After the huge signing of Serge Ibaka, things have been strangely quiet, causing a lot of folks to wonder if the Clippers are working on a trade. There is, of course, no way to really know what LAC’s front office is up to. Tight lips have been the norm for Lawrence Frank’s team in recent years, dating at least as far back as the Blake Griffin trade.
So, it probably wasn’t surprising that the few leaks we heard leading up to free agency, having to do with players like Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, and a supposed mutual interest with Montrezl Harrell, turned into nothing. This is pure speculation, but I have a feeling that these leaks came from outside the organization, either from the agents of these players trying to drum up interest or rival executives’ speculation (think “league sources expect the Clippers to pursue…”). Patrick Patterson’s new deal was so clearly an agent leak that the actual tweet reporting the contract credited its negotiator by name. With Morris and Ibaka, we’re left to guess, but it’s telling that the Clippers were never actually linked to Serge by major reporters until just a couple of hours before the signing–right around when Ibaka would have presumably been informing other teams that they were out of the running.
Just because we aren’t getting hourly updates from ESPN about what the Clippers are working on doesn’t mean they aren’t working on anything (as if any NBA front office is just sitting around during free agency). It’s been proven time and again, so it’s probably worth getting used to.
The fun, then, is trying to figure out what they might be up to while we wait for news to trickle out. Based on what we know, I have to admit: it seems really possible that the Clippers are working on a trade. The facts of the team’s situation are that they are hard capped by the Ibaka signing, and have about $5.2M left beneath the hard cap and three open roster spots, two of which must be filled, to play with. The Clippers technically have a few ways to add players for slightly more than the veteran’s minimum–which carries a cap hit of $1.6M–but any such move would likely leave them unable to fill their final roster spot. An additional complication is that the more of their wiggle room they use now, the harder it will be to make any mid-season roster changes.
For example, if the Clippers wanted to use their bi-annual exception–worth $3.6M–on a free agent, they’d only have enough money left for one minimum-salary deal, forcing them to leave their 15th roster spot open without enough money to even sign a 10-day contract during the year. You can always free up some cash during the season if you need to–dumping a one-year minimum deal normally just costs cash, and at most a protected second-round pick, and that trade would take the entire $1.6M off of LAC’s books, leaving them with space under the hard cap to sign two rest-of-season deals. The bigger hassle is that you have to get rid of one of your players to do that, find a trade partner, and both find worthy free agents mid-season and incorporate them into your team on the fly.
Regardless of what the Clippers end up doing at the end of their bench to navigate the hard cap, their next steps seem pretty straightforward: sign 2-3 more players to cheap deals to round out the bench and get ready for training camp, which opens next week. Sure, they needed to prioritize Serge Ibaka, not only because he was the best free agent the team targeted but because his decision impacted their positional needs and available resources. Still, it’s been over 48 hours since Ibaka was signed, and the Clippers haven’t made another move despite sitting on multiple open roster spots and watching a number of the better veteran’s minimum free agents come off the board. Brad Wanamaker, Torrey Craig, and Solomon Hill would have all been really strong depth additions for LAC, but all have signed elsewhere for the minimum.
So, what are the Clippers doing? They obviously need to add at least a couple more players this week–league rules mandate it. If it was going to be as simple as signing two or three vet’s min deals and heading into camp, you’d assume that they wouldn’t have been on the sidelines for the last couple of days as targets went off the board. Now, knowing this front office, it’s possible that deals with a couple of the remaining targets are already agreed to and just haven’t been leaked. It’s also fully possible that they’re waiting for the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade talks between Boston and Charlotte to find their likely conclusion: with the Hornets waiving veteran wing Nicolas Batum and him finding his way to a contender on a minimum-salary deal. But Batum is just one player; the Clippers need to add at least two. And while the front office might not leak deals to reporters, it’s a lot harder to to keep agents from celebrating or players from announcing their moves on social media–and once a deal’s been agreed to, why would you care?
It almost seems like they have to be working on something else at this point. I don’t know that they are, but it’s the explanation that makes the most sense considering the team’s inactivity in recent days. If it’s a trade, the options are seemingly narrow. Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann have small salaries and low value and wouldn’t make sense as the centerpieces of any deal. The non-guaranteed salaries of Justin Patton and Joakim Noah have very little trade utility due to the Clippers’ hard cap situation–at best, they could be considered redundant to LAC’s collection of small traded player exceptions. Luke Kennard’s $5.3M salary can’t be combined with any other Clipper contracts to bring back a bigger deal in a trade. And let’s assume, at least, that the maximum salary deals for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard aren’t on the table–no matter how much trade machine porn can be produced around a three-team deal featuring George, Ben Simmons, and James Harden.
That leaves Patrick Beverley (13.3M), Lou Williams (8M), and Ivica Zubac (7M). Even then, I’m skeptical. While there’s been a lot of talk about the Clippers pursuing an upgrade over Beverley at starting point guard, last summer’s Paul George trade left them without the assets to do so–as was clearly evidenced by the trade packages received for Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, and Ricky Rubio this off-season. At this stage, the guards whose names pop up in rumors, like Terry Rozier and Spencer Dinwiddie, are simply not dependable enough to justify losing Beverley for them. Zubac is a 23-year-old starter coming off of a strong playoffs with multiple years of a team-friendly deal ahead of him–his inclusion in deals is possible, as center production can be replaced more easily than other positions, but he’s not going to be thrown into a deal just to make the math work. I think his value to LAC is a lot higher than his value around the league, so I’m unconvinced that his inclusion anywhere makes sense.
That leaves Williams. While he’s been great for the Clippers since arriving in the Chris Paul trade three years ago, and certainly won me over as one of my favorite players, there are a number of concerning questions lingering around his status with the team–he’s 34 years old, his contract is expiring, he’s a poor defender, there’s a long track record of drop-offs in performance in the playoffs, he fills the backup point guard spot without being a “real” lead guard who can fill in for Patrick Beverley at times, and newcomer Luke Kennard lessens the team’s reliance on his creation off the bench. Many, including myself, felt like the draft-night acquisition of Kennard might have been a tipping point in the team’s willingness to move on from Williams via trade.
Due to the Clippers’ hard cap situation, the options for such a deal are limited, as they really can’t add much more than Williams’ $8M back and still fill out their roster. In order to incentivize teams to take Lou (he’s certainly still good and highly useful, but not every team wants a 34-year-old backup guard at this stage in the off-season), the Clippers would have to use some of their new future 2nd round picks (they got 4 in the Kennard trade). Oklahoma City’s George Hill would make for a good backup point guard behind Beverley, and his $9.6M deal would cost the Clippers a little bit of the hard cap but still be workable. If the Memphis Grizzlies want to create a little cap flexibility for next summer and make a short-term upgrade at 3rd guard, Tyus Jones could be available. He’s a really steady backup PG and his $8M deal wouldn’t hurt LAC’s finances. Depending on what happens with the Houston Rockets and James Harden, veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be an amazing addition for LAC at $8M. Short of Tucker, former Clipper Al-Farouq Aminu makes $9.6M in Orlando and the Magic desperately need playmaking guards. He’d make sense as a defensive-minded backup 3/4.
Those deals still don’t fully satisfy the suspicion of what might be going on. Jones and Aminu probably make the Clippers worse–let’s not forget that Lou Williams is still a very good basketball player, and downgrading for the sake of a shake-up isn’t a good idea. Hill is likely a lateral move, but a better fit. Tucker would make a bigger playoff impact with his defense, but it’s unclear where LAC would find a backup point guard in this scenario as the free agent pool has all but dried up. Plus, even if one of those options is what the Clippers are really working on, what are they waiting for? Lou and a pair of 2nds for Hill is a straightforward trade, and Sam Presti can only haggle about whether Detroit’s 2024 or 2025 2nd is more valuable for so long. Plus, the hole at backup small forward remains unaffected if Lou is swapped for a more traditional backup point guard. Even if they got Tucker or Aminu, they’d need another wing on the roster.
I could speculate endlessly, but I’ll stop at one more suggestion: what if the Clippers aren’t focused on what they’re trading Lou Williams for, so much as what they can do with the extra hard cap wiggle room created by his departure. LAC has a number of ways to improve the roster with above-minimum deals, including utilizing the bi-annual exception, absorbing players with their TPEs, and using non-guaranteed contracts for salary matching in trades. Let’s say the Sacramento Kings match the Atlanta Hawks’ offer sheet for Bogdan Bogdanovic, leaving the Hawks with cap room and in search of a scoring guard, but with nobody who fits the bill left on the free agent market. Could the Clippers trade Lou into Atlanta’s cap space, and bring back sharpshooter Kevin Huerter, who has seemingly been left behind in the Hawks’ retooling? Even short of Huerter, Atlanta or a number of others teams might be willing to take on Lou’s deal and even send back some type of sweetener, perhaps a 2nd round pick or two.
The trick then would be lining up a sequence of deals to utilize the additional flexibility well enough that the team got better. What is the most that LAC can do with the $3.6M BAE once the flexibility is opened up to use it? If I’m being honest, I’m not seeing any veteran free agents on the market who feel like more than minimum guys, unless the BAE helps you in a bidding war with other playoff teams for one of the remaining wings, like Batum, Glenn Robinson III, or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The BAE could also be used to give a restricted free agent an above-minimum offer sheet to lure a young player, like Nets point guard Chris Chiozza or Wolves point guard Jordan McLaughlin. Both would likely be matched and retained on a minimum offer, but I think both teams would balk at the luxury tax implications of $3.6M. What is the most LAC can do with their TPEs once the flexibility is opened up to use it? Maybe trade a 2nd round pick to Indiana for T.J. McConnell’s $3.5M expiring?
Let’s say you could line up a series of transactions that would effectively cost you Lou Williams, and use the flexibility created to add a pair of players like T.J. McConnell and Glenn Robinson III. Is that enough? Did the Clippers get better in that transaction? I’ll be honest, my money’s on no. But there are so many little variables here that maybe the Clippers’ front office could scour the corners of the league to find the best possible acquisitions using their trade exceptions and future 2nd round picks and come up with a net roster change that improved the team.
For now, we’ll have to live with not knowing what they’re doing.