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Clippers in the Lead for Sessions - So Now What?

David Aldridge is reporting that the Clippers are now in the lead in the pursuit of restricted free agent Ramon Sessions (hat tip to Citizen Clipster Hipster).  ESPN has essentially the same report at this point also (hat tip to Citizen madglove).  The other teams previously reported to have interest in Sessions, New York and Oklahoma City, are both reportedly backing off.  This seems to make sense on the surface - the Knicks have spent the past 12 months trying to free up cap space, and making a decent sized offer to Sessions would go against that, especially when they seem relatively set at point guard with Chris Duhon.  As for the Thunder, they have Russell Westbrook and are hoping that Shaun Livingston can make it all the way back, so I'm not sure why Sam Presti was sniffing around Sessions other than perhaps to stockpile assets.

Bear in mind however that a new suitor could well emerge.  In fact, I find it quite surprising that Portland hasn't gotten involved already.  Sessions would seem to be an upgrade over Steve Blake, who's in the final year of his contract, and it's far from clear the Jerryd Bayless will ever be a point guard. 

But if the Clippers are indeed the front runner (and Sessions agent mentioned only the Knicks and Clippers by name when he spoke on this subject earlier this week), what does it mean?  Let's look at it from a few angles after the jump.

The Roster -

The idea of signing Sessions to a long term MLE type contract, when Baron Davis is the highest paid player on the team and is signed for four more years, seemed a little dubious Monday morning.  Monday afternoon, after the team had acquired Sebastian Telfair from the Wolves, it seemed even more so.  Baron is, after all, the starter and will be as long as he's on the roster (or rather, if he's not, the Clippers have big problems).  Telfair, who has started 180 games in his five year career, would seem to be an adequate backup on paper, and capable of stepping into the lineup if Baron gets hurt. 

But I mentioned above the idea of Presti perhaps wanting to stockpile assets in OKC, and it's not a bad strategy.  Sessions is young, and might be ready to explode in the NBA.  He's certainly put up some impressive numbers in his 1.25 seasons in the NBA (he spent the majority of his rookie season in the D-league): he had a 44 point game last season, and a 24 assist game in 2008.  He averaged 15 points, 7.5 assists as a starter for the Bucks, and put up a PER of 17.6 last season, which would rank him as the 11th best point guard in the league by that measure, ahead of guys like Mo Williams and Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby, and yes, Baron Davis.  Because he's only been in the league two years, the CBA has set his ceiling at the MLE.  The Milwaukee franchise is in dire financial straits, and may not be willing to match a decent offer.  If Sessions continues on his career trajectory and develops into a top-notch NBA point guard, the GM who locks him up long term at a bargain price will look like a genius.

And while point guard is beginning to look full, the backcourt in general still has some issues.  Eric Gordon is obviously the starter at shooting guard, but there's really no back up for him at this point.  Ricky Davis, whether it was his knees or something else, was so completely useless last year it seems foolish to think he can help this season.  Mardy Collins might be able to take the back up minutes, but his offensive game is very limited.  As for trying to alleviate the logjam, ESPN's report mentions that the Bucks wanted no part of Telfair in a sign-and-trade.

A guard corps of Baron, Gordon, Sessions and Telfair would be able to pick up most of the backcourt minutes, although there's no question that it would have some issues.  Davis and Sessions are both relatively big point guards, and are big and strong enough to defend most NBA twos.  In fact, Sessions is as tall as Gordon (though not as strong and with a shorter reach) - but obviously if one of the perceived issues was that Gordon was a little small against some perimeter players, this does nothing to alleviate that problem.

But Baron Davis is fully capable of playing off the ball, and did so on numerous occasions last season.  If Telfair and Sessions were on the floor, it would likely have to be Ramon who slid over to the two, since Bassy is a prototypical pass first point guard.  There's a glaring problem with this approach.  Davis, Sessions, and Telfair are among the worst shooters in the league on the perimeter.  If you have a weak stomach, you may not want to look at the next link.  Davis, Telfair and Sessions were among the seven worst shooters in the NBA last season for guards who played over 2000 minutes, ranked by effective field goal percentage.  Three of the worst seven?  On the same team?  Seems like a bad idea, right?  When you add in the fact that the other likely starter on the perimeter, Al Thornton, is an equally inefficient shooter, it seems even worse.

But it's not insurmountable.  Both Davis and Sessions are very good scorers - just not good shooters.  And Sessions in particular gets to the free throw line frequently, which allows him to salvage a respectable 52.5% true shooting percentage.  The Clippers are clearly banking on Baron shooting (and playing) better this year than he did in his miserable first season in LA - signing Sessions would just make the team that much more dependent on Baron being able to hit a three pointer from time to time.

The Salary Cap -

When the Clippers were able to trade Zach Randolph to the Grizzlies for Quentin Richardson's expiring contract, suddenly the visions of 2010 free agents began dancing in Clips Nation's head.  Then the NBA announced some very bad news regarding the 2009 cap numbers with even more dire predictions for 2010, and the visions began to fade.  Then Richardson was flipped for Craig Smith, Mark Madsen and Telfair, with Telfair's $2.7M player option causing the visions to get dimmer still.  Signing Sessions to an offer sheet that Milwaukee is unwilling to match would be the end of any 2010 superstar free agent plan.

So let's go through this again, with the latest figures.  After the Randolph trade, but before the Telfair trade, here's what I said:

I've got the Clippers current 2010 salary commitment at $37M.  Now bear in mind, that's very optimistic.  It could conceivably be lower (if they can work a trade for a big salary), but more likely it will be higher, as they will no doubt sign someone.  But we'll use the optimistic $37M figure for now.  A cap of $53.6M leaves them with $16.6M, in a scenario where a max deal would be a tick over $16M (30% of $53.6M) - phew, just enough if nothing else changes.  (NOTE:  As I explain in a comment below, the 30% number applies in general, but LeBron and Wade and Bosh are already in the $17M range, and would not have to take a pay cut even if the cap is contracting.  So those guys are priced out of the Clippers range already.)  If the cap comes in at $50.4M, the Clippers would theoretically have $13.4M to spend and a max deal would be $15M - and the Clippers dreams of LeBron are over before they began.

I want to point out the very optimistic part up there.  There are cap holds for open roster spots and many other factors that will likely bring the total obligation up.  We've already added in Telfair for another $2.7M, so if the Clippers had $13.4M, they now have $10.7M.  The second season of Telfair's deal, assuming it starts near the MLE, would be at least $6M.  Voila!  The Clippers are down to less than $5M, which is less than the MLE, which puts them with the rest of the pack going after free agents, completely out of the running for the big names.

Of course they could get back in the running by trading one of their big contracts - that's either Chris Kaman or Baron Davis - for expiring deals.  Clearing all of Baron's $13M puts them back into max contract territory - clearing all of Kaman's $11M gets them close to the promised land.  And oh, by the way, if Sessions explodes, then trading Baron suddenly makes perfect sense on the court as well as on the balance sheet.  (Trading Kaman, on the other hand, would leave the team with only DeAndre Jordan in 10-11 since Camby would also be gone by then, so while it is attractive from a financial standpoint, it leaves the team without a proven center after next season.)

This of course is the subtext of the Clippers' pursuit of Sessions.  Hey, wouldn't it be great if we had a young point guard to play alongside our other young players.  Mike Taylor auditioned for the part in Summer League, and he wasn't right for it.  But Ramon Sessions (23), Eric Gordon (20), Al Thornton (25), Blake Griffin (20) and DeAndre Jordan (21)?  Sweet Sassy Mollassey!  That's a lineup to get truly geeked about.  Signing Sessions to any contract of four years or more means that Baron will be shopped.

Having said all that, the 2010 free agency plan is most likely a fool's errand.  Fiscal responsiblity and salary cap flexibility are good things in and of themselves - but putting all of the eggs in a LeBron basket is a long shot at best.  A much better approach would be to utilize all of the flexibility and assets that the team has miraculously acquired to build the team with known deals - rather than clinging to the unknown of 'Maybe we'll get a mega-star to come to LA in 2010.'  Deals like signing a young player like Sessions to a relatively cheap, long term contract.  Using the trade exception to acquire another distressed asset.  Possibly using the numerous expiring contracts on the roster to do the same.  Or if they do decide to trade Davis or Kaman, trading them for players that can help balance the roster, rather than for cap space.

So signing Sessions throws a wrench into the gears of the 2010 cap space plan - but the Clippers would remain in a very advantageous and flexible salary cap position nonetheless, with many other options for improving the team still available to them.

Conclusion -

This isn't a no-brainer - far from it.  Sessions appears to be a nice young player, possibly headed towards stardom.  But he would be coming in as a backup in what is suddenly a crowded position on the team's depth chart.  He would be taking up a roster spot on a team almost completely devoid of three point shooters - with Novak not yet signed, EJ and Mardy Collins are the only players on the roster who made better than a third of their threes last season, and Collins is under 31% for his career.  The Clippers under Mike Dunleavy have invariably been one of the worst three point shooting teams in the NBA - so it's not a shock that he's considering building the roster this way, but it doesn't mean it wouldn't be a problem.  What's to keep teams from swarming Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman underneath if no one can spread the floor?

For the time being though, the Clippers find themselves bidding only against the Bucks, which is a good thing.  The way this signing makes sense is if Sessions can be had at a bargain price.  And for now, it appears that the Clippers are allowed to set that price.  If the Bucks decide to match it, then the Clippers can be satisfied that they didn't overspend for a player who isn't actually a great fit at this point.  If they don't, then they've acquired an asset that is likely going to be a major bargain in the years to come.