As was heavily rumored earlier this week, free agent point guard John Wall has officially signed with the LA Clippers, his agency Klutch Sports announced Friday morning. His contract is worth $13.2M over 2 years, the value of the Clippers’ non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
I wrote a bit about the decision-making process with the taxpayer MLE yesterday when the Clippers lost Isaiah Hartenstein, a valuable member of last year’s team who could have only been re-signed using this tool (although there’s no guarantee it would have been accepted, since Hartenstein got more money from the New York Knicks). Wall’s contract being finalized gives us a couple of data points: first, it confirms that he is indeed taking the tpMLE instead of the league minimum despite making over $40M from Houston this season; but it also gives us the key detail that Wall will sign a two-year deal at that number instead of just a one-year deal.
That makes a little more sense. Having a second season on the initial signing of a buy-low free agent is advantageous for the same reason that the Clippers just lost Hartenstein–it’s much easier to re-sign overachieving guys after 2 seasons with your team than it is after 1. Let’s say that John Wall has a good year for the Clippers. He doesn’t have to magically regain his All-Star form at 32 years old after major injuries, but let’s just say this gamble works and he is a significant contributor. If he had signed a one-year deal at the taxpayer mid-level, the Clippers would have only been able to offer him a new contract starting at $7.7M next year–less than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and likely not enough to retain him. If he had signed a one-year deal for the minimum, that number would have been even less, below $4M. On his current 2-year taxpayer MLE deal, the Clippers will have the option to re-sign Wall with his early bird rights (the same contract Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum have gotten) for up to $11.7M in the 2024 off-season, which should be right around full MLE offers that he might get from elsewhere. Early bird status also comes with a built-in advantage with raises: after one year, a player can get 5% annual raises; after two, he can get 8%.
There’s also the immediate value gain, again in the scenario where the Wall gamble pays off and he plays well, of just having a second year of him at 6.7M before he hits free agency again and you have to worry about it at all. Between that and the aforementioned re-signing tools, the Clippers have put themselves in a position where they have insured their gamble/investment in Wall a bit more than they have been able/willing to with other signings in the past. And from Wall’s perspective, while the increase from a $2.9M vet’s min deal to the $6.4M tpMLE salary this season feels negligible for a player that has made $232M in salary (before endorsements) to date with another guaranteed $40.8M coming from Houston this year*, guaranteeing himself another $6.7M next year is a bit nicer of a perk. Not only does he get that marginal gain over the vet min again, but it guarantees another year of drawing an NBA paycheck, which isn’t always a given for injury-prone players in their 30s. He could suffer another major injury and still get that cash next year. There’s also something to be said, from Wall’s perspective, of signing with a front office that is clearly going out of its way to give themselves a path to keep you long-term and make you feel like a part of the organization moving forward and not just a rental.
*As a side note, some people have asked me about if Wall’s money from Houston will be reduced at all based on his new contract with LAC. The answer is really that we don’t know–the NBA does have a “set-off” rule where, when a player is waived, the amount his old team owes him is reduced by 50 cents for every dollar he gets above the one-year veteran’s minimum on his new deal (not the 10-year, $2.9M number he would have actually gotten had he signed for the minimum). So, for Wall to come in at $6.5M, set-off would reduce the money Houston owes him by about $2M… except that while set-off is the law of the land in straight-up waiving of guaranteed deals, in buyout situations like Wall’s, where a player negotiates his freedom by giving money back, the set-off provision is a negotiable part of the deal. As far as I know/have seen reported, there has been no indication as to whether or not Wall’s money will be subject to set-off or if Houston agreed to get rid of that right as part of the buyout agreement.
Beyond the contract analysis, Wall brings a serious amount of experience and pedigree to the Clippers’ roster, with a higher upside that anyone else available at this price point. It’s not every day that you get to add a player with All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Star awards in his trophy cabinet for so cheap–although when players that decorated do become available for cheap, it normally is under these circumstances: in their 30s and/or after major injuries. After making the All-NBA 3rd Team in 2016-17, Wall played just 41 games in 2017-18, 32 in 2018-19, 0 in 2019-20, 40 in 2020-21, and 0 in 2021-22. Last season, he was not out due to injury but rather away from the team due to an understanding with the Houston Rockets that they were focusing on developing their younger talent but didn’t want to insult Wall by benching him or cut a $40M+ contract with multiple years remaining. However, not playing is still not playing–and while he didn’t have the chance last year, he still hasn’t proven that he’s physically capable of playing a full NBA season without significant injuries.
Known in his prime as perhaps the fastest player in the league, a blur with the ball in his hands who was elite at blowing past defenders and surging forward in transition to collapse defenses and either finish at the rim or find open teammates, Wall’s athleticism has inevitably declined as he’s dealt with injuries and aging, but he will still be able to get downhill with the ball in his hands to some extent, which is sorely needed on a Clippers roster that, while talented, does certainly lack a bit of on-ball juice. With Paul George hopefully playing a full season, Kawhi Leonard returning, and Norman Powell properly integrated, the Clippers should have an easier time creating advantages on offense than they did a year ago, when their attack built around Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris was one of the worst offenses in the league. Wall is another piece of that puzzle, perhaps no longer a standout at creating dribble penetration but still capable, and immediately the best pick-and-roll playmaker on the team by default.
There is little question that Wall will be able to create offense with the ball in his hands, the question is moreso how efficient that offense will be, and what he does when he doesn’t have the ball. In the 40 games he played two years ago in Houston, Wall put up 20.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, but on very poor efficiency. He had the highest three point attempt rate (how many threes he takes vs twos) in his career, which is not a good thing for a poor shooter like Wall, because he struggled to create dribble penetration at the same prolific level as in his youth, and he had the worst assist to turnover ratio of his career. But he was on a truly dreadful Rockets team that went 12-28 in the games he played and a staggering 5-27 in the games he didn’t (which is why they asked him to sit out 2021-22 while they tanked) and playing his first games back from an Achilles injury. It’s perfectly fair to expect that he would both be better on a better team, where he isn’t forced to have the ball in his hands constantly and settle for many of the inefficient jumpers he took in Houston because he now has teammates to pass to, and it’s also reasonable to note that it can take a full year or so for a player to really round back into form after returning from an Achilles tear.
The Wall that the Rockets got in 2021 is fine at the taxpayer mid-level–he can run the second unit offense and carry reps on nights when other guys are out through the regular season, even if his efficiency and off-ball struggles keep him from being a major piece of the team’s rotation when fully healthy and in the playoffs. If he does in fact play better for the Clippers than he did for Houston in 2021, there is the potential for him to be a core piece of this team, but it becomes a matter of degrees and fit. First of all, how much better is he than he was two years ago? And perhaps more importantly, how does he fit around Paul George and Kawhi Leonard when those guys have the basketball? Wall is a historically poor three-point shooter, though his numbers are misleadingly low due to taking a high number of difficult, off-the-dribble threes as a ball dominant star. He’s been an adequate catch-and-shoot guy, but he’s not a shooter–he’s more at Terance Mann’s level as a floor spacer than Reggie Jackson’s or Norman Powell’s, let alone Luke Kennard’s. On the other end of the floor, will Wall’s athleticism return enough for him to be a high-impact defender? If so, he could solve a lot of LAC’s problems and be a major piece, relieving Terance Mann of some of the point of attack defensive load. But if he’s only mediocre as a floor spacer and point of attack defender, then in the biggest moments Ty Lue is almost certainly going to prefer going with a better shooter (Jackson, Powell, Kennard) or defender (Mann or bringing another of Batum/Covington onto the floor) over Wall’s self-creation.
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