Clippers scouting Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant

The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors play Wednesday night (ESPN, 10:30 ET) in a game this is sure to be closely watched … by the LA Clippers.

The Clippers, it seems, closely watch every Raptors and Warriors game this season. Even though they are having a terrific season of their own — experiencing the rare joy of expectation-free success in the NBA — the Clippers are rather transparently obsessed with chasing Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant in free agency next summer.

It’s clear on their books. They’ve cleared a path to open two max salary slots.

It’s clear in their actions. They’ve been treating the two like college recruits and sending executives just to watch numerous Warriors and Raptors games so they’re visible.

It’s clear in their hiring. They’ve brought on NBA legend Jerry West and respected journalist Lee Jenkins to the front office in an effort to prepare a grand slam pitch when the time is right.

For the past decade superstar free agency has perhaps become the most important part of league business. We’ve seen teams increasingly raise the bar on what they’ll do to draw one of the handful of game-changers next July.

Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard will be the NBA’s top free agent targets next summer. Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Knicks hired Royal Ivey, one of Durant’s best friends, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder to be an assistant coach this season it was just assumed to be a part of a future Durant appeal. When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Michael Beasley, a friend of Durant’s since they were in high school, it happened without fanfare because things like this are now expected.

But even by these modern standards, the Clippers’ pursuit is still a little revolutionary. Raptors officials have noticed a Clippers employee at roughly 75 percent of the team’s games thus far this season. That has included president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, which is rare. Presidents and general managers are almost never seen attending a game that doesn’t involve their teams.

It’s all part of what looks to be a master plan by owner Steve Ballmer. In the past two years, Ballmer has pulled off a couple remarkable maneuvers that have worked out against the odds.

First, he was able to get Doc Rivers to be comfortable in giving up his control of the front office and actually remain content. In fact, Rivers coaching over the past two seasons has been some of the best of his career, if you listen to the scouts and folks who know about these sorts of things.

This almost never happens. Just to use examples from the last season, Stan Van Gundy basically got himself fired in Detroit because he didn’t want to have a boss when owner Tom Gores wanted to demote him to just coach and Mike Budenholzer asked out of his contract in Atlanta a year after having to give up his president title.

Spend any time around Rivers and the Clippers, and you’ll see he’s in a great place. The entire team, thanks to a tremendous start, walks around with smiles. Veterans who’ve been around the league for decades, such as assistant coach Sam Cassell, say they’ve never seen a happier team. It certainly helps that Ballmer is paying Rivers a massive salary but there’s no doubt the coach sets the tone.

The other move was promoting Frank from assistant coach to the top of the front office. Now, this was a unique move in league history. Frank is respected of course and has a long history working in the league, but this was quite a leap. And not only has Rivers been cool with it but Frank has done a tremendous job.

Let’s keep this in perspective, we’re talking about basketball operations moves, not splitting the atom — or, to put it in terms of Ballmer’s career accomplishments, running Microsoft for 14 years. But in NBA terms, pulling this off is like pulling the sword from the stone.

  • The journey to obtain a spot on the list of good NBA franchises is the story of the Toronto Raptors.

Frank’s front office has been on a winning streak since January when it executed a brave trade of franchise player Blake Griffin. When the Clippers made the deal, they were 25-24 and really going nowhere.

Now, less than a year later they are 18-9, look like they have a good chance to be back in the playoffs and don’t really have a bad contract on their books. The only suspect one is Danilo Gallinari, and he’s having maybe the best season of his career.

Tobias Harris, the centerpiece of the Griffin trade, might be headed to his first All-Star Game and has been so valuable that some executives think they should use one of their max slots on him. The reviews for rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who the Clippers semi-hid by promising him they’d draft him in the lottery and he at least partially shutdown workouts, have been excellent.

The front office, helped by general manager Michael Winger, who was poached from the Thunder, has executed team-friendly deals for Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell that will help keep the roster strong next season despite clearing the cap space.

Had you been told in June 2017, when Chris Paul demanded a trade, that Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would all be gone in 12 months and the Clippers would already be in this recovered position, it would’ve been hard to believe.

Ballmer’s vision is to land Leonard or Durant — or both, as long as they’re swinging for the fences — and then ride them to glory and a new arena in Inglewood that could turn the Clippers into one of the premier franchises in the league.

Could any of this actually happen? Don’t know. But boy are the Clippers really trying to find out.


The Cavs are looking for a team that wants to trade for JR Smith. Jason Miller/Getty Images

THE START OF TRADE SEASON is typically Dec. 15, when most players signed last summer are eligible to be dealt. Even though we rarely seen trades before the holidays. There have been only eight trades in December since 2012.

It’s well known the Cleveland Cavs are in sell mode, having already dealt Kyle Korver and George Hill. They’re also trying their best to find someone to take JR Smith. There’s a decent chance Rodney Hood and Alec Burks, whom the Cavs got for Korver, could also end up moving. They lead the sellers list.

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

The Pelicans, who put in an offer for Jimmy Butler, are feeling the pressure to convince Anthony Davis to sign an extension next summer. They own their first-round pick and general manager Dell Demps has routinely been willing to trade firsts for instant help in the past. That alone gives them a good chance to get an impact player for the second half if they’re so inclined.

Pistons owner Gores badly wants to get back to the postseason and the Pistons, like the Pelicans, own their first-round pick. With a handful of expiring contracts and a few developmental players on the roster the Pistons have the ammo to do something if they want. However, they’re only about $481,000 below the luxury-tax line and that could be an issue.

Sacramento, famously, owes their first-rounder to Boston (via Philly). They have no incentive to tank and with the upside-down Western Conference — miraculously there’s five teams who made the playoffs last season who are currently out of playoff position — the Kings apparently are thinking big. Though, let’s be honest, it’s always hard to understand exactly what this team is thinking.

With $11 million in cap space and the large expiring contracts of Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert, it figures the Kings will be involved in something between now and the trade deadline.


LEAGUE EXECUTIVES BELIEVE Indiana may look to move one of their point guards. Darren Collison and Cory Joseph roughly split the position and are both in the final years of their deals. The team is high on rookie Aaron Holiday and could want to clear out room for him. … Those who have seen Michael Porter Jr. work out in Denver as he recovers from back surgery report he’s looking impressive. Even the team is surprised how well he has been shooting the 3-pointer as he works with coach Mark Price. … Gregg Popovich made headlines last week when he complained about teams shooting too many 3-pointers and how it’s ruining the beauty of the game. The Spurs lead the lead in midrange jumpers. Guess who is second? The Warriors at 23.5 attempts per game. We see you working, Steve Kerr.

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