So Griffin’s gone for the season, which from a GM’s standpoint obviously changes our situation. How, exactly? I’d boil it down as follows: Whereas before we had a chance to win now AND win later, at this point we can no longer accomplish both. To be sure, we can try our best now, and we can be pretty good later. But if we want to achieve more, then I believe the Clips are going to need to make a sacrifice.
To see this, consider what happens if we don’t make a sacrifice. In that case, we'd ride out the season with the guys we have and then use our cap space to make an off-season move. This option might seem attractive, but it comes with some significant drawbacks. Start by considering the numbers. Our current payroll is about $59 million. If we renounce our free agents (and our MLE!) so as to claim our cap space, we’ll be at $39 million during the summer. However, next season’s cap will surely be less than this year’s. Estimates that I’ve seen place it around $51 million. This would leave us only $12 million to spend, which would not give us a realistic shot at a top tier free agent. Also, we’d only have 7 players signed, and since we might want to spend part of our cap space on our draft pick, we really wouldn't have that much to spend on any one talent. We could still sign a good player or two, but any upgrades would be modest, and then we’d have a bunch of scrubs filling out the bench. The cap is hard, too; our payroll would probably have to be less than this year’s. I want to say, that’s not a great way to improve a ball team.
Once we opt against maintaining the status quo, we might be tempted to go to either extreme: We could make bullheaded moves to win now and stink later, or we could trash the season now and hopefully win later. I don’t like either of these, for good reasons. --To dive headlong for winning now would probably require trading Griffin and draft picks. But I don’t see us winning a championship anyway, and next year we’d basically be back to square one. It’s just a bad move. –To lose now basically means to shoot for a high draft pick. For starters, though, it might actually be difficult to dump enough talent to become a cellar dweller. Even then, we’d never lose enough games to achieve elite loser status. So basically we’d kill our morale, make ourselves the butt of a new round of jokes, and probably hurt our chances in free agency, all for the sake of gaining a few more ping-pong balls. Thanks, but no thanks.
A fourth choice is the one many have talked about, to trade one or more of our non-expiring players for expiring contracts. This would sacrifice our current competitiveness for better positioning in next summer’s free agent market (and a real shot at Lebron). There are a few problems worth considering, though. For one, the least risky (and least painful) way to do this would be to trade Telfair and AT for expiring contracts. But I suspect this will prove difficult to accomplish, especially in the current market where teams have to offer more talent in order to obtain expirings. If the opportunity arises, then great, but we shouldn’t count on it. Our best chance to clear cap space is probably to trade Kaman, but frankly that’s a heavy gamble just to be a gamer in a long-shot sweepstakes. Even if it all worked out and we landed a top tier guy, we’d still be faced with a hard reality: We’d take a big hit at the 5 spot and also have very little room left to sign any sort of bench. The cap is hard, remember. The overall strategy, then, is neither as plausible nor as attractive as it may seem.
A fifth option is one I’ve advocated before: We could prioritize our future depth. To accomplish this, we could make a pre-deadline, non-expiring acquisition that would fill in next year’s cap space. In affect, then, we would rise above the lower salary cap by improving at the 3 spot now and then resigning our key free agents (something that the cap allows). The best way to proceed, I believe, is to trade Camby (or, less plausibly, other expirings), for a non-expiring SF upgrade. We could then use our MLE and also sign our draft pick (both exceptions to the salary cap). At that point, we’d have a stronger starting five and also have excellent depth. The drawback is that our frontcourt would be left thin, hurting our chances of making this year’s playoffs. It’s a bummer, but hey, it’s either make a sacrifice now or make it later. As our playoff chances are slim anyways, I think we should prioritize the future.
There is an interesting sixth option, one that would maintain the status quo this season and also improve our chances to win two years from now. The sacrifice would come next year-- a “medium-term sacrifice,” if you will. The idea would be to not trade anyone now and to resign our key free agents, including Camby. As we’d have no real cap space left, we wouldn’t have to renounce our exceptions, and so we could still sign our draft pick and use our MLE. Of course, we’d also miss out on next summer’s free agent market, and we wouldn’t get our SF upgrade. On the other hand, if we signed Camby to a one-year contract, we’d have him again as a trade chip for next season. The idea, then, would be to make improvements more slowly. Develop Griffin, and set our real sights on the following year. It might require an agonizing amount of patience, but really it’s not a bad option.
So here’s a summary evaluation of the six options as I see them:
#1 – Lousy
#2 and 3 – Ridiculous
#4 – Difficult and unattractive
#5 – Painful, but wise
#6 – Reasonable, but slow
I don't see any easy choices, then; whichever way we go, we end up sacrificing something. I still like option 5, because its sacrifice is contained to this season. It also prioritizes our future depth, which we'd almost surely achieve by its formula. If that's not good enough for losing Camby, though, then tell us what we should prioritize instead.