Jerry West and the Clippers are making their LeBron James play against the odds

Yahoo Sports

As the smoke clears on the Los Angeles Clippers’ trade of Blake Griffin — a five-time All-Star they sold on being a “Clipper for life” with a five-year, $171 million contract six months ago — the team’s newest executive board member’s plan becomes clear: Jerry West is pushing his chips in for LeBron James.

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West and his front-office cohorts convinced Clippers owner Steve Ballmer that trading Griffin and clearing enough cap space for two max contracts this summer would give them “a real shot” at recruiting James and fellow free agent Paul George, according to New York Times scribe Marc Stein.


Trading Griffin and backup center Willie Reed to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and draft picks skimmed $11.8 million off of next year’s books, since Bradley is working on an expiring contract. That alone is not enough, because the team’s financial commitments still total $103.1 million for 11 players in 2018-19 — slightly above the projected $101 million salary cap.

The Clippers could hope DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic and Wesley Johnson all decline their player options next season, trimming another $49.2 million off the top — enough to pay LeBron his starting max salary of $35.35 million and start working on the $30.3 million they’d need for George.

But you do not trade Griffin on the possibility that a handful of players will forego a guaranteed paycheck, so the work continues. Trading Jordan, an All-Star center owed $24.1 million next season, for expiring contracts and draft picks would be a start. Lou Williams is a free agent at season’s end, but he’s enough of an asset that the Clips might be able to hang some more outgoing salary on a deal.

The Cleveland Cavaliers would kill to land both Jordan and Williams before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. They have two mid-sized expiring contracts (Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas) and the draft picks to take on Williams and some salary, but they would need to find a third team to assume Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson or other longer-term deals to add Jordan in exchange for the coveted Brooklyn Nets pick.

Now, that would be interesting, because both teams would be gambling on the trade improving their chances of luring LeBron. The Cavs need to remain relevant, and the Clippers need the cap space.

And make of this what you will, via Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon:

“He spent his last nine years there,” James said Tuesday, hours before the Cavs play the Pistons. “He signed a multi-year deal there this summer, so that’s unfortunate. But that’s the business side of it. It’s both sides. It works both sides, though. It’s the business.”

Even a Cavs-Clips deal would barely be enough to make a LeBron play this summer. And what would you be selling the four-time MVP on, besides a zip code where he could commute from his two L.A. homes? It’s doubtful LeBron would be sold on forming a big three with Harris and Danilo Gallinari.

The Gallinari sign-and-trade is a killer. They traded Jamal Crawford, whose hefty contract would have mostly come off the books after this season, for the right to sign an oft-injured 29-year-old forward to a three-year, $64.8 million deal that all but prevents them from offering two max contracts until 2020. It’s equally hard to imagine any team desperate enough for Jordan or Williams to assume Gallinari.

Rivers is an interesting case, too. In the summer of 2016, he earned a three-year, $35.5 million deal from his father, Clippers coach and then-president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, and is owed a $12.65 million player option next season. It’s doubtful Austin earns that kind of money elsewhere, but could Doc convince him to decline that option and help the LeBron-George play for the Clippers?

Is swapping an All-Star forward for a better one the end game for the Clippers? (AP)
Is swapping an All-Star forward for a better one the end game for the Clippers? (AP)

This is all a sizable gamble, for sure, but West has never been afraid to roll the dice. When the Clippers hired West this past summer, USA Today’s Sam Amick reported that the Hall of Famer’s close relationship with LeBron played “a significant factor” in Ballmer’s willingness to pay him a hefty salary.

With the Cavs crumbling and LeBron seemingly laying the groundwork for his exit from Cleveland, rumors of L.A. being “in play” for his services are only growing louder. But the Clippers will not only have to compete with the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and every other potential suitor, but they also share their biggest selling point — Los Angeles and all its opportunity — with the Lakers.

The LeBron play isn’t easy. It never is. But it’s been worth it for every team that’s successfully recruited him. Whether adding him to a depleted roster would make the Clippers contenders is another story.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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