OK, let's give this topic the comprehensive ClipperSteve treatment it deserves.
The addition of Kenyon Martin to the Los Angeles Clippers addresses a need for quality and especially front court scoring off the bench. That's good. Martin looked better than anyone had a right to expect in his debut Wednesday night in Cleveland. He's not a center, but I'm becoming less concerned with that. If they can beat Orlando on the road with Reggie Evans defending Dwight Howard for long stretches of the game, then who really cares if they have another seven footer behind DeAndre Jordan? Martin was the best available front court upgrade, they got him, so the needs lie elsewhere now.
If you were going to add one player to the Clippers roster at this point, it would be a wing player capable of playing the two or the three. This need existed prior to the injury to Chauncey Billups, but it is more acute now, given that Billups was one of the bigger guards on the roster. A big wing would address a couple of issues. It would provide an alternative to the unproductive Ryan Gomes as the backup small forward, and it would also provide some size on the wing for defending the league's bigger twos like Kobe Bryant and Joe Johnson. In a prefect world, this player would be a great scorer, a great rebounder and a great defender -- someone along the lines of LeBron James. In reality, the Clippers will have to take what they can get, but if you were going to prioritize the attributes, defense would have to come first, since the team has plenty of scoring already.
So what are the options? Let's go through all the issues:
The roster is currently at 14, so the Clippers have a spot available. The team waived the unguraranteed contract of Solomon Jones on Tuesday to get down to 14. Roster flexibility should not be a limiting factor in making moves at this point. The team has a spot available at present, and if for whatever reason they needed another (if for instance they found deals for both of their TPEs), they have more than one reasonable candidate to waive outright. It would cost the team some money to waive Brian Cook at this point, but it's not like he's adding much. Same goes for Travis Leslie, but the perception is that he at least has some upside. At any rate, roster spots are not a problem.
Traded player exceptions
The Clippers have two traded player exceptions, for $3.9M (Eric Gordon) and $2.9M (Al-Farouq Aminu) in the Chris Paul trade. Please don't ask me to explain how that all transpired, because I do not know. Here's what you need to know about TPEs. You can't combine them with each other. It would be great if the Clippers could trade their two TPEs for one player making up to $6.8M -- but they can't. You can't use them to take up extra salary in a trade. You can't even do any fuzzy math, taking back 125% or 150% or even 101% of the salary in a trade. You pretty much can't do anything with a TPE except use it as is. So the $3.9M TPE is available to trade for a player making less than or equal to $3.9M. Period.
Essentially, this means that the second TPE is almost completely irrelevant. The odds of finding one trade candidate that works under either TPE is pretty remote -- finding a second one would be next to impossible.
So for the TPE, you would look for players that fit the Clippers needs profile that make less than $3.9M. Someone like, say, Tony Allen, who is making $3.1M this season. Oh and one more thing. The other team would have to want to trade the player, which Memphis will definitely NOT want with Allen. The Clippers could include draft picks to try to entice a potential trade partner -- but unfortunately it would be complicated to include anything other than a second round pick. Not to mention that the Clippers are probably not eager to trade another first round pick after trading away three in the last 20 months.
Eric Pincus throws out several names in his article on the Clippers search for a wing. Names like Nicolas Batum, Mickael Pietrus, Marquis Daniels, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Parker, Rudy Fernandez, Courtney Lee and Nick Young. This is more or less a list of wings that make less than $3.9M this season, and therefor are candidates for the Clippers' TPE. But it's not as if the Blazers would give up Batum for nothing.
We'll come back to TPEs a little later when we look at the motivations of other teams.
Regarding trades, let's adopt the position that the Clippers are not going to give up anything that they value particularly highly. So the assumption here is that Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe (not to mention Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) are not going to be involved in trades to improve the team now. So what do they have to trade? They have a couple of expiring contracts.
The TPEs are more valuable as trade chips because they can get a team under the tax threshold (or simply reduce their tax bill) NOW. But expiring contracts can be helpful for rebuilding teams looking to clear cap space for the off-season. The Clippers have Randy Foye ($4.25M) and Brian Cook ($1.223M) on expiring deals, and would happily part with either one to get a big wing back. (Foye has value to the team, but would become redundant with the player they seek; Cook is ballast.) If you combine the salaries of Foye and Cook, you get $5.473M or so, and unlike with trades involving TPEs, there is also some wiggle room with normal trades. The Clippers are below the luxury tax and would be free to take back up to 150% plus $100,000 in the salary they trade out. So 150% of $5.473M plus $100K allows the Clippers to target players making up to $8.3M in return for Foye/Cook. That's significant, as it includes a much larger group of players than the TPE of $3.9M, like those who have recently signed MLE deals that their teams have grown to regret.
So for instance, one presumes that the Suns would be more than happy to get a do over on their Josh Childress signing, and a Foye for Childress trade works just fine. The huge downside to that for the Clippers is the three more seasons and $21M left on Childress' deal beyond this year. Dallas might even be interested in getting rid of Shawn Marion, as it would help facilitate their plan to make a run at Deron Williams and Dwight Howard this summer. As with the TPE, other teams might be looking for a sweetener in any trade beyond simply expiring deals, but the Clippers don't have much sugar in the sugar bowl.
The Clippers could always sign a free agent. There are only two problems: (1) there aren't many free agents worth a damn still available -- if they were worth something, they'd be on a team already; and (2) the Clippers can only offer the veteran's minimum because they're over the cap and have used their other exceptions.
J.R. Smith is one free agent that is a cut above any other player available, because he's been tied up playing in China. His season there is done in about five days (his team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs recently) at which point he'll be able to return to the NBA. The Clippers have expressed interest in Smith, and he would fit their need well -- perhaps not perfectly, but better than any other available free agent. Of course, lots of other teams are interested in J.R. also. The Clippers can only offer the minimum, so would J.R. be willing to play here just because it's a good fit on a good team? He can make more money and get a LOT more shots in New York, but he wouldn't make it as far in the playoffs.
10 day contracts
This week marked the start of the period in which NBA teams can sign 10 day contracts. Really, this is just a sub category of free agency, but it allows a team to take a low risk chance on a player. There are plenty of big wings in the D-League that would love a chance to show VDN what they can do -- the question is, are any of them better than Travis Leslie? Still, teams find productive players in the D-League every year, so it's a tool that can't be ignored.
Scott Schroeder of SBNation put together a primer on D-League players ripe for 10 day contracts on Monday. Manny Harris, a former Cav, might be a candidate. There are some familiar names on the list like former first rounders Gerald Green, Morris Almond and Derrick Byars, not to mention former Clippers second rounder Marqus Blakely and JamesOn Curry, who had a cup of coffee with the Clippers a couple season ago.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Where does all of this leave us? With the news that Smith's Golden Bulls are out of the playoffs, I doubt that anything will happen until his situation is resolved. J.R. is the Clippers first choice, and if they get him, they'll be happy. If they don't get him (which they probably won't), they'll have to move on. We should know one way or the other in about a week.
If Smith winds up in a uniform other than Clippers red, white and blue, then it might be time to take a flyer on a 10 day guy. It's unlikely that they're going to find the answer in the D-League, but it wouldn't be the first time a D-League player became a contributor. I really liked Marqus Blakely when he was with the Clippers in Summer League and would be curious to see what he might be able to do. Signing a player to a 10 day contract doesn't preclude continuing to look for trade opportunities, either with the TPEs or with Foye/Cook expiring deals. The trade deadline this year is March 15; about four weeks after J.R. Smith becomes available. So you can wait on Smith's decision, sign a guy to a couple 10 day deals, and still be a week away from the deadline. Teams will be much more realistic about what they can get as the deadline approaches.
They'll also take a hard look at their finances. The TPEs may not yield much on the trade market, but if they have value it will be to a team that is into the luxury tax -- ideally, just barely over the threshold. Trading a salary of X for a trade exception can save a tax team 2X; it can save even more for a team that can get itself under the tax with a trade. Memphis becomes a really interesting potential trade partner in this light. They're a little more than a million over the tax threshold, according to ShamSports. They're not going to give up Tony Allen for nothing; but what about Quincy Pondexter? Or might they be willing to swap O.J. Mayo for Randy Foye, just for the tax savings (the difference in salaries would get them just under the threshold)?
Those tax teams are the ones that will be most interested in one of the Clippers TPEs. Unfortunately, none of them seem to have any players of particular interest to the Clippers. A whole bunch of teams got under the cap this summer via amnesty -- of those that didn't, the best choices other than Pondexter might be Pietrus or Daniels from the Celtics. Not terrible -- but not game changers.
So other than 10 day contracts, it's wait and see who else becomes available. A $3.9M TPE is probably not going to be enough to get the player the Clippers need, but as the trade deadline approaches, you never know who is going to be shopped. Milwaukee seems to have a glut of players on the wing, but the ones the Clippers can afford (Shaun Livingston, Carlos Delfino, Mike Dunleavy Jr) aren't signed particularly long term, so the Bucks would be looking for some value in return. Most likely, if the Clippers are going to fill this hole, they'll have to do it with a good player on a bad contract -- someone like Childress or Trevor Ariza who fills the need the Clippers have, but is making much more money than they are worth.
There's one last possibility -- the trade deadline will bring it's fair share of big trades. Deals that see teams swapping their problems, or veterans included in deals to make salaries match. Invariably, some of those players get bought out after the fact because they don't fit into their new team's long term plans. Those players will become free agents after they clear waivers, and will be looking for attractive destinations where they can chase a ring. And for once, the Clippers qualify as one of those teams.