I'm hesitant to write this post now. We've got four months until the draft and free agency, and most of that time we won't have any actual basketball to talk about, but the subject came up in the comments today, and I thought I'd put a stake in the ground with some of the important milestones.
The issues raised, and they are valid, have to do with the amount of cap space and it's impact on the Clippers' coming lottery pick, and the timing of everything this summer, specifically the complications of choosing between signing a pick (and jeopardizing cap space) versus preserving as much cap space as possible even if the chances of signing a star are remote. In other words, will the Clippers have a better idea of the possibilities of signing a mega star before we have to make other important decisions?
Here are the important off season dates I can think of. Interestingly, I couldn't find the actual dates anywhere, not even on the page labeled 'Calendar' on NBA.com, which frankly I found annoying and lame. But based on last year's dates, I'm pretty sure these are correct, and the sequence is definitely correct, which is what's really important for this discussion.
- May 18 - NBA Draft Lottery
- Mid June - NBA Champion determined
- June 24 - NBA Draft
- July 1 - Free Agency begins - teams can negotiate with free agents, but there's a moratorium on signings
- July 7 - 2010 NBA Salary Cap announced
- July 8 - Moratorium ends, teams can sign free agents
One quick aside - Kobe Bryant has an opt out in his current contract, and his name has been thrown around a little bit, with Peter Vecsey even raising the possibility of Kobe and Phil Jackson moving down the hall this summer. There are some who think that if the Lakers don't work out an extension for Kobe in the meantime, that he will become a free agent. For the record, I don't think that is going to happen. But furthermore, as a matter of accuracy in the discussion, bear in mind that Kobe makes a lot more than LeBron, and is therefore eligible for a larger maximum deal this summer. In fact, he is eligible for a contract starting at over $24M, which is much more than the Clippers have to offer. Will he get that? It's hard to say, but I feel rather certain that he'd be looking for a premium, as opposed to a pay cut, to switch LA teams. So forget Kobe folks (good news for most of you, I know).
And in the interests of completeness, several other high profile FAs are also eligible for more money than LeBron and Wade, like Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire (and Paul Pierce if he chooses to opt out). But James and Wade will set the market, so I don't expect any of those players to get offers beyond what the Clippers can afford, and frankly I don't want the Clippers spending that much on those names. I just want to be accurate on this stuff, and yes, I'm a little anal. Just bear in mind that a max contract is not the same for everyone.
So where was I? Oh yeah. $16.6M for LeBron James, and the Clippers will have about that, depending on where the cap actually is set. They may have a little more. They may have a little less. But they won't have a lot more. The pre-determined salary for a lottery pick will go onto the Clippers salary cap number after the draft, and before free agency begins. To give you an idea, the first overall pick last year (Blake Griffin, remember him?) made $5.3M, the last pick in the lottery (Earl Clark of Phoenix) got a little less than $1.8M and the tenth pick (Brandon Jennings of Milwaukee) got close to $2.2M. The Clippers will pick around 10th if they don't win the lottery. I'll say it again: everything depends on where the cap number is eventually set. But based on everyone's best estimate right now, a top three lottery pick would actually be too expensive, and would preclude a max offer this summer. A later lottery pick might do the same, but a top three pick would almost certainly be too expensive for the Clippers to afford.
What are the options at that point? First of all, don't imagine that winning the lottery is a bad thing. It would be a very good problem to have, and drafting John Wall to line up next to Blake Griffin would not exactly be a problem. But if the Clippers were interested in preserving enough cap space to make a max offer, there are a few (though not many) things they can do. Let's start with what they CAN'T do. They CAN'T draft a prospect and send him to Europe for a year. Or rather they can, but while they don't have to pay him his salary, the salary does nonetheless count against the salary cap during the off season. (Basically, it counts for calculating available space to sign free agents, but does not count for calculating luxury tax distributions, or at least I think that's how it works.) So likewise, they CAN'T trade the pick for Ricky Rubio - or rather, they can, but you'd have to account for about $3.3M in salary. All first round picks, whether they've signed an NBA contract or not, have a cap number associated with where they were drafted. However, future draft picks don't have a cap number, so you could trade for a future pick. Or you could conceivably trade for an unsigned second rounder, as second round picks don't have a cap number either. So you could trade him for Nikola Petrovic and avoid a cap hit, but you take the hit if you trade him for Rubio. Got it? (That's just an example - I'm not advocating trading for Nikola Petrovic.)
I THINK (maybe John R or Lawler4ever can check me on this) that after the draft, normal trade rules apply. That is, the trade would have to work under salary matching rules. That would mean that if you wait until after the draft to deal with the issue, your potential trade options would dwindle, as in most cases you'd have to take salary back, which is what you're trying to avoid. You'd therefore have to trade with a team under the cap (who would be allowed to take in more salary than they sent out) or trade for an unguaranteed contract which you would then waive.
So if I am correct, then it plays out like this. From the end of the season until the lottery, you don't do anything with the pick. No one trades a lottery pick until they know what it is. There's no rule against it, but it's not done. For the month or so between the lottery and the draft itself up until draft day, you can pretty easily trade the pick for future considerations and cash and avoid all salary cap implications associated with the pick. After the draft, it gets more complicated, though not impossible.
Bear in mind that the final cap number won't be known until several weeks after the draft. The NBA may leak some info in advance of the official announcement, so there may be a clearer idea of what it is going to be before it comes out... but if it remains really close, I would expect the Clippers to get rid of a low lottery pick. I just don't see jeopardizing the LeBron play, no matter how unlikely, for a low lottery pick. Trade the pick for a 2011 first rounder - I would expect any number of teams would take that deal. The calculus changes with a top three pick. I won't get into that one now, but as I said, it's a good problem to have.
One key thing to bear in mind for all of this is that you cannot negotiate with free agents until July 1 - any contact of any type before then would be considered tampering. LeBron James could go on TV and announce that he's re-signing with Cleveland, or that he will never consider the Clippers, and that would of course make the situation clearer. But GMMDsr can't call Bron's agent or any other agent and ask him where his client's head's at. Not until July 1. So the odds are that the Clippers will be flying relatively blind on what to do with the draft pick. The NBA Finals may clear some stuff up - if Cleveland flames out and LeBron blows up at his teammates, then you stay all in on free agency. If Cleveland wins the title and LeBron is deep in the midst of a Cleveland lovefest getting ticker tape parades every day, then maybe you course correct. But none of these decisions can be based on a direct converation with the man about his future plans. That's verboten.
Some of the same issues complicate the way the Clippers deal with their own free agents, though not as much. For instance the Clippers WILL be able to negotiate with LeBron before renouncing everybody else. So they could conceivably reach an agreement in principle with James between July 1 and July 7, then renounce all the other guys and sign James on the 8th. Conversely, if James rebuffs the Clippers in early talks at the beginning of July, then the team can decide what to do next. Although the moratorium prohibits actually deals until the 8th, agreements in principle are frequently negotiated and announced during the moratorium week. So it's conceivable the Clippers could have preliminary talks with several free agents (James, Wade, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, etc) and satisfy themselves that they're prospects are not good with any of them, and turn their attentions to Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake long before the 8th. Of course, Outlaw and Blake can be talking to the other 29 teams that week as well, and as unrestricted free agents they're not obligated to the Clippers in any way. But at least, unlike the draft pick, it's not a decision that has to be made with only partial information.