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The Clippers' Pursuit Of LeBron: Smart, If Probably Fruitless

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The Clippers have a seat at the table with LeBron James when free agency begins July 1, but they haven't mortgaged their future to get there.

LeBron James, the two time NBA MVP, will become a free agent this Thursday, July 1. He is still only 25 years old. He is by far the biggest prize in a historic free agency market the likes of which the league has never seen. When LeBron and his people begin accepting the gentlemen callers who are the various general managers around the league, the Los Angeles Clippers will be one of six teams that will be granted an audience with the King.

Does that mean the Clippers have a one-in-six chance of signing LeBron? Hardly. It's probably more like one-in-a-million. But as Lloyd Christmas once said: "So you're telling me there's a chance."

The Clippers have been - dare I say it? - relatively smart in their pursuit of a marquee free agent to this point. The conventional wisdom is that LeBron wants two things in a new basketball home that Cleveland has not provided him: a bigger stage to increase his marketing power, and an NBA title. Well, although you'd be hard-pressed to prove it based on the coverage of the team, it turns out that the Clippers play in Los Angeles, the second largest market in the country and the center of the television and motion picture industry. And despite the fact that the team won only 29 games last season, they feature a returning roster with a two-time All Star at the point guard, a 2010 All Star at center, a lottery pick and emerging star at shooting guard and 2009's first overall pick at power forward. The only thing the starting lineup needs is a small forward, which just so happens to be LeBron's position.

When the single most formidable talent of a basketball generation becomes a free agent, you would be derelict in your duties if you didn't put yourself in a position to sign him, and that's what the Clippers have done. When former GM Mike Dunleavy Sr. managed to trade away Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair last February (or was new GM Neil Olshey already pulling the strings at that point? It's hard to say), the Clippers ensured that they'd have enough money under the projected salary cap to make a maximum offer to a free agent with seven years of NBA experience (like, for instance, LeBron James).

Most of the experts handicapping the race for LeBron don't give the Clippers much of a chance. ESPN tends to ignore them completely. Some of that comes from a simplistic, knee-jerk, "It's the Clippers" mentality; meanwhile some NBA pundits maintain that LeBron won't want to battle Kobe Bryant for supremacy in the same city. But frankly, those arguments may not apply. Let's face it, LeBron James is not lacking in confidence. If he's looking to establish his NBA legacy, what better way than by taking a long time doormat like the Clippers to the pinnacle of success? As for Kobe Bryant, would LeBron fear that battle, or relish the thought of it? I tend to think it's the latter.

Nonetheless, I count myself among the people who think the Clippers are the longest of long shots in the LeBron derby, for one very simple reason: owner Donald T. Sterling. Although the Donald Sterling of the past several seasons has been much better than he once was (the team re-signed Elton Brand and Corey Maggette in 2003, signed Cat Mobley as a free agent in 2005, extended Chris Kaman in 2006, signed Baron Davis in 2008 and even pursued Kobe Bryant in 2004), the Clippers' owner still has a well-earned reputation as a lout, a reputation that was only reinforced at the beginning of the off-season when his latest former coach had to file for arbitration to get the money he's owed. The timing of that particularly breach of contract has got to be one of the worst decisions in the history of sports. So I don't think that LeBron James will sign with the Clippers because he has other options where he won't have to deal with an erratic owner.

Having said that, the team had to give it a shot and I have to commend them for the way they've gone about it so far (with the exception of that whole 'refusing to pay their former coach' thing). If you look at the other teams in the hunt, some of them have really gone 'all in' in their pursuit. New York has actively forfeited the last two seasons while clearing cap space, and traded away last year's lottery pick and a future first rounder in the process of gutting their roster. New Jersey almost became the worst team in the history of the league in the process of clearing the decks. Meanwhile, Miami and Chicago have traded players and draft picks for nothing in return in recent weeks just to clear more cap space to pursue James. For the team that lands LeBron James, the mortgaging of their future will have been worth it. For the other teams, it's going to be very, very painful.

The Clippers on the other hand were buyers (and by many accounts the winners) in last Thursday's draft, picking up Al-Farouq Aminu with their own pick at number eight and trading for 18th pick Eric Bledsoe. The additional acquisition of Bledsoe leaves just enough money to make a maximum offer to LeBron if the cap comes in at its projected $56.1million (by my math, they'd have an extra $31 of cap space, no lie, so they'd better hope that it doesn't come in lower than anticipated). But the point is the Clippers are stockpiling young assets at the same time they are pursuing a marquee free agent. If they miss out on LeBron, the future is still pretty bright, especially with Blake Griffin's long-awaited rookie season on the horizon.

So yeah, I think the pursuit has been pretty savvy so far. They have a seat at the table, and who knows? Maybe the single biggest factor for LeBron is the chance to break into movies and he thinks L.A. is the perfect spot. But in the event he ends up elsewhere (and the conventional wisdom now is that he'll be in Cleveland or Chicago), what matters is what the Clippers do next.

They've approached 2010 free agency very intelligently to this point, but what do they do when LeBron says no? Dwyane Wade is not a particularly realistic target, and many of the other big names (Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer) play the same position as Griffin. Does LA go after Joe Johnson? Do they make an offer to restricted free agent Rudy Gay? The temptation with all that available cap space will be to spend it, but overpaying for a free agent creates a long term problem. Is Johnson or Gay worth a maximum contract? Not in my opinion - not even close, really. If Johnson and Gay have unrealistic contract expectations, the team would be much better off signing two or three value free agents, or even looking for one year deals in an attempt to roll their cap space over to next summer.

We'll find out soon enough how all of this plays out, starting Thursday when LeBron starts interviewing his potential future employers. The Clippers have played this smart to this point - we'll see what happens next.