In the early hours of the NBA’s free agency window, the Clippers learned that they would lose JaMychal Green as well as Montrezl Harrell as the two reached deals with the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. Green is heading to Denver on a two-year deal worth $15M, while Harrell will join the Lakers for two years and $19M. Both were signed using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, though Green did not receive the full exception while Harrell did.
The Clippers’ Needs After Losing Green and Harrell
The losses strike a blow to the Clippers’ front court depth, as each player averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season as the team’s primary backups at power forward and center. Currently, those holes remain unfilled. The team was able to reach new deals with starting power forward Marcus Morris and depth stretch 4 Patrick Patterson, which helped prevent their front court rotation from becoming fully catastrophic, but they have serious gaps to fill in the coming days in order to put together a respectable rotation next season. That work begins immediately–or, realistically, it’s already begun. Here’s a glance at LAC’s current projected–no, Joakim Noah is not on here, because I don’t think he’ll be on the roster on opening night–depth chart:
|Point Guard||Patrick Beverley||Lou Williams||Terance Mann|
|Shooting Guard||Paul George||Luke Kennard||Jayden Scrubb (2W)|
|Small Forward||Kawhi Leonard||Amir Coffey (2W)|
|Power Forward||Marcus Morris||Patrick Patterson||Mfiondu Kabengele|
|Center||Ivica Zubac||Daniel Oturu|
The gaps, of course, are obvious. While the Williams-Kennard backcourt duo isn’t a perfect fit and looks a bit questionable defensively, those are both good NBA players in their roles. But there’s no true backup small forward on the roster, Patrick Patterson is a relatively weak option at backup power forward, and there’s no established backup center on the roster.
That front court depth is going to need serious work, especially because we have to assume that Kawhi Leonard is going to sit out games for load management again this season. Paul George’s ability to slide over to small forward is certainly a big help here, as Luke Kennard is an overqualified backup shooting guard who can shoulder starts and additional minutes while Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley can easily go beyond sharing point guard minutes and play together for stretches. But Marcus Morris’ ability to play small forward, once considered a strength of the Clippers’ rotation, is significantly less useful without JaMychal Green, a similarly overqualified backup, on the roster and ready to absorb additional minutes. Patterson will play regularly this year (he played 13 minutes per game in 59 appearances last year), but you probably want to avoid rotations that involve him regularly breaking the 20-minute threshold.
At center, the loss of Green stings again. Presumably, the Clippers will add an established backup center behind Zubac, and that player will likely even be more reliable than Montrezl Harrell was in terms of being solid defensively and on the glass (replicating Harrell’s scoring won’t happen unless the team signs Serge Ibaka). But last year, Green stood by as a potential emergency or small ball option at center, and while Doc Rivers rarely opted to utilize him there, it was nice to have the option in case of an emergency. You can’t really go into an NBA season, particularly an accelerated schedule like teams will face in 2021, with only two guys who can play a position. Even if you avoid catastrophe, someone is going to roll and ankle and miss a couple of weeks at some point.
This season, the Clippers’ emergency center will emerge among Morris, Patterson, Kabengele, and Oturu. Obviously, giving Morris minutes at center just creates problems elsewhere, as someone needs to pick up his power forward minutes, but those obligations can be shifted up the lineup with Kawhi Leonard stepping in, and Paul George subsequently playing a bit more at small forward, and Luke Kennard and Lou Williams both increasing their minutes at shooting guard. Ideally, though, one of the team’s young big men will show enough to be seen as at least a viable option for regular season depth minutes.
The Clippers have to find rotation pieces at small forward and center, while also trying to limit the situations where they need Patterson, the team’s weakest second-unit player, as much as possible. Then, they need to ensure that they have the requisite injury insurance at important positions. With that in mind, here’s my ranking of the Clippers’ needs:
- A backup center, ideally one who can play power forward alongside Ivica Zubac at times. The team needs a stable option who is serious about playing winning basketball so they can field competitive lineups when Zubac rests in the playoffs, something that wasn’t possible with Montrezl Harrell.
- A defensive-minded backup forward who can play small forward and power forward. Just a small forward isn’t enough, as perimeter minutes on full-strength nights will be hard to come by with Beverley, Williams, George, Kennard, and Leonard. This guy needs to be able to slide over and offer a more defensive alternative to shooter Patrick Patterson at backup power forward, while also being able to play minutes at small forward when Leonard sits out. Ideally, someone who can defend multiple positions would be a good fit here as the second unit backcourt of Williams and Kennard might need to do some cross-matching.
- A depth wing who can play spot minutes on load management nights or as an injury replacement. This player would be competing for minutes with Terance Mann and Amir Coffey (I’m assuming Jayden Scrubb is a project who we won’t see much of this year) and would essentially be the 6th wing, promoted to 5th on load management nights and potentially 4th when there are either two injuries or one injury that coincides with a load management night.
- An established emergency point guard who can start games if Patrick Beverley gets injured. This is a bigger priority than fourth on this list, but the realistic avenues that LAC has for addressing it mean that they likely won’t be able to do so adequately. We know that Lou Williams isn’t going to start games at point guard for the Clippers. So, if Beverley gets hurt, will the team put Kennard there in a playmaking role? Are they ready to thrust sophomore second-round pick Terance Mann into the spotlight? Are they ready to do that if Beverley misses extended time or playoff games? You can’t go into a season with Patrick Beverley as your starting point guard and no plan B, so the Clippers either need to decide that Mann is plan B or figure out who is.
- An established emergency center who can take over rotation minutes if Zubac or his backup go down. Realistically, this just can’t be a priority within the limitations of a 15-man roster. Sure, you’d like to be able to get a mid-level backup and a semi-proven third stringer like Willie Cauley-Stein, but with Kabengele and Oturu already taking up roster spots the Clippers are going to need to fill this hole with a combination of development and small ball.
The Clippers’ Tools to Replace Green and Harrell
With those needs in mind, let’s take a look at the Clippers’ updated cap sheet after Friday’s moves:
As it now stands, the team has about $10M in room underneath the hard cap and 13 players on the roster–though it’s important to note that the Clippers have not currently triggered the hard cap. That only happens if they decide to use the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception, worth $9,258,000. If they were so inclined, they could use the MLE on a 14th player (they have to carry at least 14 contracts on their roster) and call it a day–but that’s not going to happen. Noah and Patton, whose contracts are not guaranteed, are both centers, and neither are good enough to be the new backup or valued enough to be kept over Kabengele or Oturu. Additionally, Kabengele’s guaranteed contract and Oturu’s cheaper rookie minimum make keeping one of Noah or Patton a non-starter financially, even before considering the team’s recent investments to trade for Kabengele and Oturu on their respective draft days.
So, effectively, the team has $14,495,773 to spend underneath the hard cap, should they choose to trigger it. Should they use it, a massive $9.3M chunk of that would go towards signing a player with the MLE (note: the MLE can be split between multiple players, which would also give them savings as they filled out the roster since they’d have fewer spots to fill, but let’s assume LAC is going after big fish for now), leaving them $5,237,773 under the hard cap with 12 players under contract. From here, the front office has a choice. They must, at least, sign two more players to contracts costing at least the veteran’s minimum, $1,620,564 each. That leaves them with about $2M in wiggle room (remember, I’m using a projection for Marcus Morris’ starting salary, so even mild rounding on his reported deal could change these figures a bit), with which they have 4 main options:
- Utilize the bi-annual exception in place of one of the minimum deals. By using the exception, the team can give a free agent a deal starting at up to $3,623,000 (if I’ve got Morris’ deal down to the dollar and their MLE target takes every dollar of that exception, they’d be $5,791 short of using the full exception and have to offer someone $3,617,209), potentially luring better players than they could on a minimum-salary deal. The bi-annual can run for two years with a 5% raise, so it can be fairly standard for teams to sign a veteran on a paycut and give them a player option in the second year in exchange for them signing at below market value. This scenario would be MLE + BAE + min (1 unused roster spot).
- Utilize a trade exception. The Clippers have three trade exceptions, most notably one worth $3,567,720 from the Jerome Robinson trade. Trade exceptions are allowed to take back up to $100,000 extra, so the Clippers could use this TPE to add a player worth up to $3,667,720–though, as I noted above, if my calculations are correct they’ll only have $3,617,209 under the hard cap to work with. When comparing the TPE to the BAE, there are some important distinctions. While the BAE can only be used to sign a free agent to a new contract, the TPE can only be used to acquire an existing contract. That means trading for a player or claiming their deal off of waivers if they’ve been released by their prior team. The option of this conveniently-priced TPE lets the Clippers explore trading for a deal in the $3.6M range instead of only searching for a free agent to sign to a deal at that price. The TPE could be used to add a player in a sign-and-trade deal. Where the BAE, as noted above, can only offer a 2-year deal, players can receive up to 4 years if they are signed-and-traded by their previous team. Long deals at this price point are rather rare, as you’re normally either talking about a player who hopes to hit the market again soon and get a raise, or an unproven player who a team wouldn’t want to invest multiple guaranteed years of above-minimum salary into. However, the option is there. This scenario would be MLE + TPE + min (1 unused roster spot).
- Sign a 15th player to another minimum deal. Remember, the Clippers are only required by the league to carry 14 players. But in a shortened season, with load management likely and several developing projects on the roster, the team might prefer to get more veteran bodies on the bench. This scenario would be MLE + min + min + min (full roster).
- Add salary in a trade. Technically, the Clippers could take on up to $2M extra in salary in a trade and still fit a 14-man roster under the hard cap. One hypothetical deal that illustrates this point would be swapping Lou Williams for newly-acquired New Orleans Pelican George Hill, who is likely to be on the move again. Hill makes $9,590,602, which is comparable to Williams’ $8,000,000 but an important difference when you’re dealing with the margins the Clippers are here. They could absorb that difference if they passed on using the BAE and adding a 15th player. This scenario would be MLE + min + min (1 unused roster spot).
The Clippers’ Targets To Fill Out The Roster
Look, we’re early enough in free agency that there is still an incredibly wide range of potential outcomes. Dozens of potential trades, particularly involving Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, could shift the margins of the Clippers’ finances or their roster needs. Keep an eye not only on Hill, mentioned above, but Houston’s P.J. Tucker, who makes $30k less than Williams and would shift the Clippers’ free agency focus away from another bench forward and place an emphasis on adding a backup point guard. Maybe they get Tucker and Ibaka, and use the BAE on a point guard like D.J. Augustin! Maybe they get Tucker, use the MLE on a point guard like Kris Dunn, and use the BAE on a center like Nerlens Noel! They could split the MLE Anything is possible.
For now, though, let’s stick with what we know, and map on the team’s aforementioned needs, discussed in part 1, with their tools, discussed in part 2, and look at some targets:
- Mid-Level Exception Backup Centers: Serge Ibaka, who I profiled a few weeks ago, would be the Clippers’ best-case scenario at this point and a huge upgrade over Harrell. He isn’t really a PF/C but his shooting at least makes it viable offensively against giant opposing lineups that allow Ibaka and Zubac to play together defensively. Tristan Thompson would also be a great addition, a versatile defensive big who famously allowed Clippers coach Ty Lue’s Cavaliers to switch screens against Steph Curry in the NBA Finals. He doesn’t have the offensive game that Ibaka does to replace Harrell’s scoring, and he wouldn’t really be able to play with Zubac, but he’d still be a big help.
Some other centers provide intriguing fallback options, but probably aren’t worth the full mid-level. Only using part of the mid-level on a backup center would help the Clippers in the “wiggle room” category to either use the BAE and/or TPE, add salary in a trade, or sign a 15th player. For example, the Nuggets signed JaMychal Green to approximately $7.5M using the MLE, saving about $1.8M in hard cap wiggle room. If you drive the split down far enough, the team could potentially use that money on another free agent–like $4.6M for a center and $4.6M for a wing or guard.
Lower-cost center targets could include Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank Kaminsky, Bismack Biyombo, Hassan Whiteside, and Alex Len.
- Bi-Annual Exception Defensive Forwards: If the Clippers use their biggest tool to address the center position, look for them to use their second-biggest tool to find a backup small forward behind Kawhi–but remember, this player would ideally provide depth at both forward positions to limit the team’s reliance on Patrick Patterson, while bringing the ability to guard multiple positions to cover for Williams and Kennard on the second unit. That’s a tall ask for a $3.6M player! Fortunately, there are a few guys on the market.
Former Clipper Moe Harkless would make an obvious fit, a natural small forward who started at power forward for the Clippers for much of last season but frequently cross-matched defensively to tackle tricky guard assignments. He’s worth more than the bi-annual but if he slips through the cracks of an unpredictable free agency window, he’d be a great option.
Solomon Hill, fresh off of playing spot minutes in the playoffs for the Miami Heat, makes sense as a utility defender who can play at both forward positions–though I think he’s more of a defensive body for other forwards, not necessarily someone to switch onto guards. A career 34% shooter from deep, he made 38% on decent volume in Memphis last year before being traded to Miami and buried on the bench. If that’s repeatable–a big if–he’d be a steal as a BAE or minimum guy.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson rounds out the three main candidates here. Essentially a non-factor offensively, Rondae doesn’t even attempt threes where Hill and Harkless will at least put up open shots with inconsistent results. But he had a truly stellar year defensively in Toronto guarding 1-4, and his lack of shooting wouldn’t be fatal if the Clippers sign a stretch 5 to put on the second unit with Williams, Kennard, and Patterson.
- Minimum Salary Depth Wings: Let’s assume that the Clippers use the full MLE on a center and the full BAE on one of the aforementioned forwards for their second unit. They’d have money for one spot left at the league minimum, and while they could go a few different ways with it they might choose to add another wing player to provide additional competition and depth behind Kawhi Leonard’s load management regimen.
Austin Rivers is a compelling option who is more of a 2/1 than a 2/3, but could potentially play in three-guard lineups as well as take on emergency point guard duties. However, he’d likely want more of a guaranteed role than LAC can offer. Glenn Robinson III should be an above-minimum player, though he might be an option if the Clippers do something like split the MLE between a C and forward and have the BAE to use here.
Courtney Lee, Kent Bazemore, Marco Belinelli, and Evan Turner could all help one way or another in a depth role, but all have flaws of their own. Turner in particular could also garner consideration for emergency point guard duties. Kyle Korver will turn 40 during the regular season, but there’s no doubt the guy can hit an open three.
Sterling Brown, DeAndre’ Bembry, Shaquille Harrison, and Deonte Burton were all eligible for restricted free agency but didn’t get qualifying offers from their teams and could give the Clippers a chance to try and find a diamond in the rough with a player in their mid-20s who didn’t break out with their first NBA team.
- Minimum Salary Depth Point Guards: If we take the scenario from the last group, and assume the Clippers have used their full MLE on a center and full BAE on a backup forward, they could look at a minimum-salary emergency point guard instead of a depth wing. This likely comes down to the team’s internal assessment of Terance Mann: if they think he’s progressed enough as a PG, he’ll fill this role; if not, he and Coffey will fill the wing depth role and the team will find a free agent for this slot.
Players like D.J. Augustin, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, and Jeff Teague are all above-minimum guys who need guaranteed roles, so I’d only expect them to come into play if the Clippers make a trade like the Williams-Tucker swap I suggested above, which would open both a role and resources for this spot. Incumbent Clippers depth point guard Reggie Jackson likely thinks of himself as a guaranteed role, above-minimum guy as well. I’d place Brad Wanamaker in this group as well, but it’s possible he falls through the cracks, in which case he’d be a really nice addition.
As long as it remains a depth role at the minimum, several of the aforementioned wings could contribute here. Rivers, Turner, and Harrison have all played point guard at times in their careers. Michael Carter-Williams isn’t really much of a point guard, but he could help lineups defensively. Typical offensive point guards like Shabazz Napier Raul Neto make more sense as Beverley fill-ins, but less in second-unit combinations with Williams or Kennard. Players like Emmanuel Mudiay and Elfrid Payton are still riding their statuses as top-10 picks, and while either would be fine emergency additions they’d likely look for actual roles in attempts to really prove they belong in the league.
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