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It's been another successful year for Donald T. Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The season is in the tank. The Clippers are out of the playoffs. New head coach Mike Dunleavy is pulling out whatever hair he has left. Those two big, fat contracts Sterling gave to Elton Brand and Corey Maggette have added nothing to the win column. The two guys he let get away, Lamar Odom and Andre Miller, are in the process of leading their teams to the playoffs.
In Donald's world, the bottom line is what matters, and for as long as we can remember, Sterling has been great at approximately one thing in the NBA -- figuring out how to turn a profit.
Look at the numbers. Average attendance of 15 million-plus (down from $18.3 million two years ago). Lowest payroll in the league at $39.7 million. Luxury-tax rebates in the range of $5 to $10 million. $10 million in cash from the new expansion Bobcats. When the L.A. Times poured over the books last week, it declared that Sterling was in line to make a nice $25 million profit this season.
If parades didn't cost so damn much, I'm sure you'd see a ticker tape parade down Santa Monica boulevard.
The news even gets better if you're one of the 1,000 or so stock brokers who still follow the Clippers with a passion.
Once Keyon Dooling, Quentin Richardson and possibly Marko Jaric come off the books this summer, Sterling is looking at roughly $14 million in cap room to spend or hoard. Add another two million to the total if he can get the Bobcats to take Melvin Ely off his hands in the expansion draft.
What's Donald going to do with it?
Clippers Summer Blueprint
By now you already know. Since we first discussed in early October the possibility the Clippers could go after Kobe Bryant this summer, the story somehow has transformed from speculation to fact.
You can't read a story about Kobe these days without someone at least mentioning the fact that he's considering the Clippers. Even our own ESPN.com seems to run about a story a week on the Kobe-to-the-Clippers theory.
I guess it's my turn this week.
Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.
DRAFT: As things stand, the Clippers would have the No. 7 pick in the draft. Their biggest need is at the point, and don't be surprised if they decide to go that direction in the draft. The other Clippers rumor du jour the past few months has been their infatuation with high school phenom Sebastian Telfair. Telfair should be on the board when they pick, and given Sterling's philosophy about building basketball teams, the pick does make some sense.
The Clippers have zero chance (unless Kobe shows up, that is) of winning next season with a scoring, undersized high school point guard running the show, but Telfair, like LeBron, will sell tickets. In a few years, Telfair could develop into a star, but by then will Donald really want to pay him?
There are a couple of other good point guards like Shaun Livingston, Wisconsin's Devin Harris and UConn's Ben Gordon who could be available, if they declare. If I'm Elgin Baylor, I'd be doing everything I can to get Wake Forest's Chris Paul to come out. As we've been reporting for the past month, scouts believe he's the best point guard not in the NBA and would be a perfect fit in Clipperland.
The word right now is that Paul plans to return to school, but he wouldn't slip past seven if he declared (of course, landing with the Clips is probably enough to scare him back to the Demon Deacons).
The Clippers also have shown a high level of interest in Lithuanian center Martynas Andriuskevicius, but he probably won't be on the board when they pick.
FREE AGENCY, PLAN A: This is what you've been waiting for. The Clippers have one big restricted free agent this summer -- Richardson, who has said publicly he wants to re-sign with the Clippers. The way he's played this year, he's going to get a lot of interest from several clubs. The biggest will be Denver. The Nuggets reportedly are making Richardson one of their top two targets for this summer.
That's going to put the Clippers in an interesting position. Let's say the Kobe-to-the-Clippers rumors are true. Kobe and Q both play the same position, and there isn't enough cap space to sign them both anyway. If the Clippers were to pay Richardson anything, they won't have the money to sign Kobe.
What if Kobe's legal issues are still unsettled when the July 15 signing period hits? What if the Nuggets, or another team, take advantage of the situation and get Q to agree to an offer sheet? What do the Clippers do?
They'd have 15 days to match. Assuming the Kobe situation won't be resolved before the 15 days are up, L.A. would have a very tough choice. Do they play it safe and match Richardson's offer and give up the Kobe dream? Or, do they take the chance Kobe will be acquitted of all charges, let Richardson walk, then hold their breath the rest of the summer to see if Kobe indeed goes free?
That's a big gamble for the most risk-averse team in the league.
And all of this assumes that Kobe wants to play for the Clippers. I've heard the theories (it's close to home, a decent team with a coach he likes, allows Kobe to rub it into the Lakers on their home floor), but I'm not totally buying it.
The Suns, assuming they can clear one more salary off the books, have more pieces and are a much better-run organization. I understand the decision to sell the franchise may make it less desirable, but owner Jerry Colangelo has made it clear he's not going anywhere for a while.
The Spurs are another interesting possibility. A combo of Kobe and Tim Duncan would be devastating, and the bottom line with Kobe is that he wants to win. Kobe to the Spurs does fly in the face of one rumor -- that he wants to be the top dog on his team -- so it may not work for that reason. But if Kobe wants to escape the media fishbowl, San Antonio is a pretty good place to run to.
FREE AGENCY, PLAN B: In the event Kobe says "No thanks," or a jury takes him out of play for while, the Clippers still are looking at a ton of cap space this summer. Assuming they re-sign Q at a starting salary in the $5 million to $7 million range, the team is still looking at anywhere from $8 million to $10 million in additional cap space to make a run at a few more pieces.
Point guard and center are the teams two biggest needs. Free agents like Steve Nash and the Bulls' Jamal Crawford would make some sense at the point. A big guy like Mehmet Okur would be a good fit in the paint.
Expect them to let Dooling walk this summer.
TRADES: Coach Mike Dunleavy has waxed hot and cold on Marko Jaric all season. Plenty of teams love him, though, and if he's not going to fit into the Clippers' future plans, they'd be better off trading him instead of declining their option on the third year of his contract.
If the Bobcats don't grab Ely in the expansion draft, he could be trade-bait as well. He's been unhappy with his role backing up Chris Kaman and Peja Drobnjak this season and wants out. With so many teams looking for a big man, they should be able to nab something of value in return.
OUTLOOK: Let's face it. Even if Kobe is interested in the Clippers and the Clippers are interested in him, the chances are pretty slim Kobe will be wearing a Clippers jersey on opening night. If the Clippers realize this early, they still have plenty of time to adjust their strategies and improve their team this summer.
If they don't, they'll be left with a solution that Sterling may love but Clippers fans are just plain sick of -- low payroll, decent attendance and a fat wallet for their owner.