Sporting the fifth-best record in the NBA and under pressure to win their first-ever championship, it’s probably safe to assume that the last thing on the minds of Los Angeles Clippers players and coaches is the upcoming free agency market. But, like it or not, L.A. will almost certainly be heavily involved in the free agency shenanigans coming up this offseason, though more as protectors than prospectors.
According to Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz, who did a roundup of potential free agency goals for every team, first and foremost the Clippers will be looking to retain two of their most-valued assets: Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka.
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Leonard promises to be the crowning jewel of a market that has already been watered down with the signing of several top names to extensions (e.g., LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard). And Ibaka, who has been out of commission with back spasms since mid-March, is a premier rim protector and a legitimate threat from behind the arc when healthy.
Both Leonard and Ibaka have player options for 2021-22, but both are almost undoubtedly not going to exercise the option, meaning they will become unrestricted free agents this offseason with plenty of teams chomping at the bit.
Smart Money Says Leonard and Ibaka Will Stay
Fortunately for the Clippers, according to Swartz and other sources around the league, Leonard is expected to stay with the Clippers even if they don’t go all the way this year. Though Swartz did caveat that expectation in the event of a first-round playoff exit this season, saying it could “leave a little doubt.”
But even if the Clippers are sent packing early, few teams have the cap space to accommodate Leonard’s expensive price tag, not to mention the L.A. native left Toronto — after leading the Raptors to a title in 2019 — in large part to play in his hometown, and he has consistently expressed a desire to stay close to friends and family. Furthermore, Clippers teammate Paul George has already signed an extension, meaning Leonard will be assured of a top-tier running mate for years to come.
If, however, Leonard is pried away, Swartz pegs the New York Knicks as the “dark horse” to land him. Mostly because they are one of the few teams with the requisite cap space, but also because they’ve assembled a nice cast of characters, led by Julius Randle and RJ Barnett, who could potentially scratch Leonard’s title itch.
Swartz doesn’t give a prediction on Ibaka, except to say that he will “likely look for a raise above his $9.7 million player option” and that he expects Ibaka to show up on the Washington Wizards’ radar.
Before being sidelined, Ibaka was averaging 10.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks while shooting 35.2% from three this season.
Ibaka signing with Washington seems unlikely though, despite the presence of former Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook. At this stage in his career, Ibaka wants to play for a contender, which the Wizards, even with Westbrook and Bradley Beal (who also signed an extension), aren’t expected to be next season. Of course, that could change dramatically if Washington landed Ibaka, but even so, his best chance at another ring is with L.A.
It also doesn’t hurt that Ibaka and Leonard are good friends from their time together in Toronto, though that could end up working against the Clippers in the unlikely event that Leonard leaves.
Otto is an Option
In his roundup, Swartz also speculates that the Clippers might be tempted to go after veteran swingman Otto Porter, particularly if they lose Nicolas Batum to free agency.
Drafted third overall by the Wizards in 2013, much for his defensive prowess, the 6-foot-8 Porter can still check multiple positions but has also developed into a serviceable three-point shooter.
Before being traded this season by the Chicago Bulls to the Orlando Magic in a March deadline deal, Porter was shooting 40% from three — in line with his career average of 40.2%.
Porter would fit nicely as a defensive presence with the Clippers’ second unit, but his history of injuries could be a dealbreaker. Last season with the Bulls, Porter struggled with foot and lower back issues that kept him out for all but 14 games. And in 2018-19, after he was traded midseason from Washington to Chicago, Porter suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season after only 56 games.
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