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The Elephant in Shaun's Hospital Room

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Five days after Shaun Livingston's gruesome knee injury, I guess the moratorium on discussing his contract status has been lifted.  I know this because J.A. Adande wrote a column about it in the LA Times Friday.  

The Clippers can sign Livingston (who is guaranteed $4.4 million in 2007-08) to an extension before next season, just as they signed Chris Kaman to a five-year, $52-million extension last fall.

Surely the Clippers would have had to commit to Livingston. They'd already made a philosophical commitment to him when they kept him out of trade discussions that could have brought, say, Allen Iverson to the Clippers.

Now there's no way they can tie up big dollars in Livingston. This could wind up costing him upward of $40 million. It hurts just writing that, and it's not even my money.

By the way, Dan Wetzel raised the opposite point - not how much money Shaun lost when he got injured, but rather how much money he MADE by jumping straight to the NBA and avoiding an injury while he was in college making nothing (an option no longer open to 18 year olds).  So did Shaun lose $40M when he went down last week, or did he make $14.2M (plus endorsements) when he skipped college?  It depends on if you see his anterior cruciate ligament as half torn or half in tact.

When I raised the specter of the contract last week, Citizen John R responded with a long and thoughtful analysis in the comments.  You should read his full post, but here's his conclusion:

You target all non-core Clippers contracts to run out prior to 10/11 when its possible only Brand, Kaman and a bunch of rookie scales are the only cap burden, and even Brand only theoretically.  You see if Livvy will ever again play at the level you think he can based on the best info available as each deadline passes.  If he is not fully back, but going to make it, you push him for the simple extension of 1 year plus a team option year to take it to summer '10.  If he is most of the way back already, seriously ahead of schedule we are talking, and you think there will be bidding for his services, you go the non-maximum offer sheet route and hope you get him to a longer contract for a reasonable rate.  Under this plan, it will be possible to constantly reevaluate Shaun and be able for the Clippers to escape basically at any point, even including the luxury of having his contract available as trade bait.  The benefits of an ending rookie scale contract are too great to just walk away now.  With that 1+1 contract, its possible for Shaun to add value to the team, even if he never plays again.  How's that for cold-blooded?  If Shaun or his agent won't take this generous 2 year extension, which must be signed by this Halloween by the way, then its the offer sheet for you.  I would have to believe they take it given that at that point it still won't be a given he will be back soon or ever and they were wise enough about risk management to jump to the pros in the first place.

This was written less than 48 hours after Shaun was written, which leads me to conclude that John R is a heartless bastard.  (Apparently he doesn't do emo.)  But he's pretty smart, too.  He took the 'what are all the options?' approach.  I like the one year with a one year team option idea that he ended up with.  But to me, the overriding factor is the timeline.  

It's February 2007.  Shaun's rookie contract runs through next season.  That's 14 months.  He would become a restricted free agent in July 2008 if the Clippers don't extend him first.  Any extension would have to be signed by Oct. 31, 2007.  That's a little less than 8 months from now.  

The initial estimates on how long he would be out were 8 to 12 months.  Dr. Tony Daly has since given a more optimistic estimate of 6 to 8 months, but that seems unrealistic.  Even the best case anyone can point to, Willis McGahee, hurt his knee in early January 2003 and didn't play football again until the beginning of the 2004 season, about 20 months later.  He's a great story - a real inspiration.  But we're still talking a lot longer than 6 months.  And he's the best case scenario for this type of injury.

There's no way Shaun Livingston will play in a basketball game again before Oct. 31, when the Clippers have to decide about an extension.  In the rosiest projection, as unlikely as it seems, he could actually be in training camp in 2007, and the organization could see him with a basketball in his hands.  But even if that does happen, how much are they really going to know?

In a strange way, this whole thing presents the Clippers with an opportunity.  If Shaun can actually overcome this injury and play again, the Clippers could save a lot of money with his contract giving them additional flexibility under the cap.  It can also be liberating to take a longer term view.  If Shaun isn't going to be full strength in 07-08, but there's reason for optimism about the following season, you can build a roster and payroll strategy around that information.

Maybe the play is to extend him for 3 or 4 years, but at a mid-level type salary.  Insurance will cover the loss if he never plays again - and the cap number is not too onerous in that worst case scenario.  If he does come back strong, he'd still be only 26 at the end of a 4 year extension, and in a position to sign for the really big bucks.  But presumably he would have some level of loyalty to the Clippers for having stuck by him.

At any rate, the timeline is key.  If Dr. Daly's most optimistic projections turn out to be true, then the team will have some basketball data points prior to the extension deadline.  More likely, all they will have to go on will be some treadmill tests.  Then the decision is really tough.

Of course we'll know more in six months than we do now, so this is pure speculation.  Funny - I was wondering what there would be to write about on the blog in the off-season.  Now I know.