Most of NBA free agency is bogged down waiting for the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to find their homes. Lots of teams have lots of money on hold, and they can't move on to other targets until they miss out on the big boys. Even the Los Angeles Clippers, who have nothing beyond the mid-level exception to spend, will wait for the denouement on James and Anthony. As the best contender in a mega-market, the Clippers figure they have a chance at one of the big names if the player doesn't like any of his other options. In the modern NBA, a player has the ability to force his way to a team that can compete for a title in a major media market if that's what he really wants. In 2014, the Clippers fit that profile better than any other team. So we wait.
But one thing was already certain from the minor deals that have been happening over the past few days -- there was no way the Clippers were going to keep backup point guard Darren Collison.
Collison signed with the Clippers at below his market value last July -- and that was in a down market for players. When he opted out of the second year of that deal, which would have paid him a bit less than $2M, he and his agent said that they really wanted to stay in Los Angeles. But with severely limited resources and a much bigger hole to fill in the front court than at backup point guard, the Clippers were never going to use a significant portion of their MLE on Collison, as much as they like him and as well as he played for the team.
So when the first deals were reported -- 3/$16M for Shaun Livingston, 4/$32M for Avery Bradley, 3/$19M for Jodie Meeks -- it was obvious that Collison would be in a different uniform next season.
The only way Collison was going to remain with the Clippers was if the team could re-sign him without touching the MLE -- and that would mean giving him about $2.3M and an implied promise of more money when they secured his early Bird rights next season. That might have been enough to convince him to forego a $4M per contract to stay in his hometown -- but once Livingston got the full MLE the stakes became too high for the Clippers. Loyalty is worth something -- but there Collison wasn't going to turn down three years at $16M in Sacramento, an amount double what he's made in his first five seasons combined.
There's a different question in play here, which is that the new-found frugality of NBA teams is already a thing of the past, just three seasons into the new CBA -- you know, the one with the much harsher luxury tax that was supposed to make teams think twice about signing marginal players for ridiculous sums. I don't have time to go into it now, but suffice it to say that rules designed to save teams from their own stupidity are destined to fail, so long as the basic problem (i.e. the stupidity thing) remains. Sure, the deals are shorter in duration because of the new rules, and that helps -- but it turns out that overpaying player A for six years is more or less the same as overpaying player B for three years and then immediately turning around and overpaying player C for three years after that.
To their credit, the Clippers didn't overpay for a backup point guard. Unfortunately, it appears that they will have to overpay fairly significantly for a third big in the current market.
At a minimum the Clippers need to fill those two holes -- point guard and big man. They can take a chance on a less expensive option at the point, rolling the dice that Chris Paul stays relatively healthy and relying on Jamal Crawford to play the point in a pinch. Summer League invitee Delonte West is the type of player they could turn to there -- talented, rehabbing his reputation, can be had for the minimum.
Last season the team used their MLE to sign two members of their top seven rotation -- Collison and starting small forward Matt Barnes. But that was then, and this is now. Given the way money is flowing, it's highly doubtful that either Collison or Barnes would take those same deals this season. A useful big is going to cost the team the entire MLE, or certainly the lion's share. Of course, last summer they never found a useful big -- they went into the season with reserve bigs that were the opposite of useful, although useless seems a bit too harsh for Ryan Hollins, and not quite harsh enough for Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison.
For now, we wait. We wait to see what happens with Bron and Melo. We wait to see what happens with Paul Pierce, who apparently is going to require a decent salary as well, forcing the Clippers to explore sign and trade options to facilitate his reunion with Doc Rivers. But even if the free agency frenzy has started slow waiting for the big dominoes to fall, it's already obvious that it's going to be very difficult to find any value signings out there. Darren Collison was a bargain last summer -- but he got his payday in Sacramento.