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What Will the Clippers Roster Look Like Next Season?

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I've been finding it difficult to muster a lot of enthusiasm for speculating on the Clippers off-season personnel moves.  Why?  Well, there are simply so many moving parts that speculation seems pretty pointless.  With only five players signed, nine free agents, a couple of draft picks, and about $19M in cap space, the possibilities are virtually limitless.  Oh, and don't forget trades.  Blue sky speculation has never really been my thing - at least I don't think it's been my thing?  Do I even have a thing?  Wait, that sounds wrong.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, blue sky speculation is not my specialty.  I prefer to deal in things that are likely, or at least not completely improbable.

Having said that, let's focus in on those nine free agents, and see if we can figure out what might happen there.

First of all, let's take a quick look at the big picture and put the free agents into various categories.

The nine free agents, ranked by their current salary, are as follows:

  • Steve Blake - $4.9M
  • Drew Gooden - $4.5M
  • Travis Outlaw - $4M
  • Rasual Butler- $3.9M
  • Craig Smith - $2.5M
  • Mardy Collins - $1.8M
  • Brian Skinner - $1.3M
  • Steve Novak - $0.9M
  • Bobby Brown - $0.7M

Seven of the nine are unrestricted free agents.  Mardy Collins and Bobby Brown will be restricted free agents if the Clippers choose to make qualifying offers to them, which they have until June 30th to do.  However, given that Mardy's QO is $2.7M and that Bobby Brown is, well, Bobby Brown, I doubt seriously the Clippers will bother to tender those QOs, so you can more or less assume that all nine of these guys will be unrestricted.  As a reminder, for an unrestricted free agent the team has the right to go over the salary cap to re-sign them (Bird Rights); for a restricted free agent, they have the right to match another teams offer and retain the player.

The other important issue is the strata of money the player figures to sign for.  From a free agency standpoint, there are probably four significant tranches:

  • Minimum - any team can sign any player to a minimum contract, regardless of team salary, cap restrictions, other exceptions, etc.  Brown, Novak and Skinner were minimum players this season, and there's no reason to think they'd be worth more now.  Mardy Collins is also probably at best hoping for a minimum contract this season.
  • Bi-Annual exception - The Bi-annual exception is around $2M this coming season, and is significant in that many teams will have it available.  It is one of the exceptions for teams over the salary cap.  Craig Smith is probably hoping for more than $2.08M, but it's possible he would have to settle for that range.
  • Mid-Level exception - Every team over the salary cap has the mid-level exception to spend.  They can choose to spend it on one player, or spread it over several players.  This year it will be around $6M.  So none of the Clipper free agents made the MLE this season - and while some may be hoping to make it next season, it doesn't seem very likely.  Had Travis Outlaw been a free agent last summer, he might have commanded this much.  But after a significant injury and a sub-par year, I don't really see it.  The MLE is very significant because players hoping to sign for more than the MLE are much more limiited in their options.  There are more teams than usual with cap space this summer, but even so, a player who wants to sign for more than the MLE has maybe 8 teams to talk to, each with specific needs, while a player expecting to sign for less than the MLE has essentially all 30 teams as potential suitors. 
  • Above the MLE - These players are more or less limited to signing with teams under the salary cap.

Obviously it's much more complex than this - players can sign for pretty much any amount imaginable between the minimum and the maximum.  But in very broad strokes, those are some key salary plateaus (plateaux?)  To summarize from a Clippers-centric standpoint, Brown, Novak, Skinner and Collins appear to be minimum guys.  Smith, Butler, Outlaw, Gooden and Blake figure to command a significant piece of an MLE.  Smith might have to settle for a BAE contract.

There are essentially two broad scenarios for the Clippers off-season, with two significantly different impacts on the Clipper free agents.

Scenario 1 is the Maximum Free Agent scenario.  In this scenario, the Clippers would have to renounce their rights to all of their own free agents to clear enough cap space to make a maximum offer.  That would mean no Bird Rights to the renounced players, no mid-level exception, no bi-annual exception.  In this scenario, any Clipper free agent worth more than the minimum salary would be a de facto ex-Clipper.  So if you want Brown or Novak or Skinner or Collins back, and no one else is willing to pay them more than the minimum, then those are your guys in Scenario 1.  The others are gone.

Based on the league-wide perception of the Clippers and their ownership which was reinforced this week, I am more convinced than ever that LeBron James will NOT be a Clipper.  Nor will Dwyane Wade.  I'm not convinced that anyone else is truly worth maximum money, though I am convinced that you'd essentially have to overpay to get a Joe Johnson to sign with the Clippers.  For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that Scenario 1 doesn't happen.  Let's look at Scenario 2.

Scenario 2 is the stay over the cap scenario.  In scenario 2, the Clippers retain their Bird Rights to all of their free agents, which keeps them over the salary cap.  The advantage to this approach is that it also allows them to retain their exceptions.  Under this scenario, the Clippers could in theory re-sign any or all of their free agents.  But they'd still all be unrestricted, and they'd be under no obligation to re-sign with the Clippers.  Furthermore, since none of them figure to sign for more than the MLE, the Clippers wouldn't have a signficant financial advantage in trying to sign them, again unless they wanted to overpay significantly.  So while it's possible they could sign a significant number of these players, is it likely?  Let's go case by case:

  • Steve Blake.  What do Steve Blake and his agent want this summer?  For Blake (and pretty much any free agent) it boils down to the two M's - money and minutes.  Blake, perhaps more than any of the other Clipper FA's, increased his value the last few seasons and figures to sign for at least a little more than the 3/$12M he commanded in 2007.  It's a poor free agent market for point guards, so he'll be in demand, but even so I don't see him getting as much as the full MLE.  Which means, there are a lot of teams who will be interested.  Teams that need point guards.  Teams like the Lakers.  If he re-signs with the Clippers, Blake knows he'll be playing behind Baron Davis.  He'll be looking for a chance to start somewhere.  So the Clippers can compete on money, but they can't compete on minutes.  Steve Blake is gone - I don't see him being a Clipper next season.  Don't get me wrong - I'd love it if he were.  He's a terrific player, he runs the team well and he shoots the three ball well.  But I don't think there's enough in it for him.
  • Drew Gooden.  The logic here is the same - money and minutes.  With Blake Griffin planning to make his NBA debut and figuring to play the bullk of the minutes at power foward, and with two of the other returnees also needing significant front court minutes in Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan, there's no way Drew Gooden wants to be a Clipper next season.  He sees himself as a starter, which is probably why he didn't push for a buy-out when the Clippers acquired him - Kim Hughes told him he'd be starting and playing heavy minutes.  He showcased himself for other teams, and he'll be looking for a chance to start somewhere.
  • Travis Outlaw and Rasual Butler - Let's look at these two together.  They play the same position and it happens to be a position where the Clippers don't have a starter among their five returning players.  So in theory the opportunity would be there for one of them.  Of the existing crop of free agents, one of these guys would seem to be the most likely to return.  It's hard to imagine that Travis Outlaw in particular has an overly warm feeling about his time in LA.  The team was 8-22 while he was in LA, and he actually sat out a couple of the wins.  He also only averaged 21 minutes per game, fewer than his last three full seasons in Portland.  Butler also lost plenty of games for the Clippers, but he might have some decent memories of being part of a starting lineup that was 8-1 at one point before the bottom dropped out on the season.  He also averaged career highs in points and minutes, so he got plenty of chances as a Clipper.  From a team needs standpoint, Butler is the better all around player and defender, Outlaw is the better scorer and he's also younger.  It's difficult to know who would be a better fit from a chemistry standpoint - the guy who was there all season, or the younger guy on what figures to be a young team.  I can definitely see one of these guys being back - and probably it's Butler.
  • Craig Smith - Smith had a good season for the Clippers, but remains something of a minor piece on a team.  He fit well with MDsr, who likes to have a low post scoring presence.  But his size makes him a liability rebounding and on defense, and he's also extremely turnover prone.  Do the Clippers want him back?  I would think so, at the right price.  He's an LA guy, and didn't try to hide how happy he was to be back in LA when he was traded to the Clippers.  But he's unlikely to have a bigger role on a team with Blake Griffin, so he'd need to be satisfied with his playing time this year.  I could definitely see Smith returning next season, but I don't think it's a major move one way or the other.
  • The minimum guys - For Brown, Novak, Skinner and Collins, there's not much to discuss.  Frankly, I only expect Novak to be in the league next year.  He had a significantly worse season this year than last, and then he had to settle for a mimimum deal from the Clippers.  I'd like to see Novak back - though he was not nearly as good this year as he has been, we know he can shoot, and you can never have too much shooters.

Here's what I don't quite get from a salary cap standpoint.  If the Clippers retain their Bird Rights on all these players thereby staying over the cap, but then don't end up signing enough of them, what happens then?  If Blake and Outlaw and Gooden sign elsewhere, and suddenly the Clippers are below the magic number, do they still get to use their MLE?  What happens if they already used it, before the defections?  I haven't found the answer to those questions yet, but I'll keep looking.  Anyone out there know the answer?

So in Scenario 2, I'm not actually sure if the Clippers are guaranteed to be able to use the mid level exception to help fill out the roster.  If they only sign three guys (Butler, Smith and Novak), they'll actually be under the cap in terms of fully committed salary, even if they still have cap holds for other players.  Do they fill out the rest of the roster with the cap space?  With the MLE?  I honestly don't know how it works.  But they'd still only have ten players (if you include two draft picks), so they'd need to sign three to five more.

And this is why I've been avoiding writing about this.  Too many variables.