Klay Thompson free agency: How Lakers, Mavericks, Clippers measure up with Warriors star set to leave

Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors don’t need to split up, at least not from a practical, team-building perspective. Golden State will have nearly $34 million in room beneath the first apron and $28 million in room beneath the luxury tax line if they elect to waive Chris Paul. That’s enough money to bring Thompson back at a reasonable price, fill out the roster and run this thing back without going into the tax. This approach would leave the Warriors without a hard cap, and therefore enough flexibility to make a significant trade down the line if they so choose using Andrew Wiggins as the primary matching salary. Arguably the second-most important player in franchise history doesn’t have to go anywhere.

But, clearly, this isn’t just about money anymore. It’s about everything that comes with it. The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Anthony Slater detailed everything that got Thompson and the Warriors to this point, and cited Golden State’s frequent attempts to replace Thompson via draft picks (Moses Moody and Brandin Podziemski) and even a healthy extension (Jordan Poole) as a source of friction. Though not reported on in depth by The Athletic, it’s worth noting that Draymond Green got a four-year deal last offseason in a similar situation. Thompson, for more than a decade, has been a consummate professional. Green, obviously, has not. His 2016 suspension during the Finals may have cost the Warriors a championship and the “greatest team of all time” title. Green has been suspended several more times since. He fought with Kevin Durant during a game. He is, at this stage of their careers, a better player than Thompson. But it has to sting a little bit that Green, through all of the controversy, gets taken care of while he does not.

The relationship between Thompson and the Warriors appears to be fractured beyond repair. Three teams are reportedly at the front of the line to pursue Thompson if that split indeed comes: the Lakers, Clippers and Mavericks. For now, the starting point in negotiations appears to be the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Dallas can get there easily after trading Tim Hardaway Jr. The Lakers can get there if LeBron James takes a pay cut as planned. The Clippers can get there if Paul George leaves as a free agent.

But can they go further? And how would Thompson fit playing for each of them? Let’s take a look at those three primary suitors and attempt to find out if any other teams could get into the mix.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers seem set on using the first apron as a hard cap, and that opens up doors besides the mid-level exception as paths to paying Thompson. The Lakers could potentially execute a sign-and-trade, for instance, and have five players earning between $10-20 million that could potentially go back to the Warriors. The easiest to move here would be D’Angelo Russell. Would the Warriors want him back? Maybe. Maybe not. But he’s an expiring $18.6 million contract which would make him easy enough to flip in a future trade if the Warriors just want a tradable salary that isn’t attached to a multi-year deal. The Lakers likely wouldn’t give up serious draft capital to get Thompson, but maybe 2023 first-round pick Jalen Hood-Schifino would be on the table.

The fit here would be roughly similar to when another aging shooting legend joined LeBron James: Ray Allen in 2012. The Lakers can’t think of Thompson as his old self. He’s 34 and declining. He can’t really defend guards anymore. But as something closer to a 25-minute player than a 35-minute player, his shooting remains an incredible weapon. The Lakers have lacked scoring explosiveness throughout the James era. It helps to have someone on the roster who can get hot and score 30 on occasion. The Lakers would need to find point-of-attack defense elsewhere (perhaps with the mid-level exception if this is indeed a sign-and-trade), but offensively, putting shooters around James has always been a formula for mutual success.

The Lakers represent a homecoming for Thompson. His father, Mychal Thompson, won championships playing with Magic Johnson in the 1980s. He is current a radio broadcaster for the team, and Klay grew up in southern California. If the money is equal, it seems like the Lakers would have a leg up on nostalgia alone. 

Los Angeles Clippers

If the Clippers retain Paul George and James Harden, they’re not in the running here. They’d be a second apron team unable to sign-and-trade or use a mid-level exception. As Harden is widely expected back, a George departure is the likeliest path for the Clippers. Fortunately, George signing with another team would open the door for Thompson to become a Clipper if the Los Angeles could structure George’s departure as a sign-and-trade. Doing so would create a trade exception for them worth George’s new salary, which they could then use to absorb Thompson in a sign-and-trade coming back to them. 

Doing this would hard cap the Clippers at the first apron, but the difference in cost between Thompson and George would make this feasible. They would just need George and his new team to cooperate, but they would have little incentive not to. From time to time teams in this situation will even attach a second-round pick to incentive the new team to help them create a trade exception.

A Thompson fit offensively here would, again, be simple. Harden is the point guard. Kawhi Leonard does a fair bit of shot-creation as well. Slotting Thompson in as a shooter between them would be easy enough. The defensive issues here would be harder to address. The Clippers don’t have an all-world rim-protector like Anthony Davis to clean up backcourt lapses, and Harden isn’t defending anyone at the point of attack. Leonard is obviously a stellar defender, but do the Clippers want to burden him with tough assignments every night knowing that George’s absence would also put more shot-creation duties on his shoulders? This would be a tougher problem for the Clippers to solve, especially with barely any trade assets to work with. Perhaps they could try to extract Gary Payton II in a trade with the Warriors, but Golden State has little incentive to help the Clippers. Ultimately this team would be worse than last year’s Clippers were, but it’s still a Los Angeles homecoming with a team that’s able to pay him a reasonable salary, so they can’t be ruled out.

Dallas Mavericks

Dallas just dumped Tim Hardaway Jr. in order to open up the non-taxpayer mid-level exception to throw at Derrick Jones Jr. They could simply redirect it to Thompson, but doing so would not only underpay him compared to what he seems to want, but would also mean losing Jones, their best perimeter defender. It would therefore make more sense to use the mid-level exception to retain Jones and then orchestrate a sign-and-trade to nab Thompson.

That’s doable, but tricky. The Mavericks do have plenty of mid-sized salary left, but how interested would the Warriors be in players like Maxi Kleber and Josh Green? They could help Golden State, but the Warriors seem to want to move away from multi-year deals. Maybe Dallas could incentivize them with draft capital, or maybe those players could be sent to a third team that could send the Warriors an expiring deal. There are a lot of moving parts here, but Dallas has pathways to getting this done.

The Dallas offense sputtered in the NBA Finals to a 106.7 offensive rating. The inability to generate good 3-pointers was a big reason for that. Thompson is used to playing in a motion offense, not one as heliocentric as the Luka Doncic show. There would have to be adjustments on all sides, but the simple idea of taking a team that is already stellar defensively and has two elite creators and giving it a high-end shooter carries obvious appeal. If Thompson’s goal is to win a fifth championship, the Mavericks are probably his best chance among these teams of doing so.

The field

The non-taxpayer mid-level exception is a pretty reasonable price point for a player as accomplished as Thompson. If that is the line, it’s reachable for plenty of contenders. Take the Nuggets, for instance. They’re probably going to lose Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and they have roughly $8.3 million in first apron room. If they could just get off the $9 million or so they owe to Zeke Nnaji, they could potentially make a mid-level offer to Thompson to replace Caldwell-Pope. Of course, moving Nnaji wouldn’t be easy, but the point is that almost any winning team could potentially have a path here.

Oklahoma City still has around $28 million in cap space. The Thunder could throw some of that money at Thompson, or, though it’s a long shot, dangle the lower $8 million cap room mid-level exception in front of him if winning is his primary goal. They’d probably need to go the cap space route to get him, but imagine giving the NBA’s best shooting team a Splash Brother. Good luck guarding that group.

Virtually any team in the non-taxpayer mid-level exception range is going to have some degree of interest. If Thompson wants to stick it to Golden State, why not consider replacing Luke Kennard with the rival Grizzlies, or perhaps making the short drive to Sacramento, as the Kings considered a run at Draymond Green last summer and are seemingly looking for a splash? Cleveland could use another 3-point shooter. If the Magic or 76ers miss on George, they are going to have cap space to throw around. Thompson may not be able to get anything close to the max deal he is coming off of, but he’s still a great shooter with a championship pedigree. The field is more or less any team that could reasonably create the money to pursue him.

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