The Clippers entered this off-season with several needs, and not a lot of ways to fill them. Now, after the news that the team has agreed to sign Spencer Hawes for the full mid-level exception, the biggest tool that Doc Rivers had to work with has been used up. Aside from trades, the Clippers have four avenues left with which they can upgrade the roster: sign-and-trade deals for existing Clippers, a sign-and-trade deal for the TPE from the Eric Bledsoe trade, the bi-annual exception, and the minimum exception.
For the purposes of this column, it's worth noting that the Clippers, as we have expected for months, will be operating under the apron as hard cap, just as they were last year. As a reminder, the apron is set at $4 million above the tax line, and becomes the hard cap of any team that does at least one of the following: acquires a signed-and-traded player, uses the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, or uses the bi-annual exception. The Clippers have already committed their non-taxpayer mid-level exception to Spencer Hawes, so whether or not they are able and willing to do a sign-and-trade or use their bi-annual exception, they are going to be hard-capped.
A sign-and-trade is the only route for the Clippers to add a major free agent. If they're looking for Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza, this is the way it'll have to go. Essentially, the Clippers would have to give back a package including some combination of the following: Jamal Crawford ($5,450,000), Jared Dudley ($4,250,000), Matt Barnes ($3,396,250), Reggie Bullock ($1,200,720), the rights to C.J. Wilcox ($924,800)*, and any future picks (the Clippers already owe their 2015 first rounder to Boston, so they can only trade picks for 2017 or later). The salary matching rules in trades give preferential treatment to teams that are not taxpayers, so in this situation it could be preferable for the Clippers to officially complete any trade before officially inking Spencer Hawes' deal (nothing is official until the moratorium ends).
*Regarding C.J. Wilcox: Currently, the Clippers have not signed Wilcox and still only possess his rights. This means that he has a cap hold of the rookie scale of $924,800, but in a potential trade, his rights have a trade value of $0. This is to prevent teams from acquiring and renouncing unsigned picks for cap relief. So, if the Clippers trade C.J. before they officially sign him, for salary matching purposes he has a salary of $0, but in regards to the hard cap he has a cap hold of $924,800.
If the Clippers are under the tax after the trade, and send out under $9,800,000, they can take back 150% of the outgoing salaries. For outgoing salaries between $9,8000,000 and $18,600,000, they could take back outgoing salaries plus $5,000,000, and for over $18,600,000, salaries must match within 125%.
If the Clippers are over the tax after the trade, they can only take back 125% of outgoing salaries, regardless of the value. Due to the Clippers' tight-rope walk to complete a roster under the apron, it seems highly unlikely that they will be able to take full advantage of the salary-matching rules, but they're still worth noting.
The Clippers' next-best tool would be to sign-and-trade a player into the Eric Bledsoe TPE, valued at $2,636,474. A TPE could also be used to absorb the salary of a player currently under contract, but it seems unlikely that any player who the Clippers want and who makes that little would be available for essentially nothing. Some candidates could possibly be Anthony Randolph, Brendan Haywood, or John Lucas III -- not exactly the most appealing names. More likely, the Clippers could use the TPE in a sign-and-trade. It's a much better tool than the bi-annual exception (which we'll get to in a moment) for luring free agents, as a player acquired in this method can receive a 3 or 4-year deal. The max values of a contract signed-and-traded into this TPE would be either $8,263,996 for three years or $11,255,044 for four years. All sign-and-trade contracts must run at least three years.
That money isn't a lot by NBA free agent standards, but it's valuable because other teams don't have it at their disposal. All teams have the minimum exception available, and most teams have their bi-annual exception to use as well. A deal allowed by the TPE, however, can offer more money over a longer period of time.
Now, the general retort to sign-and-trade scenarios as proposed above is "Why would [insert team here] help the Clippers? They'd rather have the cap relief than take back Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes." That statement might be true for some situations and it might be false for others, but part of any deal involving those players would be convincing the other team involved that getting those players back is better than letting their free agent walk.
However, with the TPE, the Clippers don't have to send back players that might be perceived as the team's "junk" (they aren't, but some seem to think they are). They can simply absorb the player's salary into the TPE, and give the other team a second-round pick in return. Getting a future pick and appeasing an agent is certainly better than letting a player who is leaving anyway walk for nothing, and this type of sign-and-trade is more common than the one involving players already under contract.
Of course, the Clippers also have the mid-level exception's little cousin, the bi-annual exception. For this season, the BAE is worth $2,077,000. With the max raise of 4.5%, this deal would pay $2,170,465 in the second season, and the BAE can only be used to give a player a deal running one or two years. This means a max 2 year, $4,247,465 deal can be given using the bi-annual, which is clearly inferior to the potential TPE salary. However, it's better than the minimum, so it could be a tool to add a backup-level player, a player looking to restore value (like Darren Collison last off-season), or a ring-chasing veteran who wants more than the veteran's minimum.
Lastly is the ever-present minimum salary exception, which allows any team to exceed the cap to sign players to the league minimum salary. For players of differing levels of experience, the minimum varies from $507,000 to about one and a half million. However, for any player with two or more years of experience, they only have a cap hit of the two-year veteran's minimum for salary purposes. This season, the veteran's minimum cap hit is $915,243. Once the Clippers utilize their other tools, it'll be hard for them to add players of value using only the minimum. Last year, these guys were Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens, who were both traded at the deadline for nothing. Expect similar level players to be available for the minimum this year.
The most important thing to remember, as stated above, is that the Clippers are hard-capped at $81M. They currently have $75,577,769 committed to the following nine players: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Spencer Hawes, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes, and Reggie Bullock. Rookie C.J. Wilcox has a scale salary of $924,800, and could be renounced but it would be surprising if the team did not sign him to a deal. That margin, about $4.5m after Wilcox is signed, is what the Clippers have to get at least three more players, preferably four or five. Also note that it's possible that the team would like to leave space under the hard cap, as they did last year, to pursue potential waiver wire pickups. But, that wiggle space that the team has could grow if they make a trade where they actually bring back less salary than they send out. It's all unpredictable, but the money's pretty tight. It'll be interesting to see how Doc Rivers manipulates the Clippers' limited flexibility to find the team a fourth big, backup point guard, and upgraded starting small forward.