With the NBA Draft and free agency now just days away, and a preliminary deal in place between the NBA and NBPA to start the 2020-21 season on December 22nd, it’s time for a Lucas tradition: a detailed Clippers salary cap primer to break down the team’s options this off-season.
The team will, of course, have limited flexibility compared to the endless possibilities available to them last summer. That’s what happens when two maximum-salary players are on the roster. But there are still ways for Lawrence Frank, Jerry West, and the rest of the Clippers’ brain trust to improve this roster next season, even short of a massive trade for a star like Chris Paul. Let’s take in the lay of the land.
As we can see, the Clippers currently have 11 players under contract for a team salary of $116,737,394. If the team is in any way looking to save money this off-season, cutting Joakim Noah’s fully non-guaranteed deal to save that $2.7M is an easy option, and his deal won’t guarantee until the season begins so they’ll be able to navigate the off-season without making a choice until they need to. He may be unlikely to make the team either way, but that contract could be come useful in trade scenarios.
JaMychal Green represents the only significant variable here. With a player option worth just over $5 million, most experts like ESPN’s Bobby Marks and The Athletic’s John Hollinger seem to think he’s right on the edge–opting in guarantees that $5M in a year with a lot of backup bigs available and team spending figures to be scarce, while opting out could potentially earn him a raise and/or some long-term security. Green could very well opt in, and if he opts out there’s a range of potential deals for him, including scenarios where the Clippers, looking to save on the margins, sell him on opting out and getting long-term security in exchange for a slight paycut this year and ink him to a deal in the 3-year, $12-14M range. More likely is a slight raise on a 3-year, $18M deal.
Let’s table the Noah and Green discussions and come back to them.
One of the most important details coming out of the NBA and NBPA’s agreement to go forward with a December 22nd start and open free agency sometime around November 21st is the reportedly finalized deal to keep the league’s salary cap and luxury tax lines flat for next season. That means, keeping in mind the Clippers’ $116.7M owed to 11 players next season, they look like this relative to the league landscape:
Since the Clippers have an owner who won’t have reservations about the luxury tax (he’d like to avoid it if the margins are tight, as doing so helps keep the team out of the harsher “repeater tax” penalties, but if it will help the team to go over, he’ll go over), the number that really matters here is the team’s hard cap room–$22,191,506. The NBA has a conditional hard cap, meaning teams are only restricted by it if they do one (or more) of the following three things: use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, use the bi-annual exception, or acquire a signed-and-traded player.
Choosing a Mid-Level Exception
If the Clippers avoid those three pathways towards team-building, there’s no limit to how much they can spend, adding salary in trades, utilizing the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign free agents, and potentially even adding a player using their $3.5M trade exception. But they could also choose to embrace the hard cap, as the $9.3M non-taxpayer MLE is the best potential tool the team could have to add a prominent veteran free agent such as Goran Dragic, Danilo Gallinari, or Serge Ibaka.
If they lean into that path, the tight-rope walk is on:
Here, I’m assuming that JaMychal Green has opted in to his player option, that the Clippers have cut Joakim Noah, and that the team also re-signed Marcus Morris to a 3-year, $36M deal and utilized the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception. As a result, they’re left with a 12-man roster and are $4,197,927 beneath the hard cap. As noted above, the rookie minimum is $898,310 and the veteran’s minimum is $1,620,564, so the Clippers would be able to get to the 14-man minimum roster and potentially have a 15th player as well (two notes on those minimum salaries: for tax and hard cap purposes, the rookie minimum number only applies to players who were drafted, meaning undrafted free agents don’t help here and LAC needs to buy picks and/or sign their 57th pick to a minimum deal; for veteran’s minimum deals, this number for two-year veterans is only used for one-year deals with no options, so the Clippers couldn’t sweeten offers by attaching a player option).
Unfortunately, in this scenario, the Clippers’ bi-annual exception goes unused–while they technically have it, they don’t have room under the hard cap to use it fully. However, the several variables I’ve introduced could change that calculus. JaMychal could opt out and re-sign for more, re-sign for less, or even walk. Morris, similarly, could vary from the 3-year, $36M deal I assigned him (starting at the $11.4M number above, with raises) or leave altogether. The Clippers could use their full MLE without using all of it on one player, perhaps offering someone a deal starting at $8M that is still preferable to the non-taxpayer MLE but saves them some wiggle room. They could even use that wiggle room to sign a second-round rookie to a multi-year deal starting at the $898,310 rookie minimum, making the hard cap more navigable.
Let’s say the Clippers save $1M on Green next season by having him opt out to sign a longer 3-year, $12.6M deal. They play hardball with Morris, who doesn’t get above-MLE offers, and keep him at a starting salary of $10M instead of $11.4M. Their MLE addition signs for $8.36M so they can fit a rookie minimum into that exception slot and sign a new draft pick to a 3-year deal. Now they have 13 players under contract and $6.6M in hard cap room, leaving them with more than enough room to utilize the bi-annual exception on another free agent and add a veteran’s minimum deal to round out the roster.
The flip side, though, is that Green could enter free agency and demand a starting salary of $6-8M, while Morris’ price point could get driven up towards $15M. If that happened, the hard cap wiggle room would have evaporated and the team would either have to give up on the non-taxpayer MLE and use the smaller taxpayer MLE, or find another way to offload salary (Rodney McGruder is the most expendable candidate).
The Clippers’ Free Agents
We’ll have breakdowns out on the team’s free agents soon, but let’s take a quick look at the NBA’s three tiers of veteran free agent rights:
Bird Rights: A team holds a player’s bird rights if he’s gone 3 or more years without changing teams as a free agent (meaning trades and waiver claims are allowed). Bird rights allow a team to sign a player for any deal up to the maximum salary, for as long as 5 years and with raises as high as 8%. For the Clippers, two players meet this designation: Montrezl Harrell and Johnathan Motley. Motley is eligible for restricted free agency but is no longer eligible for a two-way contract, and he is almost certainly not a part of the Clippers’ plans. Harrell, on the other hand, was a key featured player for LAC last season and could land a substantive contract in free agency.
Most Clippers writers have maintained that the team is unlikely to re-sign him after his poor playoff performances–and Doc Rivers’ refusal to bench him–were the primary factor behind the team’s second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets. Rivers’ decision-making regarding Harrell’s minutes was one of the key factors that led to his dismissal as head coach. Still, the team has limited options to add above-minimum talent and could find themselves in a situation where a deal with Harrell makes sense, particularly if a free agent marketplace doesn’t materialize for him and the Clippers’ other variables create a scenario where the full MLE isn’t available, as discussed above.
The team could also seek to sign-and-trade Harrell, but the Base Year Compensation rule limits his outgoing salary number for trade math in a way that complicates deals. In addition to that, most teams that figure to be Harrell suitors can sign him without LAC’s help, and if LAC takes back money in a Trez deal it would stop them from being able to use the non-taxpayer MLE as discussed above.
Early Bird Rights: Where bird rights cover players who haven’t changed teams as a free agent for three years, early bird rights apply to players who haven’t changed teams as a free agent for two years. Under early bird rights, teams can give players raises up to 175% or up to the league average salary, whichever is greater. This year, the only Clipper who is early bird eligible is JaMychal Green, should he decline his $5M player option. The good news for LAC is that if Green opts out, they can re-sign him for as much as about $10.1M–far more than should be needed–without needing to utilize one of their exceptions for outside free agents. Unlike a bird rights contract, this deal would only be allowed to last up to 4 years with raises up to 8%.
Non Bird Rights: Everyone who ended the prior season on your team and who isn’t a bird or early bird free agent falls into this category, where teams can give players 120% of their prior salary. Notably, for players who were on minimum-salary deals and naturally get raises due to the ever-increasing minimum salary scale, non-bird rights allow your prior team to pay you 120% of your new minimum salary. The Clippers’ non-bird free agents are Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Patrick Patterson. Jackson and Patterson were both minimum players last season, making the aforementioned note relevant for them.
Morris, who made $15,000,000 last year, is eligible for a 4-year contract starting as high as $18,000,000 with raises as high as 5%. That is far more than he’ll get from any other team on the open market, so the Clippers should easily be able to work within this took to negotiate a deal for him in the $10-12M range. For Jackson, who is a 9-year veteran, non-bird rights allow the Clippers to pay him up to $2,797,911.6, which is above his minimum salary but likely lower than he’ll seek on the open market. Patterson is a 10-year veteran, so the Clippers can pay him $3,077,703. He’s likely only a minimum-salary player elsewhere, so this could be a way for the Clippers to give him a little bit of a raise to stay put while also increasing his salary to be potentially used as trade filler at the deadline. However, if they are navigating hard cap margins they’ll likely try to keep him on a one-year minimum deal where his cap hit would only be $1,620,546, as noted above.
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