When Kevin Love broke his hand earlier this week, it was obviously a severe blow to Minnesota's high hopes this season. Already without Ricky Rubio for the start of the season as he recovers from last season's ACL surgery, the Wolves will now have to open the season also missing the monstrously good Love. Think of it this way: could the Clippers survive a month or more without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? Rubio may not exactly be Paul, but these losses are almost as devastating to the Wolves as losing Paul and Griffin would be to the Clippers.
It's impossible to know at this point how many games Love will miss. The estimate for his return is six to eight weeks -- if he's back in six weeks, he'll miss essentially the month of November, possibly 15 games. If he's out the full eight weeks, it would be closer to 20, about a quarter of the season. Then of course there's the whole "cleared for contact" and "basketball shape" issues that invariably crop up with injury recovery time (at least in the case of the Clippers they do). Does 6 to 8 weeks mean until he's cleared for contact, or until he's expected to play? We just don't know.
The Wolves seemed like an up-and-coming team before Rubio (and later Love) went down last season and were expected to challenge for a low playoff seed in the West this year if healthy; but they could dig a pretty big hole in a quarter of a season (or more) without their best player(s).
Still, this is a Clippers blog, so what you want to know is "How does this affect the Clippers?" The short answer is not a lot, at least not directly. I suppose there was an outside chance that Minnesota might have made a quantum leap and could have been challenging for a top four spot in the West, but that was never very likely. So if we're looking for the Clippers to qualify for the playoffs in the top half of the bracket, the Wolves weren't really their direct competition anyway, so hopefully a weakened Minnesota team is kind of a non-issue for playoff seeding. As it happens, the Clippers first meeting with Minnesota (a team that took three of four games from the LAC last season in very frustrating fashion) is on November 28 -- exactly six weeks from the announcement of Love's injury -- so if you take the most optimistic view of Love's recovery, it's conceivable he won't miss a single meeting with the Clippers. Most likely he'll just miss that first one.
But even before Love's injury, I had been pondering another subject. In the new CBA that ended last summer's lockout, one of the more interesting additions is a thing commonly referred to as the "Rose Rule". Named for Derrick Rose who was the first player to benefit from it, the "Rose Rule" tries to address a basic inequity in prior agreements. The standard CBA has for many years now established a maximum salary for individual players based on years of service in the league. First round draft picks have their own scale for contracts, and beyond that the maximum is 25% of the salary cap for players with fewer than seven years in the league, 30% of the cap for players from seven to nine years of service, and 35% for veterans of ten or more seasons.
Everyone knows that productive rookies are the biggest bargain in the NBA -- the rookie scale determines what they make, regardless of whether they are Blake Griffin or Hasheem Thabeet. But the first contract after the rookie deal can be a bargain as well, for players that have already established themselves as major stars who are just entering their prime. The NBA Player's Association attempted to address that market disparity with the "Rose Rule". The basic idea is that if it has already been proven that the player is a major star, then he should be paid like one, and be eligible for 30% of the salary cap regardless of years of service, not just 25%. (You may wonder why the union didn't feel the need to address the disparity of the rookie scale deals as well -- the simple answer there is that the constituency affected by that disparity, namely college and high school players and younger, aren't actually IN the union, so there's no one in the union to champion higher pay for future rookies.)
But how to define the criteria for the level of player eligible for that extra 5%? The specific criteria were threefold: (1) if a player has won an MVP award (hence "the Rose Rule"; (2) if a player has twice been selected to start in the All Star Game; or (3) if a player has twice been selected first or second or third team All NBA. Meeting any one of those three qualifies a player for a maximum salary of 30% of the cap, but you can't mix and match -- you can't start one All Star game and make one second team All NBA.
It is a pretty rarefied group of individuals that is impacted by this rule. Historically we can look at some of the players that would have been eligible for the higher maximum under the "Rose Rule." LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would have been eligible for the higher max -- Carmelo Anthony would not have. Chris Paul would have; Deron Williams would not have. Dwight Howard would not have. Kevin Durant would have. You get the idea -- there's usually one or none, and maybe as many as two players per draft class who qualify.
Rose was the first to take advantage of the rule named for him, signing a 30% max extension just after the ink on the CBA dried in 2011. Russell Westbrook eventually qualified for the 30% by making second team All NBA for the second time in 2012, but gave OKC a discount for some reason and did not insist on the extra 5%, leaving about $15M on the table.
Next up: Blake Griffin. Griffin has already signed his five year extension with the Clippers, with wording that will pay him the full 30% of the salary cap should he qualify for it. It was already pretty likely that he would -- after all he started for the West in last year's All Star Game, and also made second team All NBA. He only needs to repeat one of those two feats in order to secure the extra dough.
Of the three eligibility criteria, starting in the All Star Game is the strangest. After all, All Star Game starters are determined by fan voting, and the fans have not always demonstrated the most basketball savvy over the years in making their choices (A.C. Green? B.J. Armstrong?). I suppose you could argue that value to the franchise equates as much to fan appeal as anything, so winning a popularity contest among fans is a valid reason to get paid more. But there are other problems with using All Star Game selections as well -- what if there aren't any good centers in one conference? What if there are too many good forwards in a conference? The vagaries of position and conference coupled with fan voting make it an inexact measure at best. For instance, it's entirely possible that Chris Paul will NOT start for the West in the All Star Game in 2013, not because he's not one of the two best guards in the West (he is the best guard in the West, as it happens) but because Jeremy Lin could get an inordinate number of votes from the far east and Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. Still, I suppose that's why All NBA selection is also a criterion -- Paul will certainly be no worse than second team All NBA, and will probably be first team.
Griffin is a wildly popular player, but there has also been some backlash over his level of exposure. Barring injury, Kevin Durant clearly has one of the West forward starting spots in the All Star Game locked up, leaving just one spot available for Griffin. Love was the one player would could make a strong statistical argument for inclusion ahead of Griffin; it was unlikely that Love was going to unseat Griffin in a popularity contest, but he might have had a chance taking into account a potential anti-Griffin backlash. However, missing at least the first month of the season, given how front-loaded fan voting is, Love now has absolutely no chance.
There are other great forwards in the West, but the odds of Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge getting more fan votes than Griffin are negligible. Love was seemingly the one player who could have derailed Griffin's All Star starter train. I expected Griffin to start in Houston before; at this point I would be completely dumbfounded if he did not.
Of course even without the All Star game, Griffin could still qualify for the higher maximum by being selected
first or second team All NBA. As with Durant in the ASG, Durant and LeBron might as well be permanently engraved as the first team All NBA forwards for the foreseeable future, so Griffin would need to be chosen for one of the two second team four remaining spots. Last year a healthy Love received more than twice as many points in All NBA voting as Griffin, and Carmelo and Nowitzki were not far behind. And that ignores the likes of Aldridge and Zach Randolph who were both hurt for large portions of last season but who both finished ahead of Griffin in All NBA voting in 2011. That is to say, Griffin is not nearly the lock for All NBA second team that he is to start in the West.
So Love's injury could very well be the deciding factor in allowing Griffin to qualify for the higher maximum salary when his extension kicks in next season. So what, you say? What do we care if Donald Sterling has to pay Griffin $15M or $18M next year? He's going to be a Clipper either way, so why does it matter?
It matters because that's $3M the Clippers won't have to spend on other players. Whether you believe that Sterling and the Clippers will eventually wade into luxury tax territory or not, that $3M matters -- it's the difference between a mid-level exception player (i.e. Jamal Crawford) and a bi-annual exception player (i.e. Grant Hill). Consider also that Paul is in his eighth NBA season and will therefore be eligible for the 30% maximum as well (although Paul will actually be eligible for a little more than that based on simply getting a 5% increase over what he currently makes). Assuming both of the Clippers stars stay for their respective maximums, that's more than 60% of the cap tied up in two players for the next five seasons -- leaving the Clippers the other 40% plus the amount to the tax threshold to fill out the other dozen or so roster spots for a very long time. It's a first world problem, having to pay two mega stars on the same team, don't get me wrong. But next season Durant and Westbrook combined will be making about $31.5M; compare that to the $37M Griffin and Paul could be making and you begin to see the issue.
It is what it is of course. Griffin is well worth the extra money and Paul most certainly is (which is easy for me to say, since none of this is my money). But when Paul re-signs, the Clippers will suddenly have a very different set of problems than they've ever had before. After the core of Griffin and Paul is in place, filling in the pieces around them on the remaining money is going to be extremely challenging.