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Leonard isn't only option for Clippers

Andrew Greif, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

LOS ANGELES--Less than an hour after the NBA draft ended Thursday, a night in which the Los Angeles Clippers added two players they'd targeted all along, the team's president of basketball operations walked into a Manhattan Beach hotel conference room energized.

The night had gone as well as Lawrence Frank and his staff could have planned.

Next came the pivot. The NBA's free agency period begins June 30, and just like the draft, the Clippers have targeted a handful of players for months, if not since the team's front office was reshuffled and expanded nearly two years ago. Free agency is not like the draft, where teams hold a measure of control. By mid-July there is no guarantee the Clippers will leave free agency with a bounce in their step, their carefully detailed plan executed as envisioned.

"In the draft the organization chooses the player," Frank said. "In free agency, the player chooses the organization."

With enough salary cap room to sign a star to a maximum salary contract, the Clippers are rapidly approaching the NBA's free agency period confident in their planning but without any clue whether it will pay off.

"All we can do is be ourselves and represent ourselves in the best possible light," Frank said. "And hopefully the players that we're attracted to are also attracted to us and we just keep building."

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They are most attracted to NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who will hit free agency only weeks after the Moreno Valley-raised forward led Toronto to its first championship. Signing Leonard would represent a coup for a team that has never been a top destination for free agents. Adding a player of his caliber would transform the Clippers -- one of three teams never to appear in a conference finals -- into a Western Conference title contender.

The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are expected to be granted meetings with Leonard as well, but the race for Leonard's signature has long been considered a two-team fight between the Clippers and Raptors. What he will decide remains anyone's guess.

Frank cautioned that the Clippers "never put all our eggs in one basket" in free agency, and the team, with its projected $52 million in cap space, will court numerous players.

Qualifying offers are expected to be made to guard Rodney McGruder and center Ivica Zubac to make them restricted free agents. Also expected is an attempt to re-sign JaMychal Green, a forward who made a strong impression during three months with the team following a February trade from Memphis. During a first-round playoff matchup against Golden State, the Clippers were most effective when the 6-foot-9 Green was inserted as a small-ball big man. Should Green sign elsewhere, the roster would need another player with similar skills, capable of guarding centers close to the rim while pulling them away from the hoop offensively to open spacing for Clippers' playmakers.

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