In the comments of the Willie Green player preview earlier this week, citizen RichardSP requested a Los Angeles Clippers salary cap update. I've been meaning to do just that for some time, and the subsequent injury to Maalik Wayns makes it even more interesting and timely now.
The Clippers have had 13 players on guaranteed contracts since Antawn Jamison signed in late August. You can get relatively complete salary information for the team in any number of places online: ShamSports or HoopsHype or Hoopsworld or StoryTeller all do a good job. Those sites all have lots of details, but I'll try to distill what is most important to the Clippers here.
When you add up the 13 guaranteed deals the Clippers total 2013-2014 salary comes to $72,486,481. As I explained earlier today, the untimely pre-season injury to Maalik Wayns means, for all intents and purposes, his deal will also be guaranteed. That is because the deal will become guaranteed if the Clippers waive him while he is injured, and he will not be healthy until after his guarantee date of December 1. So you can add in Wayns at $788,872, bringing the total to $73,275,353.
In addition to those 14 players, the Clippers also have Brandon Davies and Lou Amundson in training camp. Amundson is around on a training camp deal and the Clippers can waive him and take no cap hit. Davies on the other hand is guaranteed $50,000. Davies, as a rookie free agent, is also on a cheaper deal than the veteran Amundson ($490,180 vs. $884,293) and would represent a smaller cap hit.
The maximum number of contracts an NBA team can carry is 15 -- but traditionally the Clippers have preferred to begin the season with 14 players and hold a roster spot open for flexibility. If Wayns were going to be out longer, they might waive him -- which wouldn't help with the salary cap, but would free up a roster spot. With Wayns due back possibly in December, the Clippers will have a difficult decision whether to use up their final roster spot now, or to hold onto it in case a veteran big man becomes available later in the season.
OK, let's get to the tough stuff.
The Clippers are in uncharted territory for the franchise -- and in fact, it's pretty much uncharted territory for any NBA team, since we're so early into the new CBA. Remember that the actual salary cap is relatively low compared to most team payrolls, and almost all teams are over the cap. The cap for 2013-14 is estimated at $58,679,000. The number that is more important than the cap is the luxury tax threshold, which is estimated at $71,748,000 this year. So this team has gone where no Clippers team has gone before -- they are in tax territory, even without Wayns' salary. With Wayns, the team's $73,275,353 payroll puts them $1,527,353 over the tax line.
So what does that mean? First and foremost, it means that barring other deals, they will have a tax bill of about $2.3M at the end of the season, paying $1.50 for every $1.00 they are over the threshold. But wait, there's more.
Under the new CBA, there are certain conditions that trigger a hard cap set $4M over the tax threshold, in other words at $75,748,000. Those conditions include the use of the full mid-level exception or the signing of a player via sign-and-trade, both of which the Clippers did this summer. So you can think of the Clippers as being ~$1.5M OVER the tax threshold -- or as being ~$2.5M UNDER the hard cap. Bear in mind that this is the first time the NBA has ever had a hard cap. In all prior iterations of the CBA, there were various and sundry exceptions that would allow you to spend more money -- essentially, no matter what else was going on, you could always waive a guy and sign a different guy for the league minimum. That is not the case with the Clippers this season. Any transaction that would take them over the magic $75.748M number would not be allowed. Would the NBA let them sign a player if they had a spate of injuries that forced them over that number? We just don't know since it's never happened before.
With $2.5M of wiggle room currently, the Clippers could still sign Amundson (vet min $884,293 cap hit), then waive Wayns for his roster spot and have enough room under the hard cap to sign another vet for the min (say Jason Collins for the sake of argument). But they'd be knocking right up against the hard cap at that point.
But consider this scenario. The Clippers have a $2.6M trade exception from the Eric Bledsoe trade, and are currently $2.5M below the hard cap. As it stands now, the Clippers could acquire any player in the league up to about $2.5M in salary -- but every dime they spend on Davies or Amundson comes out of that potential trade. Who could they get for $2.5M? I dunno. Maybe Brendan Haywood after he recovers from foot surgery, who knows? The point is, the Clippers have limited options, which became more limited with the Wayns situation, and become ever more limited with each dollar they commit.
There are of course limited opportunities for freeing things up as we move into the season. If for instance the Clippers are really feeling hamstrung by the Wayns salary, they can always work a mutually beneficial trade with the Sixers (or any other team under the salary cap) to take him off their hands. The Clippers trade Wayns and say a million dollars, saving about a million dollars in the process when you consider the tax bill, the receiving team waives Wayns and pockets $200K in profit, and the Clippers get a little more wiggle room. Similarly nefarious trades could be worked for Willie Green or anyone else on the roster, but now we're getting into players that actually have value, value commensurate with their salaries.
Then of course there are more legitimate trades that could be undertaken. Being between the tax threshold and the hard cap, the Clippers could look to make a trade to cut salary and avoid paying the tax -- or they could take on limited additional salary (though not more than that $2.5M) to improve the roster. Either is certainly a possibility as the season gets underway, especially if the team decides they really need another quality big and are willing to part with a wing (say Jamal Crawford or Jared Dudley) to make it happen. But that's a discussion for another time.
The salary cap and the CBA is a huge and complex subject. There are many, many more implications here that we could look at, but I'll save some of that for another post. For now, realize that the Clippers are between a rock (the luxury tax threshold) and a hard (cap) place. As much as they might want to keep an additional big heading into the season, doing so exacerbates a difficult situation and I don't think they'll do that. It's not as if Davies or Amundson has really done that much in the pre-season. It's my guess that the Clippers will enter the season with 14 on the roster, evaluate their options with Wayns after his surgery (specifically, keep him or trade him in a salary dump) and look for chances to improve the roster on the cheap during the season.