Clippers free agent center Isaiah Hartenstein is headed to New York on a 2-year, $16.7M deal, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.
Hartenstein had a stellar season for the Clippers as their backup center in 2021-22, but the team had very limited avenues to re-sign him and as his strong play continued throughout the season, it seemed increasingly likely that he would be able to leverage his success as a Clipper into more money elsewhere. The absolute most that the Clippers could have offered him was their taxpayer mid-level exception, worth a maximum of $20.1M over three years–or, to compare to the deal he took with the Knicks, $13.1M over two years. Frankly, I expected Hartenstein to be able to find a little more money, or at least more long-term security at this price point, and I’m a bit interested in him going to the Knicks basically the instant free agency opened instead of letting the market develop, with multiple teams rumored to be looking for backup centers with their non-taxpayer mid-level exception. However, NBA teams are often reluctant to invest long-term money into players who haven’t established themselves as consistent, year-in, year-out impact players, and Hartenstein is still establishing himself as a rotation guy. It’s possible that he accepted a 2-year deal instead of pushing for more specifically because he believes that after two more solid seasons building a name for himself, he will be able to secure a bigger/longer contract.
There were reports that Hartenstein was very happy with the Clippers and looking for a way to stay with the team, but it’s hard to know exactly what extent he would have been willing to leave dollars and opportunities on the table to do so. Even if the Clippers offered him that comparable 2-year, $13.1M deal, $3.6M could still have been enough to sway him away from taking the paycut, especially considering he has only made about $5.5M so far in his NBA career. It’s also possible that he found the potential opportunities in front of him with the Knicks more appealing–it’s no secret that the Clippers are committed to starting C Ivica Zubac (who they just gave a 3-year extension to) and are overstocked with big, veteran forwards who fit into head coach Ty Lue’s preferred smallball units. More minutes, more shots, a chance to earn a starting spot and maybe be a part of a core going forward–these are all things that could come in New York and were less likely to be found in Los Angeles, considering team contexts.
However, it’s also possible that Hartenstein never even got to choose between the two offers, as it is rumored that the Clippers will be giving that taxpayer mid-level exception to John Wall. We certainly don’t know the order of operations here–and we might never know–but we can’t rule out the possibility that LAC chose Wall over Hartenstein at that price point. It’s certainly a justifiable decision, but if that were true it would also change the rubric for evaluating the John Wall signing over the course of the next year due to an increased opportunity cost. For now, I’m going to operate under the tentative assumption that the taxpayer MLE was not going to be enough to keep Hartenstein and the Clippers knew that and pursued Wall after Isaiah’s departure was a foregone conclusion. Teams, players, and agents do exhaustive work in the weeks and months leading up to free agency to get a feel for how the market will develop, which teams will be interested in which players at what price points, what type of money/role players are looking for, etc. By the time Wall negotiated his buyout with Houston earlier this week, I feel like the Clippers likely already knew that Hart was a goner. I would certainly feel more confident in that analysis had his new contract been more lucrative–say, the full mid-level exception worth 4 years and $45M–but I still find it fully plausible that the smaller raise and bigger opportunity in New York was enough to lure him away regardless.
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