As the Clippers head toward the NBA trade deadline, it’s time for a primer of what the team’s options will be during the upcoming flurry of transactions. Frankly, the team doesn’t have a lot to work with… but people were asking for an overview, so here we go. The Clippers have three things working against them this deadline: a lack of hard cap flexibility, a lack of easily tradeable contracts, and a lack of positive assets.
Clippers Cap Sheet
The Clippers simply do not have any money to make things happen–take a look at the team’s current cap sheet:
As you can see, the Clippers only have $539,505 in current “wiggle room” under the hard cap. Normally, the salary matching rules in NBA trades are pretty flexible, with teams typically allowed to bring back 125% +$100,000 of the salaries they send out (there’s some different rules in different situations but we don’t need to get in to that right now). For the Clippers, that allowance is essentially void, because they must be underneath the hard cap at the end of any trade. Without the hard cap, for example, Lou Williams’ 8M expiring deal could bring back $10,100,000 under the 125% + $100,000 rule. Due to the hard cap, the most LAC could bring in while sending Lou out is $8,539,505.
There’s also the issue of roster spots. The Clippers currently have a 14-man roster, and all NBA teams are required to carry a minimum of 14 players. Dropping below is permissable, but only for 2 weeks–so if the Clippers make a deal on the March 25th trade deadline that drops them below 14, they have until April 8th to sign new player contracts to bring their roster back to (at least) 14. Those new contracts, naturally, also count against the team’s hard cap situation. Rest-of-season minimum contracts are pro-rated based on the number of days left in the season, so for a $1,620,564 minimum and a 146-day season, players make $11,099.75/day. From April 8th–the last day LAC could wait until to sign a rest-of-season deal to get back to the 14-man minimum if they make a deal on deadline day–until the May 16th final day of the season, that’s $432,890. There’s technically some loopholes here–the Clippers could sign a 14th guy to a 10-day contract on April 8th, pay him $110k, and then spend another two weeks under the 14-player limit before signing someone to a rest-of-season deal for like $178k. But this territory is dangerously close to the line between “technically legal” and “actually feasible,” and I’m not totally sure which side of that line we’re on.
So, let’s look at an example of where this comes into play. Say you want to trade Lou Williams for, say, Lonzo Ball. Ball makes $11,003,782, more than Williams’ 8M can bring back in a trade. You throw in Mfiondu Kabengele’s $2,075,880. Under normal trade rules, this is legal, but the Clippers are still bringing in a little over $900k in additional salary, which is more than the $539k in hard cap room they have. Okay, so you throw in Daniel Oturu’s $898,310. Not like he plays anyway, right?
Well, while Williams + Kabengele + Oturu for Ball is technically a legal trade in a vacuum–only adds $29,592 to the Clippers’ team salary–it still wouldn’t be allowed to go through. With a 3-for-1 trade completed, the Clippers’ roster would be down to 12, and they’d have to sign 2 more players to meet the NBA’s roster minimum. With those contracts setting them back $432,890 each, the final math still sees the Clippers over the hard cap. This additional calculation is where a lot of ambitious trade ideas that I see fall apart–especially the 5-for-1 deals some people have come up with that just barely get the team’s outgoing salary above $30M for Kyle Lowry. You’d still have to sign 4 replacement contracts! (Not to mention that the Raptors, who currently have 14 players under contract, aren’t allowed to exceed 15 at any point in time, meaning that they’d have to cut 3 of their own players or find other teams willing to take on random players coming from LAC in order to facilitate such a deal.)
Individually, the Clippers just don’t have a lot of players who have the right combination of contract, skill, and age to really move the needle in any deals. Let’s break it down:
- Essentially Untouchable: It’s probably safe to say that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard aren’t going anywhere. There are probably some deals where I’d answer the phone, but those calls aren’t coming. I’m adding Serge Ibaka to this list as well–I don’t think the Clippers are going to trade Kawhi Leonard’s friend a few months before Kawhi’s free agency, and I don’t think it’s good business for a contender to talk a veteran role player into a paycut in free agency and then flip him at the deadline. And Nicolas Batum fits into the same logic–trading him could hurt your attempts to recruit veterans in the future, plus he’s been a quality starter for $1.6M. Where are you going to get anything approaching value for him, especially at 32 years old where most rebuilding trade partners are unlikely to need him?
- Almost Untradeable: Everyone realizes that given their cap situation, the Clippers didn’t have much choice but to give Marcus Morris a new 4-year, $64 million contract to keep him last off-season. But that deal is still very clearly not a positive trade asset, as very few teams are going to want to take on such big, long-term money for a player in his 30s, let alone give LAC positive value for him. Similarly, Luke Kennard has yet to demonstrate a quality of play for the Clippers that justifies his 4-year, $64M extension, which won’t even kick in until next season. Teams might be more amicable to Kennard because he’s 24 years old, but the timing is just bad. He still only makes $5.3M this season on the last year of his rookie deal, but his looming extension makes him subject to a “poision pill” provision–his incoming salary for other teams would be $12.25M while his outgoing salary counts for his current $5.3M… making a deal that includes him work isn’t impossible but it would take a tremendous amount of luck to stumble into a situation where a the math works for a guy to be dealt between signing an extension and it taking effect.
- Negative Trade Value: There’s a difference between being a negative player and having negative trade value. We get that, right? Because Patrick Beverley is one of the Clippers’ most important players, but he’s got negative trade value. He’s one of my favorite players to watch, but I’m gonna bet that most teams around the league aren’t eager to take on a 32-year-old guard who they’ll have to pay $14.3M to next season when he’s 33. If you’re packaging together salary to bring back a “third star”-type target, the team you’re trading with is likely shifting gears to a rebuild, meaning they’ll want to get younger and clear cap. At that point, Bev’s deal hurts your package rather than helps it. It isn’t a fully sunk cost–teams can play the OKC game and next year, when he’s an expiring deal, try to get some type of positive asset by re-flipping him to a playoff team. But it’s not an asset either.
- No-Trade Clause: Because they both signed one-year contracts using their non-bird rights, Patrick Patterson and Reggie Jackson both have implicit no-trade clauses in their contracts. Maybe I’m biased, but I have a hard time seeing why Patterson, whose NBA career is all but over, would want to move from a contending team in Los Angeles to sit on someone else’s bench for a couple of months before retiring. Jackson, who has a little more juice left, might be amenable if he’s going to a destination where he can get more playing time to position himself for a better contract/role next summer… but so far, the LAC thing seems to be going pretty well for him this year.
- Zero-Value: Again, on-court value and trade value are not the same thing. Lou Williams, who is one of the Clippers’ most important offensive players, is 34 years old with an expiring $8M contract, and has said publicly that this is the last stop of his career and he will retire if moved. His expiring deal means he isn’t negative-value, but any team that trades for him isn’t actually getting anything–his contract just makes the math work. Similarly, Mfiondu Kabengele and Daniel Oturu both have done nothing to show that they have any type of NBA talent. Both are bordering on negative value because they would take up a roster spot in a deal, but Fi is expiring and Oturu is a cheap rookie (though his guaranteed salary for next season stings). But in both cases, there’s really no incentive for another team to want to take them off the Clippers hands–it’s more likely to cost LAC a 2nd than net them one.
- Positive Value: Here are the two Clippers who actually would help a trade package’s value, rather than hurt it or be salary filler: Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann. Zu, who the Clipppers lucked into at the deadline a couple of years ago, will turn 24 later this week and is a quality big man with a great, team-friendly contract: $7.5M next season and a team option for $7.5M the following year. Mann hasn’t proven himself to be the same kind of impact contributor as Zubac, but it feels like he’s played well enough here in his sophomore season that teams would be pleased to get him as sweetener in a trade. He’s not quite a prospect at 24, but if you can continue to get decent minutes out of him he’s a bargain at $1.8M next season and a team option for $1.9M the following year.
Frankly, neither Zu nor Mann really feels like “centerpiece for an All-Star”-type pieces. Zu is a solid starter and Mann is an interesting backup wing, and both have team-friendly deals, but neither seems likely to me to have the kind of upside that rebuilding teams look for in deals. But, Zu is a nice return piece for a lot of potential deals and while Mann likely isn’t going to net the Clippers a worthwhile return by himself, he could be a nice piece on the edge of a package.
Clipper Draft Picks
Similarly to their positive player assets, the Clippers aren’t totally without assets to work with in the draft pick war chest–but they also don’t really have major value to move around, either.
- 2022, 2024, 2026: Nothing. The Thunder own all of these picks outright from the Paul George trade.
- 2021, 2023, 2025: Re-Swaps. The Clippers have promised “swaps” for these years–in 2021 to the Knicks in the Marcus Morris trade, and in 2023 and 2025 to the Thunder in the Paul George trade. This basically means that if the Knicks (this year, and Thunder in 2023/25) finish with a better record, and therefore worse pick, than the Clippers, they get to move up to LAC’s spot and LAC has to move back to their spot.
Obviously, with the Knicks in 2021, this isn’t happening. It’s too early to know how things will go in 2023 or 2025. The Clippers are not allowed to tell another team “you can have whichever pick we end up with in 2021/23/25,” because every NBA team is required to keep a future first in every other year as a means of saving teams from themselves. What you can do is tell another team “the Knicks are getting the better of NYK/LAC 2021, you can have the 2nd-best of NYK/LAC/XXX 2021 and we’ll take the worst of the three.”
For example, the Memphis Grizzlies own the Utah Jazz’s 2021 1st from the Mike Conley trade. Right now, the Jazz are projected to have the best record in the league and the 30th overall pick. The Clippers are projected to have the 25th pick (and the Knicks will have 16th and keep their selection). So, in a deal with the Grizzlies, the Clippers could offer the Grizzlies a secondary swap, and Memphis could end up moving up from 30th to 25th in next summer’s draft. That isn’t a ton of value for the Grizzlies, but, y’know, it’s something.
- 2027: Swap. Their own 2027 first rounder is the only future first that the Clippers actually own outright. But because the Clippers don’t have a 2026 pick, they can’t trade that pick–they can only offer it as a swap. There’s serious upside for a trade partner here, as Leonard and George could both be retired or shells of themselves by 2026-27 and this pick could end up being valuable (especially since LAC isn’t going to get much young talent via the draft between now and then). But there’s also a very, very large chance that it ends up being nothing (if the Clippers are better than their trade partner that season) or next to nothing (like if LAC has pick 16 and their trade partner ends up with pick 18). An unprotected 2027 1st would be a pretty significant asset. An unprotected 2027 swap has a very high chance of ending up being nothing.
Second Round Picks
The Clippers have more to work with in the second-round pick department, but again–these are future 2nds. NBA teams trade them pretty freely, so while they do have a little bit of positive value, they just aren’t needle-movers. The Clippers owe the Hornets their 2021 2nd from the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander draft-day trade, but they own the following 2nd round picks: LAC 2022, LAC 2023, POR 2023, LAC 2024, DET 2024, LAC 2025, DET 2025, LAC 2026, DET 2026, LAC 2027. They also technically have Atlanta’s 2022 2nd, top-55 protected–so if the Hawks have one of the 5 best records in the league in 2021-22, the Clippers will have a very late selection. That pick has 0 trade value until/unless we actually get to draft night in 2022 and it’s conveyed.
Clippers Trade Deadline Options
- Go Big: The Clippers can try to swing for a “third star” type in the $20M+ range at the deadline… it’s just hard to see them pulling it off. Without salary matching math greasing the wheels, without easily tradeable mid-size contracts (even if a team doesn’t mind eating the Bev or Morris deals, those guys are major contributors and they’d leave voids in their place), and without first-round picks… who is gonna want to deal? The Raptors have absolutely no reason to entertain a Lowry deal when other teams can actually put together legitimate offers. There’s no way you’re getting Bradley Beal out of Washington without a significantly better slate of prospects and picks than Terance Mann and 10 future 2nds. One compromise: Victor Oladipo, whose $21M deal in Houston is a little easier to make work than the $30M+ stars who have been discussed, and whose recent injury history and efficiency struggles this season, combined with his expiring deal, make him extremely attainable. There’s an upside play there, but the deal is a major gamble for LAC and the Rockets might get better offers anyway.
- Go Medium: Lonzo Ball has picked up his play recently in New Orleans, but it’s still unclear if they’re willing to pay him next summer–still, it feels like they can get a future 1st for him at this point. Are the Hawks going to trade John Collins, and could the Clippers make a competitive offer if other teams are equally as shy about paying him as Atlanta is?
On a more realistic level, it continues to seem extremely likely that the Clippers could land either George Hill or PJ Tucker by swapping Williams’ expiring contract and a 2nd round pick or two–but considering this team’s strengths and weaknesses and Lou’s vastly superior playmaking chops, it feels like either swap would hurt more than it helps this season before you even factor in the draft picks.
- Go Small: It’s no secret that Mfiondu Kabengele isn’t long for this team. After the Clippers declined his third-year team option and made him an expiring deal, it was very clear that they were planning on moving him at the deadline to create a little extra hard cap wiggle room to sign buyout players. The Clippers have two options here: trade Fi for a minimum-salary player, or trade Fi for nothing.
Remember, LAC has about $540k in hard cap room and needs to preserve at least $433k to sign a rest-of-season deal on April 8th. In all likelihood, they’ll want to sign someone sooner than that, so let’s assume they need $500-$600k per player. Well, if you take the current room and move Fi’s $2M off the books, you’ve got two open roster spots and more than enough money to sign two guys to rest-of-season deals. LA never used their bi-annual exception last off-season, and could utilize (the pro-rated version of) it here to offer slightly above the minimum. The BAE pays $24,815/day compared to $11k/day on the minimum, which is unlikely to matter much to a veteran free agent who has made dozens of millions of dollars, but it’s something.
Because Fi makes more than the minimum, dumping him somewhere might be trickier than you’d expect. Last year, the Clippers traded Derrick Walton Jr.’s minimum deal to the Atlanta Hawks. That’s how they got the aforementioned top-55 protected 2nd, and they also sent the Hawks some cash for their trouble. But any team can absorb a minimum-salary deal via trade at any time, so all LAC had to do last year is find someone with a roster spot. With Fi, the Clippers need a trade partner to either have cap room or a trade exception to use to absorb him, or send back some type of matching salary to make the deal legal. That could cost them a 2nd rounder instead of just cash.
So, if you’re gonna use a 2nd round pick to compensate a team like the Trail Blazers (an example of a team with a small TPE to absorb Fi and an open roster spot) for taking Kebengele, it seems to me like you might as well look around the league and see if anyone else has a minimum-salary player who they’re willing to part with that is worth adding to this team. After moving Fi, the Clippers will have two roster spots. Those spots can either be “min player aquired via Fi trade” + “buyout player/free agent signed to rest-of-season deal” or just two of the buyout/free agents.
By far the most obvious candidate for such a deal is Sacramento’s Hassan Whiteside, who has fallen out of the rotation there. I’ve never liked Whiteside’s game, but I have to admit that he’s about as good as the Clippers could reasonably hope to get mid-season as their third string/emergency center. I’d rather get Andre Drummond or JaVale McGee on the buyout market, but there’s no guarantee that those guys will get bought out, or that if they are, they’ll chose to sign with LAC and get no playing time.
But there are other names worth calling on besides Whiteside. Raul Neto is a crucial piece of Washington’s backcourt rotation, but he’s on a one-year minimum, they don’t have his bird rights to give him a new contract next summer, and they’re bad. Sterling Brown has had a really nice season in Houston, but he’s similarly on a one-year minimum deal on a terrible team that doesn’t have his bird rights. Would those teams take the a 2nd rounder if they’re resigned to not keeping those guys next summer anyway? Solomon Hill is playing reguarly (and not that well) in Atlanta, and the Hawks probably are desperate enough to make the playoffs that they’d pass on a 2nd rounder in order to keep one of their bench veterans. There are calls worth making in this category.
- Go Home: What if the Clippers just… did nothing? They have an open roster spot and a little over $500k for a buyout player or free agent to fill that spot. As I just walked through, dumping Fi somewhere is likely going to cost them a second round pick. Is losing a future asset, even a fringe one, worth it if it just lands them Hassan Whiteside or an extra roster spot to sign another player who isn’t gonna see minutes? While the Clippers certainly have their weaknesses, they don’t have major gaps in their playoff rotation. Key buyout players are going to look for other opportunities, and the Clippers are going to be searching for guys who would be serviceable in an injury/foul emergency (like Whiteside at C, for example). Maybe, after all that we just went through, signing only one buyout guy and letting Fi’s contract expire instead of chasing a second, and thereby saving that future 2nd for a later trade, is a legitimate option.
213Hoops is an independently owned and operated L.A. Clippers blog by Clippers fans, for Clippers fans. If you enjoy our content, please consider subscribing to our Patreon. Subscriptions start at $1 a month and support from readers like you goes a long way towards helping us keep 213Hoops sustainable, growing, and thriving.