NBA Trade Season Starts: What will the Clippers do?

Rob Carr

December 15, when most off season signings become trade eligible, is the unofficial start of the NBA trade season. The Clippers know where their need is -- do they have any hope of filling it via trade?

Back in early November when it became even more apparent than it already was that the Los Angeles Clippers had a gaping hole on their roster where a quality backup big man should be, I urged patience among the citizenry regarding potential upgrades. Much has happened since then -- three wings got injured, forcing the Clippers to sign Stephen Jackson, a completely unforeseen complication, and the Clippers have looked seriously at Lamar Odom as a potential signing to help address the problem. The other thing that has happened is that December 15 has come and gone -- and as I pointed out in November, that changes things.

December 15 is the date when most off-season free agent signings become eligible to be included in trades. For the Clippers, that includes guys like Jared Dudley and Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens -- but there's a similar list of newly trade-eligible players for 29 other teams as well. The trade season ends on February 20th, 2014 at the deadline; the Rudy Gay deal shows that the it has already begun; but the action starts to heat up on December 15.

This post is part of a network wide "Theme Day" on the start of trade season across the NBA blogs of SB Nation. So be sure to head to SB Nation's NBA page and check out what other teams are thinking. Who knows? Maybe there's a team out there with a big man glut that is just dying for a competent if unspectacular small forward.

There are buyers and sellers in the NBA trade market. Buyers are looking to improve their team now, to help them make the playoffs or to advance further when they get there. Sellers are looking to the future -- they might have good players who don't fit their long term plans, and they might be looking to move them for future assets or to reduce their payroll.

The Clippers would love to be buyers in the trade market since they have such a glaring need for front court help. There's just one problem -- they are buyer's on an extremely limited budget. And I mean, extremely. And not just because they don't want to spend more money -- because they CAN'T spend much more money.

As we've discussed many times, the Clippers are one of the first NBA teams to fall into the tyrannical grip of an actual hard salary cap. Because they participated in a sign-and-trade and used their full mid-level exception in the off-season, the Clippers can not exceed the luxury tax threshold by more than $4M. They are currently between the tax threshold ($71.7M) and the hard cap ($75.7M) -- with between $1.5M and $2.4M of wiggle room, depending on how much they end up paying to Jackson.

I won't rehash all of the roster and cap machinations -- you can refer to some earlier posts for more detailed information on all that. But here's how I see the Clippers options going forward.

Let's start with Stephen Jackson. His contract is unguaranteed until January 10th. The Clippers are out of roster spots, so the path of least resistance is to waive Jackson when Matt Barnes and/or Reggie Bullock return. Both of those guys should be back before Jack's deal becomes guaranteed.

But IF you like Jackson, his presence, along with the encouraging early signs from Bullock, MIGHT make it tempting to shop Dudley. Why shop Dudley? Because he makes the most out of the four small forwards on the Clippers roster. You could theoretically avoid the luxury tax by moving him, and even if that's not your goal, you could open up more options for adding players by creating more breathing space under the hard cap.

Sadly, CBA rules prohibit a team from reacquiring a player they traded, because a Dudley reunion in Phoenix makes some sense. The Suns are suddenly contending for a playoff spot, they're way under the salary cap, and small forward would seem to be their weakest position. Too bad. None of the other "space" teams would touch Dudley with a 10 foot pole, I'm afraid.

Dudley, Crawford, Barnes and Bullock are the only trade chips with any value.

Whether it's Dudley or Jackson or Bullock or Matt Barnes or Willie Green or Jamal Crawford, the Clippers only tradeable assets are all wings. Paul and Griffin are untouchable -- Jordan is close, and is probably worth as much to the Clippers as he is to any other team. More importantly though, if you're trying to improve front court depth, you don't do it by trading your second most productive front court player. And witnessing the collapse of the Clippers offense since J.J. Redick has been sidelined, you'd almost have to call him untouchable. Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins and Antawn Jamison don't really make enough -- and wouldn't be worth anything to a trade partner at any rate -- to discuss. They could be used for salary matching purposes -- but that's it. That leaves the wings as the only trade chips, and Dudley, Crawford, Barnes and Bullock as the ones with any value.

The Clippers could of course also offer up draft picks -- but with the 2015 pick already committed to Boston, the Clippers can't in fact offer a first rounder until 2017 because of the Stepien Rule that prohibits trading back to back future first round picks. As for second rounders -- good luck figuring out which second round picks the Clippers actually own over the next three drafts after "Trader Mike" Dunleavy went nuts acquiring players like Cheik Samb and Hassan Adams and Alex Acker and Bobby Brown a few years back. (The Clippers got a little cash in all those deals, BTW.) Seriously, I have basically no clue which picks the Clippers own and under what circumstances -- but I'm fairly certain they don't have any trade value.

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Which leaves the Clippers with very few trade options. Crawford might have value to the right team -- but as I've said before, he probably has just as much value to the Clippers, if not more. That leaves Bullock as the best trade chip. He's a young promising 3D rookie, which is of course why the Clippers like him. With the wing the deepest spot on the roster, using Bullock as the sweetener in a deal to get a decent big might make sense in the short term -- but would the Clippers want to sacrifice the long term to do it, given that Bullock could be the starting three in LA before his rookie contract is done?

In a perfect world, some team would be willing to trade a big man to the Clippers for Dudley. Might the Bulls be interested in sending Taj Gibson to the Clippers for Dudley and Green and Maalik Wayns, just to get a little relief on their luxury tax bill and their long term salary outlook? That would be great, but it's not happening. Would they do it if the Clippers included Bullock instead of Green? They might listen at that point.

Entering trade season, the Clippers don't have a lot of options. They do have a $2.6M trade exception to use -- but there aren't a lot of big man targets out there that would fit into it. Trevor Booker of the Wizards is the best fit I can see -- and given that he's been starting in DC for the injured Nene I doubt they're looking to get rid of him just for cap relief. More likely you could get a Nazr Mohammed from Chicago for that TPE -- which frankly is worth considering.

In the end, the Clippers may have to cross their fingers and hope that Odom can still play -- or that a veteran big that has something left in the tank will end up on the waiver wire after a buy out. A Clipper reunion with Chris Kaman? Emeka Okafor once he's healthy in Phoenix? Heck, even Andris Biedrins could be useful at this point.

Trade season always produces surprises. Can the Clippers pull off a deal that improves the roster despite a near complete lack of trade assets? We're just getting started.

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