After The Athletic’s John Hollinger reported that Patrick Patterson was signed to a one-year, $3M deal instead of the veteran’s minimum, I figured a quiet afternoon in the NBA was a good opportunity to look at Patrick Patterson’s new contract and explain why he got it and what it means for the Clippers’ plans.
The Veteran’s Minimum
Briefly, let’s talk about the vet’s min and why it’s rather significant that Patterson didn’t get one here. The NBA has a set scale for minimum salaries based on how many years a player has been in the league, increasing from about $900k for rookies to $2.6M for players with 10 or more years of experience. Patterson played his 10th season with the Clippers last year, so his minimum salary for next season would have been $2,564,753. As it is, he signed a deal worth $3M, so why are we fretting about what amounts to less than $500,000?
Well, in order to stop teams from overlooking veterans in order to save money on salaries, when a team signs a player with more than 2 years of experience, the NBA reimburses them for the difference between that player’s minimum and the 2-year minimum (this only applies to one-year minimum deals, not two-year). So, while Patterson would have made $2,564,753 on a minimum deal, the Clippers would have only paid $1,620,564. More important than who writes the check is the issue of cap hit–the smaller number would have counted against LAC’s hard cap, as well as have been the number used for trade math purposes.
Most NBA fans are familiar with bird rights, the tool that allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players. This helps prevent teams from losing their stars in free agency because they don’t have the cap room to pay them, originating with Larry Bird. However, full bird rights–which allow deals up to the league maximum salary running for up to 5 years with up to 8% raises–only apply to players who have gone 3 years without changing teams as a free agent (so if you are acquired via trade or a waiver claim, your bird rights come with you, and if you re-sign with your prior team, your bird rights persist). For players who have only gone two seasons, there’s the slightly lesser “early bird rights,” which allow teams to give a player the greater of 175% of their prior salary, or the league average salary (currently around $10M). These contracts are limited to 4 years and 5% raises (remember this next summer when Kawhi Leonard is an Early Bird free agent with the Clippers and signs a 1+1 deal instead of a long-term renewal; he’ll angle to hit free agency again in 2022, when LAC will have his bird rights and can give him the longer contract with maximum raises).
Patrick Patterson was released by Oklahoma City during the 2019 off-season, cleared waivers, and signed with the Clippers as a free agent. That was just one season ago, so he’s eligible for the most restrictive version of free agent rights–the “non-bird rights.” These allow a team to pay a player up to 120% of his previous salary or 120% of his minimum salary, whichever is greater. For Patterson, that number comes out to $3,077,704. Based on Hollinger’s tweet, it’s unclear if LAC paid him up to that threshold or the two sides simply struck a deal at an even $3M. Either way, by using non-bird rights and foregoing the league reimbursement LAC structured Patterson’s deal so that he hits the cap for about $1.4M more while only being paid about $500k more.
How Does This Effect The Hard Cap?
Well, my prior calculations assumed that Patterson would be on the vet’s min, and gave the Clippers about $5.2M in room under the hard cap with 3 open roster spots (Joakim Noah and Ky Bowman, who have non-guaranteed deals, aren’t included in those figures). With Patrick Patterson’s contract estimated at 3M instead, the margins tighten. Here’s how it looks:
As you can see, the Clippers are projected to be over the hard cap with 14 players on their roster (technically, Daniel Oturu hasn’t signed his deal yet). Cutting one of Bowman or Noah would get them under, but whoever is cut has to be replaced, as the team is required to carry 14 players on their roster. So, if you cut Bowman, who counts as $1.6M against the hard cap, and replace him with a min deal that counts as $1.6M against the hard cap, you haven’t made any progress. Essentially, Joakim Noah is guaranteed to be released by the Clippers at some point before the season begins.
The maximum room that LAC has under the hard cap would be $3.9M if the cut both Bowman and Noah. They do still have the $3.6M BAE at their disposal, but remember that they have to sign at least two more players. With the minimum cap hit being $1.6M, there really aren’t many options available to LAC besides cutting Noah, choosing between Bowman’s non-guaranteed deal or a replacement min player for the 13th spot, and signing a new min player for the 14th spot. Technically, the team could re-sign Joakim Noah to a new min deal if he clears waivers, but the current depth chart has quite a few big men and no second-string small forward. Given the wait, it seems likely to me that the Clippers are in the front of the line to pursue Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum, who is likely to get cut this weekend. Other top options remaining on the board are Glenn Robinson III and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but if the Clippers were going to sign one of those guys it seems like they would have already. That they’re waiting for Batum feels like the most logical explanation.
After reaching that 14-man roster, the Clippers will have about $600k in flexibility to manage their 15th spot during the season. I wrote on Wednesday about some of the creative ways they can utilize that roster spot and cash–like signing a G-League player to a non-guaranteed deal on the day of a game when Kawhi Leonard is load managing and then releasing him after the game, paying him $11k for the day while ensuring you have third-string depth available. Bowman’s non-guaranteed contract can be released at any time through February 27th, and he would only count against the hard cap for the days he spent on the roster. Better yet would be trading Bowman mid-season to remove his entire $1.6M hard cap hit. LAC would then have $2.2M in hard cap wiggle room and two open roster spots, but the rest-of-season deals they’d sign a new free agent to would be pro-rated, costing less than $1.6M.
Does Patrick Patterson’s Contract Help Trades?
Honestly, not really. There’s some idea that having Patterson at the $3M number compared to the $1.6M number could help the Clippers with salary matching in trades. In normal circumstances, that would be true–taxpaying teams like the Clippers can bring in salaries that are within 125% + $100,000 of the salaries they send out. So, for example, Lou Williams’ $8M deal + Patterson at the $1.6M min would be able to bring in up to $12,125,705, while Williams + Patterson at $3M can bring back $13,850,000. Veterans like Thaddeus Young and Patty Mills, who could come up in deadline trade talks, make more than the first number but less than the second.
Here’s the problem, though: the hard cap takes priority over trade math. Just because you can take back Mills’ 13.3M under NBA trade rules doesn’t mean you can exceed the hard cap to do so, and with the Clippers’ aforementioned $600k of wiggle room after signing their last two players, they find themselves far more restricted in terms of trade logistics than they would be under the trade math rules themselves. That can be slightly alleviated mid-season by shedding salary via trade–let’s say the Clippers move Bowman halfway through the season and sign a replacement that makes $810,282 (the minimum pro-rated for exactly half of the season). Now they’ve got $1.4M in wiggle room to make a trade work. Williams, by himself, can bring back $10.1M–adding $2.1M to team salary. Patterson’s contract is still unhelpful.
In that scenario, his inclusion wouldn’t help facilitate a trade, but would take his $3M off of the Clippers’ books. But paying him above the minimum only has value if it helps a trade, not if you need to dump him. For trade math purposes, it would be more advantageous to have him on the minimum and have the extra $1.4M in flexibility.
Additionally, Patterson has an implicit no-trade clause. Players who are signed to one-year deals who will be eligible for Early Bird or Full Bird free agency the next summer have the right to veto any trade that they are included in. That means the Clippers can’t trade him without his permission. His above-minimum contract will be harder for another team to take back in any deal than a minimum salary (which can always be absorbed) would be. Between the hard cap limiting viable scenarios for his salary to be useful trade fodder, his above-minimum deal making it harder for other teams to absorb him, and his implicit no-trade clause, this $3M deal makes Patterson substantially harder to trade and less likely to be traded, not the other way around.
So… Why? Is He Worth It?
In a vacuum, I actually do think Patterson is worth something like $3M. Let’s not forget that he was legitimately useful for the Clippers last year. In 800 regular-season minutes, largely in actual rotation minutes and not just garbage time appearances, he shot 39% from three on 8 attempts per 36 minutes and posted an above-average Win Shares/48, a positive Box Plus-Minus, and a positive VORP. When the Clippers’ signing of Patterson was reported last weekend and expected to be a minimum deal, I wrote that “if a minimum-salary player gives you 800 solid regular-season minutes with an above-average Win Shares/48, a positive Box +/-, and a positive VORP, you got more than your money’s worth.” He was better last season than a minimum-salary player.
It’s also likely, given the timeline of free agency, that this represented a little bit of a conservative play for the Clippers’ front office. By the time on Friday evening that the Patterson deal was announced, it would have already become clear to folks inside LAC’s front office that they would not be able to afford to re-sign JaMychal Green and Marcus Morris while also keeping the MLE open for Serge Ibaka. Having decided to not pursue backup center Montrezl Harrell and having resigned themselves to losing Green in order to pursue Ibaka, but with no commitment yet from Ibaka that he would join the team, the Clippers secured a commitment from Patterson to ensure they’d have some veteran continuity and shooting in their backup frontcourt. We’ll never know the little details of which teams were offering what, but it’s completely realistic to me that teams would look at Patterson’s 800 minutes last season and be willing to pay slightly above the minimum to get that kind of shooting at their backup power forward spot next year.
On balance, though, it was probably a regrettable choice given the way the next 48 hours played out, with the Clippers landing Ibaka and at once both reducing the need for Patterson as an insurance policy and hard capping themselves, increasing the sting of paying him more than the minimum. The additional $1.4M tied up in his deal is a limiting factor for the Clippers as they attempt to fill out their roster in free agency, and it will continue to limit their options at the trade deadline and during buyout season. While he’s a reliable guy to soak up regular-season minutes, his lack of defensive mobility makes him unlikely to feature regularly in the playoffs or make a significant positive impact when he does (he played just 10 total garbage time minutes across two appearances during the Clippers 2020 playoff run). Adequate alternatives existed at the minimum, like Solomon Hill (took a minimum deal in Atlanta), Frank Kaminsky (who took a non-guaranteed minimum deal in Sacramento), Anthony Tolliver (who remains unsigned), and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who remains unsigned and is better than Patterson, just not a shooter).
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