With all but two teams now eliminated from postseason play, most NBA franchises, including the Clippers, have already turned their attention to navigating the bountiful but treacherous waters of free agency, which officially begins on August 2 at 6 pm EST. (Teams can start signing players on August 6.)
Several of L.A.’s frontline players have big decisions to make, and the organization itself, handcuffed by cap considerations, will need to figure out who they deem essential and who they deem expendable from a squad that looked Finals-ready before Kawhi Leonard’s season-ending knee injury in the semifinals.
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But it’s not just a matter of who will stay and who will go. The Clippers could also be looking to add from the free agency market, albeit in a limited manner. Short of a sign-and-trade agreement with another team for a big fish — requiring, of course, the Clippers to give up several players in return — the team realistically has just the taxpaying mid-level exception ($5.9 million) at their disposal.
This week, in a rundown of each NBA team’s top free agency targets, Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz suggested one player that the Clippers could have their eye on when it comes to that exception: Knicks wing Alec Burks.
A Journeyman in Recent Years, Burks Played Well in NY
Coming out of Colorado in 2011, the 6-foot-6 Burks was drafted 12th overall by Utah, and in 2014 started the first 27 games of the Jazz season, averaging 13.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists before being sidelined for the remainder of the year with a left shoulder injury. Ever since, with some exceptions here and there, Burks has been used as a scorer off the bench. Utah traded Burks to Cleveland during the 2018-19 season.
Following short stints with Sacramento, Golden State and Philadelphia, Burks signed a one-year, $6 million deal with New York in November and played in 49 games this season for the surprisingly competitive Knicks, averaging 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 42.0% from the field and a career-high 41.5% from three.
Swartz wrote that Burks “played a big role in the New York Knicks’ success this season, doing a little bit of everything off the bench.”
Burks missed 15 games between ankle and knee injuries, and another eight games beginning in mid-April for COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Though the Knicks went 14-9 without Burks, they knew they would need his scoring in the playoffs, particularly in the first round if they hoped to keep pace with the high-powered offense of the Atlanta Hawks. Burks did not disappoint in Game 1, scoring 27 points (his second-highest total of the season) on 9-for-13 shooting in a tightly contested losing effort. His production, however, dropped off precipitously from there.
Over the next (and final) four games of the series, Burks struggled to find his range from three, going just 5-for-19 from behind the arc and failing to register more than 12 points in any one contest, despite attempting 10.8 shots in 25.5 minutes of floor time. Burks’s poor shooting allowed Atlanta to further focus attention on Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle, who had a miserable series, shooting just 29.8% from the field.
Could Come Down to Batum vs Burks
While Burks, 29, is obviously not the sort of glistening free agent name that makes other fan bases salivate, Swartz believes that he could nonetheless be a useful addition to the Clippers bench on both ends of the floor.
“The Los Angeles Clippers should crave [Burks’s] versatility in their reserve unit,” said Swartz. “The 6’6″ Burks can play and defend multiple positions, score for himself or serve as a floor spacer for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.”
This will be particularly true if the Clippers are unable to retain Nicolas Batum or Reggie Jackson this offseason — two players who looked to be at the twilight of their careers, but who are now hot commodities after shockingly productive seasons.
Jackson will surely garner a bigger payday than the mid-level exception could cover. But Batum, who received $9 million from the Hornets this season (in addition to his $2.5 million Clippers salary) and is still owed $18 million from Charlotte over the next two seasons, has spoken glowingly of the Clippers organization and might be convinced to forgo a big raise for the sake of trying to win a title in L.A. He’s already holding the bag, so maybe now it’s about getting the ring.
If Batum is willing to stay and play for a moderate salary (oh say, $5.9 million), and it came down to either him or Burks, it seems reasonable to think the Clippers would opt for Batum. He is longer and better defensively, already knows the Clippers system and, despite being three years older than Burks, proved to be very durable in a season when injuries were the norm.
But Burks does have an advantage over Batum in one regard: willingness to shoot. Throughout the season, Clippers coach Ty Lue often implored Batum to let fly when he had an open look, but the Frenchman still managed only 6.1 attempts a game in 27.4 minutes. Burks, on the other hand, needs not to be told twice to launch, averaging 11.0 attempts over the last two seasons.