five storylines we’ll be watching as the Clippers enter free agency.
1. Will JaMychal Green return, either via his player option or a new contract?
Green, a forward and sometimes small-ball center who shot 45% on three-pointers during the playoffs while also defending big men, isn’t necessarily the top priority for the Clippers as free agency opens. Procedurally, however, Green will provide one of the first answers.
He has until 2 p.m. PST Thursday to exercise his $5-million player option for next season or decline it and become an unrestricted free agent. Green was courted last season by a handful of teams, including Denver, with some teams reportedly offering more money than the Clippers could match. Instead, he chose to return to Los Angeles because of the chance to play for a championship contender.
The question he is facing now is whether those or other suitors are still interested and whether their offers will be better than the $5 million he could earn from the Clippers should he pick up his option. Should Green opt in, he would become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, when more money could be available as teams try to unload salary ahead of a deeper free-agent class. Should he decide to test the market, the $5.7-million taxpayer mid-level exception would represent a slight pay raise. By opting out he could also negotiate a new deal entirely. If he’s seeking long-term stability, such a new contract could require a slight pay cut this season while locking in potentially $10 million or more over the length of the deal.
2. How high will Montrezl Harrell’s asking price hit in free agency?
After earning $6 million in consecutive seasons while producing numbers matched or exceeded by only a handful of fellow reserves, backup center Montrezl Harrell likely expected to receive a hefty raise in unrestricted free agency this year. While Harrell is likely assured to get some sort of raise, the massive increase once considered a possibility might not materialize, which could make it more appealing for the Clippers to re-sign him, should they want the league’s reigning top sixth man back.
For one, this season’s free agency market was not considered auspicious for players given only about a half dozen teams would have significant cap room. But following the draft, it appears that one projected big spender might no longer be looking for a big man: Atlanta. The Hawks selected 6-foot-9 Onyeka Okongwu of USC with its lottery pick, adding him to a roster already boasting centers Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon as well as lanky forward John Collins.
The last impression Harrell left from the postseason near Orlando, Fla., also could drive down Harrell’s price. After spending one month away from the team to be with family because of his grandmother’s death, Harrell struggled to regain his conditioning and rhythm upon his return to the league’s “bubble,” a return that coincided directly with the start of the postseason.
How much stock will teams put in that disappointing month of performances, given his strong regular-season play in each of the previous two years? We’re about to find out.
3. Are the Clippers done tinkering with their backcourt?
Upgrading the backcourt has been a top priority this offseason and one of the first steps was the trade that netted Kennard, in exchange for McGruder and Shamet, who combined to average a little more than 12 points per game last season. Is that necessarily where the Clippers end their search for new blood in the backcourt, however? Most likely the Clippers will kick the tires around the league on other options, too. Free-agent-to-be Rajon Rondo is known to be one such target of the team, though his asking price could be more than the Clippers can afford. After a sensational season with Miami, Goran Dragic could similarly command more than the $9.3-million full mid-level exception the Clippers could use.
The Clippers acquired Detroit guard Luke Kennard in a three-team trade with Brooklyn during Wednesday’s draft that saw them part with reserve guards Landry Shamet and Rodney McGruder.
New Orleans could be an intriguing trade partner given their glut of guards. To a roster already boasting Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Pelicans will soon add George Hill and Eric Bledsoe, arriving from Milwaukee as part of a trade, and Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr., whom the team drafted Wednesday with the 13th pick. Hill is owed $9.5 million this season, and Bledsoe will earn $16.8 million.
4. Can they re-sign Marcus Morris?
Following a trade from New York in February and meeting his new teammates for the first time, Morris said he was happy to be with the Clippers and called himself impressed by the organization since he met with team executives in free agency the previous summer. If that still remains the case, he could be one of the first players the Clippers sign when free agency opens.
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Morris can earn up to $18 million in the first year of a new contract with the team, but it’s not considered likely his price would reach that upper limit, even if the Knicks — the team that dealt him last winter — potentially get in a bidding war for his services. A deal in the range of three years and $45 million could be closer to what Morris ultimately commands.
5. Will Paul George and the Clippers come to terms on an extension?
When the Clippers have been described as being under pressure entering this season, it is largely because of the looming possibility of All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George declining their player options for 2021-22 and becoming free agents following this season. But George doesn’t have to hit free agency. He is eligible for a four-year contract extension that would, in theory, keep him in uniform for the opening of the team’s proposed Inglewood arena in 2024.
There would seem to be an incentive to lock up the six-time All-Star and former MVP candidate from Palmdale, given the five draft picks, two pick swaps and two starters the Clippers gave up to trade for him in 2019. Yet nothing says both sides must reach an agreement.
For the Clippers, this could be a test of how much they want to hitch their future, and cap space, to that of their 30-year-old forward who last season produced dizzying highs, from his unstoppable scoring run to start the season, but also notable lows, including his struggle to stay healthy and produce consistently in the postseason. But George might be incentivized to put off talks and play out the season, betting on his ability to author a strong, bounce-back season and enter free agency in 2021 as one of the most sought-after players.
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