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Cap and Roster Math

This is usually Citizen John R's turf, but from time to time I feel compelled to wander into the realm of the salary cap.  It's very complicated of course, and John does a terrific job of keeping it all straight.  But I sense there is still confusion out there, and I'm hoping that I can simplify a couple of things.  (Of course, there's also the possibility that I just further muddy the already murky waters.)

The idea of renouncing the salary cap exceptions seems to be tripping everyone up, and with good reason.  But in this case, it's really pretty straightforward.  The minute the Clippers signed an external free agent (i.e. Baron Davis) they essentially gave up all of their exceptions even if they did not specifically renounce them at that time.  They had to get under the salary cap to sign Baron, and the exceptions exist only for the use of teams who are over the salary cap.  If the mid level exception is $5.8M, and the team is $6M under the cap, they can spend $6M, but they can't spend $11.8M.  So either the Clippers had to officially renounce the MLE to make room for Camby or they didn't, but it's not relevant at this point.  The relevant number is how far under the actual cap they are. 

In fact, it's almost pointless to have the rule about renouncing the exceptions.  In the case of the Clippers, the exceptions went away when they signed Baron, even if they didn't necessarily need that money to make the offer.  I can only think of one scenario in which you can sign an external free agent AND keep your exceptions - if you can fit a free agent under the cap without renouncing the exceptions, and THEN you go over the cap to re-sign your own free agents.  BUT, because there are cap holds for those players as well, it would mean that there was a major difference between the cap hold and the finalized deal.  Golden State MAY fall into this category (I haven't looked at the numbers specifically).  They signed Maggette, but they may have had room to do that without renouncing the MLE.  If they then go above the cap to re-sign Ellis and Biedrins to major deals - both coming off rookie contracts, and Ellis was a second round pick so his cap hold is minuscule - I think they could turn around and use the MLE after Ellis and Biedrins are signed.  This is all theoretical - it certainly seems to be true given the Turiaf offer sheet.  But it is the type of scenario where a team could sign a free agent AND use an MLE.  And it doesn't apply to the Clippers.

So we know that they can not use either the MLE or the bi-annual exception.  We know that they had enough room under the cap after signing Davis ($11M?) and trading for Camby ($10M) to offer $3M per to Kelenna Azubuike.  What we do not know for certain is how much more (if anything) is left.  The LA Times is reporting that $3M is it - there's nothing left.  My back of the envelope math has the team at $58.2M in total salary, with the 2008-2009 cap set at $58.7M.  So yeah, they're pretty much done.

There may yet be something worthwhile to fish for in the scraps  I'm thinking specifically of Shaun Livingston.  As a 4 year veteran, his minimum starting salary would be set at about $855K.  Could they Clippers combine Marcus Williams' $700K with the $500K they are still under the cap and give Shaun a more interesting offer?  Or are there teams out there who are willing to pay him even more than that using a portion of their MLE?  It's worth considering in the end game (especially since Williams might very well be available off of waivers), but this is what we're talking about now folks: scrounging for every dime to put together an offer of $1.2M.  By the way, I think that Shaun and his agent are going to take their time.  I doubt that anyone is going to blow them away with an early offer.  I'm guessing many other dominoes will have to fall before Livingston's situation comes into focus.

So for now, we watch and wait to see what the Warriors do with Azubuike.  If they decline to match the Clippers offer, then the money is essentially spent.  If the Dubs decide to retain Azubuike, the Clippers once again have about $3M to $3.5M to spend.  One would assume that some portion of that would be enough to keep Livingston at least, even if there are no other viable targets out there.

Without Azubuike, the team has eight players signed, sealed and delivered - Baron Davis, Kaman, Camby, Mobley, Thomas, Knight, Thornton and Gordon all have guaranteed contracts.  Azubuike makes nine.  Three more (Jordan, Taylor and Powell) are signed to non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed deals (although I'm not clear on how much of Powell's money is guaranteed).  Fazekas and Williams are still restricted free agents as far as I know, but the Clippers would likely not have given them qualifying offers had they not intended to keep them.  BUT, there is still a ton of roster flexibility here.  Take any one of those last five guys, and if you find someone else willing to play for the minimum who you think is an upgrade, you do it.  Mike Taylor is a prime example of this.  Both Dan Dickau and Beno Udrih hit the waiver wire after training camp last October, and the same thing will happen this October.  If MDsr sees someone out there who makes him feel more comfortable at the point than Taylor (and his 10 turnovers in a single Summer League game), he'll make the switch in a heartbeat.

Looking at the nine guaranteed contracts (including Azubuike), small forward still looks like an issue.  Behind Thornton you're playing either Tim Thomas or Azubuike (6'5") or Cat (6'4").  And given that Thomas is probably in the big man rotation with Kaman and Camby, I don't think he'll realistically see a lot of minutes at the 3.  Add in the fact that Gordon is a 19 year old rookie, and that Williams was inconsistent in Summer League (three horrible games followed by two good ones doesn't make me feel great) and both wing positions remain dangerously thin.  I'm not sure there's much to be done about it, other than jumping on any decent wings that hit the waiver wire.  But it's a concern, no question.

As for Azubuike, I like the move.  He's athletic, he can score (about 15 per 36 minutes in his career), and he can shoot the long ball (38%).  It's probably a collaborative decision on the part of MDsr and Baron Davis to bring in Baron's former teammate, which is a very good sign as well.  If Baron will be happy to see Azubuike, I'm not sure that Chris Kaman will be.