I've been decompressing a bit after the playoffs. It was a great season, and although it ended on a less that positive note, the simple fact is that every playoff team except one loses their final game, so short of winning the title, the denouement is going to be disappointing. The Clippers weren't ready to win the title this season, and frankly, the second round seems about right for the team this season.
But I'm now ready to start diving into the team NEXT season, so without further ado, let's look at pretty much everything I can think of as we head into the off-season.
As of now, we don't know for certain whether the Clippers will be above or below the salary cap during the off-season, which determines whether they'll be trying to sign free agents with cap space or exclusively with exceptions. Here's the basic situation:
There are nine Clippers under contract for next season: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Ryan Gomes, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Seven of those contracts are carved in stone, but two of them are less certain.
Travis Leslie's contract is not guaranteed, so the Clippers have the option of waiving him and saving his salary. However, given that his contract is for a very reasonable amount, and that a corresponding roster hold would count almost as much against the salary cap, there's little point in discussing whether he should be waived. If he makes the team or not next season can be entirely about how he plays and what the other options are. It has nothing to do with the salary cap -- he's an inexpensive asset.
Mo Williams on the other hand can have a major impact on the Clippers' cap situation. Let's start with a little background, because you may be confused about the history with Mo and the Clippers. When Mo was acquired by the Clippers from Cleveland in the Baron Davis trade, he waived the Early Termination Option he held for the 2011-2012 season. That was widely reported as him 'opting in' for the just completed season, but more accurately he agreed not to opt out. In addition to the ETO he held last summer, Williams now has a player option for next season. So if you were thinking "wait a minute, I thought Williams already opted in" you just need to know that we're talking about two separate decisions affecting two separate seasons.
Mo has stated to the media (and I was there when he said it on Monday) in no uncertain terms that he will exercise his option and remain with the Clippers next season. He hasn't done that yet, and there have been reports questioning whether it's true. Until the ink is dry nothing is settled, but I know what the guy said, and I believe he'll exercise his option and remain with the team.
It's certainly not a no-brainer for Mo one way or the other. He won't get more than the $8.5M he's owed for the final year of his existing contract -- but if he signs a new multi-year deal now, he can lock in more total dollars, and he can do so while he's 29, rather than trying to sign a new contract at the psychologically significant age of 30. Perhaps more importantly, he can go elsewhere and be a starter, while he's at best in a sixth man role with the Clippers, a role that figures to diminish next season with the emergence of Bledsoe. The Clippers roster last season, built in fits and starts (Bledsoe was drafted in June 2010, Williams acquired in February 2011, Chauncey Billups and Paul acquired in December 2011 -- all of them logical acquisitions at the time, but not very rational when taken together) featured way too many small guards. If Williams returns, he'll create the exact same problem for next season. I've longed suspected that Williams would decline his option and become a free agent this summer -- but that's not what he says he's doing.
Other than Williams' decision, the only other option the Clippers have for reducing salary at this point would be to use the amnesty clause from the new CBA to waive a player, thus saving that salary against the cap. Since that only allows them to waive players who were under contract at the time the CBA was put in place, their amnesty targets are limited to Griffin, Bledsoe, Williams (if he remains) and Gomes. And obviously, the only real option is Gomes.
So where does that leave us? With all nine players currently under contract (plus three roster holds to account for a dozen spots) the Clippers current payroll creeps a bit over $60M. This year's salary cap was around $58M, so barring a major surprise in the new cap, the Clippers will be over. In that scenario, there's no point in using amnesty waivers on Gomes to get a little under the cap -- "a little under the cap" is no man's land, it's the worst place to be. If you're over the cap, you can use the full mid-level exception and retain the rights for your free agents, etc. Being a little under the cap takes those things away, without freeing enough space to actually sign any free agents. Think of it this way -- the MLE is $5M, so you need to be more than $5M under the cap to make it worth your while to give up the exceptions. Gomes is set to make $4M next season -- you can't go from over the cap to more than $5M under it by amnestying a $4M salary, so it's a non-starter. Even amnestying Williams (which is a bad idea at any rate since he still has trade value) probably doesn't do the team much good, as his $8.5M salary would barely net them more than $5M (depending on the final cap figures of course).
If Williams does an about face and becomes a free agent, that changes everything. In that scenario, it suddenly becomes much more interesting to request amnesty waivers on Gomes, as the Clippers cap space would grow from $6M/$7M to $10M/$11M, allowing them to compete for an entirely different group of free agents, and/or to add multiple solid pros instead of just one.
For now we wait, with Williams' decision being the determining factor. If he remains, the Clippers will be over the cap and working with exceptions to fill out the roster. If he becomes a free agent, they could find themselves with some cap space.
We've looked at the players that are under contract for next season: what about the other guys? The Clippers have six free agents entering the off-season: Randy Foye, Nick Young, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans and Bobby Simmons.
The Clippers do not have full Bird right's for any of their six free agents. Young is the most complex of the six, as he was acquired via trade, and normally Bird rights are acquired with the player. But in Young's case, since he was playing on a one year qualifying offer in Washington, he lost his Bird right's in the trade. (It has been reported that Young waived his Bird rights, but that's misleading. In order for the trade to happen, Young by rule would lose his Bird rights. He could have vetoed the trade, as Devean George did in the Jason Kidd trade a few seasons back, but he could not have retained his Bird rights and become a Clipper. In that sense, he did not waive his Bird rights -- he waived his right to veto the trade.)
Randy Foye has been a Clipper for two seasons, and is therefore an Early Bird free agent. The others have all been Clippers for just one season, and are "Non-Bird" free agents. There are salary cap exceptions for Early Bird and non-Bird exceptions, they're just not as powerful as those for Bird free agents. See Larry Coon's salary cap FAQ for more on the distinctions between Bird, Early Bird and non-Bird free agents.
The 2011-2012 Clippers roster, built in the haphazard manner that it was, had many redundancies -- valuable players, that were too similar to each other and did not address weak aspects of the roster. We've already discussed the redundancy of small guards. The other is defensive/rebounding bigs who can't shoot. On a team starting Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers need at least one big who can make a face up jumper (not to mention one that can make his free throws).
Because of these redundancies, few if any of the Clippers free agents would be logical re-signings. Foye and Billups are bigger than Williams, but not particularly big, and even if they don't exacerbate the backcourt size problem, they don't really solve it either. Evans and Martin played well for the Clippers, but in a perfect world the Clippers could acquire back up bigs that complement Griffin and Jordan more by stretching the floor.
Nick Young on the other hand would fit well with the team going forward. He stretches the floor with his shooting, he is the team's best option to back up the small forward at present, and he also fills the need for back court size. On a team where few of the players have the versatility to play more than one position, Young can legitimately play either the 2 or the 3. As a non-Bird free agent, the Clippers can exceed the cap to re-sign him for up to 120% of his current salary -- or a starting salary of a little more than $4.4M. Young is probably hoping to sign for more than that, but he was probably hoping to sign for more than that last season as well, when ended up playing for his $3.7M qualifying offer in Washington. As an unrestricted free agent this season, he'll generate more interest, but how many teams will be willing to pay more than the $5M MLE for him? Young likes playing for the Clippers and is happy to be home in L.A. -- would he accept $4.4M instead of $5M to remain with the team? We'll see, but to pay more for Young the Clippers would have to use their MLE on him, and that's far too precious -- they'll save the MLE for a player they really want.
Of their own free agents, I could envision the Clippers re-signing Young, Martin and Billups at most. Young we've already discussed. Martin would be preferable to Evans, because at least he can make a 15 footer occasionally, but he's only an option if the Clippers can't find a better fit. The advantage to signing him is that they can use the non-Bird exception and he's probably better than any player they could get with a minimum salary, which is the likely alternative. Billups is a special case -- an elder statesman you keep around for his experience and for his relationship with Paul, provided the price is reasonable. (Read Eric Pincus' piece from a couple of days ago regarding the complexities of Billups free agency status. He's the one and only amnesty waiver player, and it's unclear what CBA rules apply in that scenario, but Pincus was able to confirm that even as a non-Bird free agent, his full 2011-2012 salary is the baseline. So given what he was making from the Knicks, the Clippers can use a non-Bird exception to sign him for much more than any other team will pay him.)
If the team re-signs Young, Martin and Billups, that leaves two more roster spots while preserving both the MLE and the Bi-annual exception to fill them. (I'm assuming they start the season with 14 on the roster, though they could free up another spot by waiving Leslie and of course they always have the option of carrying 15 contracts.) They also have a couple of smallish trade exceptions to use and Gomes and Williams become trade chips (Gomes as an expiring deal, Williams both as a valuable player and an expiring deal).
They're in the market for a starting shooting guard and a stretch four/five. We'll look at what they could do to fill those holes another time.