The contract year can often be a dubious one for front offices. With one season largely determining the next payday, players often find the motivation to come into training camp in shape and post career years. Teams must be smart enough to gauge whether this was a legitimate step forward in the player's development, or if after getting paid they'll regress to back to their career averages (Trevor Ariza is the prime example of contract year misnomer).
This season, in a contract year, DeAndre Jordan has played the best basketball of his life. For the season the Clippers' big center is putting up 11.4 points per game while snaring 14.9 rebounds, blocking 2.2 shots, and
dunking shooting 70.7% from the field. Even these numbers don't give DeAndre enough justice for how outstanding of a season he's having, especially taking into account how he massively upped his game when Blake Griffin was sidelined with a staph infection. Since February 8th, DeAndre's been putting up 13.3 points, 17.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, all while anchoring the 7th best defense in the league since the All-Star break. While Jordan hasn't been quite the DPOY, despite however much Doc may repeat it, he has established himself undoubtedly as a plus defender and elite rim protector. However the most important number may be consecutive games played for DJ, holder of the longest streak in the NBA, because Jordan is an ironman and simply doesn't get injured.
There are plenty of other statistics that could be cited to show exactly how great of a season DeAndre is having, but more importantly, looking at his growth under Doc Rivers, these advances don't seem like flukes. All of this is to say that with the way DJ has performed this season, and taking into account the salary cap is going to jump in the summer of 2016 with the new media revenue coming in and gobs of team will have huge cap space this offseason and teams often overpay big men, someone is going to throw DeAndre a max offer sheet. The question becomes if the Clippers will match it.
The answer: Without a doubt YES. Regardless of whether or not you think Jordan is truly worth a max contract in the NBA, if the Clippers let DJ walk, under the rules of the salary cap they would only have about 5.6 million to find a replacement. In order to get to that 5.6 million, the Clippers would also have to decline their team options on Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes. Besides losing two of their core rotation players this season, it would be impossible for the Clippers to find an adequate replacement for DeAndre even with using all of their 5.6 million in cap room. Zach Lowe once floated a theory that the Clipper could let Jordan walk in order to open up enough cap space to make a run at Durant in the summer of 2016. However that theory rested on the Clippers being able to plug in Spenser Hawes as a DJ stop gap replacement for a year and remain competitive. After Hawes's performance this season, that's an impossibility. I doubt the Clippers are keen on wasting a year of Chris Paul's declining prime in order to gamble on an uncertain future with a potentially injury prone superstar.
This is all to say that DeAndre Jordan will almost certainly be receiving a max contract from the Clippers this summer. Now the question becomes what will that do to the rest of the Clippers financial prospects. The projected salary cap for next year is about $67.4 million, meaning the luxury tax line will be at about $82 million and the apron $86 million. A 5-year max contract for DJ with 7.5% raises in between will total about $110 million over five years, with the first year starting at approximately $19 million. Adding DJ's max contract means the Clippers will not have the non-taxpayer (or full) MLE next year. Even if the Clippers were to minimize payroll as much as possible, meaning cutting Jamal and Barnes and filling the roster with 6 vet minimum players, with DJ's max contract they would end up with a team salary of about $82.7 million. In order to use the full MLE, a team must be able to remain under the apron for the whole year. For those that don't know, the apron is the hard cap imposed on teams that use the bi-annual exception or the non-taxpayer mid-level exception or receive a player in a sign-and-trade; being a hard cap, the team may not exceed that at any point during the year. The Clippers have been hard-capped the past two years for using the non-taxpayer MLE and this season also the BAE. At $82.7 million, the Clippers would only be about $3.3 million under the apron, meaning they would only have that much of the non-taxpayer MLE to use instead of its full $5.464 million, as well as no flexibility.
The taxpayer MLE, which does not impose the hard cap on the Clippers to stay below the apron, for next year is 3.376 million, about the same amount as they would have with the full MLE, except without the apron complications. While not having the full MLE takes away a big weapon in the Clippers' free agency arsenal, ultimately no player coming in for the full MLE would be worth losing DJ. In addition, if DJ did walk, the Clippers would really only have the full MLE to spend on his replacement, as well as plug other holes, so the taxpayer MLE is not that bad of a tradeoff. This taxpayer MLE will be the Clippers only real way outside of veteran minimum contracts to sign free agents this offseason, so hopefully Doc will make it count.
Other possibilities that could occur regarding DJ this offseason are the chance he takes a friendly discount to stay with the Clippers, unlikely considering athletes rarely ever leave millions of dollars on the table, especially when signing their first max contract. DeAndre could elect to sign a one year deal with a player's option for the second year. This would set him up to sign another max contract with the Clippers in the summer of 2016 when the cap, and max contracts, are set to jump. While this is certainly a possibility that shouldn't be ignored, guaranteed money is very tempting in a profession where your career can change in an instant (see Wesley Matthews). Finally, if Jordan really wants to leave for another team, the Clippers could pursue a sign and trade in order to try and recoup something instead of nothing.
One other possible situation that could change things for the Clippers cap wise if there are any sudden jumps in the cap projections, though that possibility seems less likely as the Players Association is against the smoothing idea. All these cap numbers are obviously estimates and some things could change when the real numbers come out like they do most seasons, but overall the Clippers financial flexibility with a max DJ shouldn't really be affected.
Signing DJ to a max contract may seem like a precarious situation for the Clippers, but one that is unavoidable. There is simply no real benefit in losing DeAndre because of the salary cap, so the Clippers will have to pay him what he wants. The real steal for the Clippers may be locking Jordan up to a max contract before the salary cap jumps. In 2016, the salary cap could rise over $90 million, meaning a max contract for DeAndre then could start at about $27.3 million. Even the most conservative estimates for the jump in salary cap, projecting a $78 million dollar cap, would put DeAndre's starting salary at about $21.9 million. Ultimately by locking up Jordan at the max this offseason, the Clippers will be getting a good deal.
A couple other salary cap notes:
If anyone who doesn't know about the salary cap was interested in how the Clippers can go over the salary cap to resign Jordan to a max, that's because of something called Bird Rights, which allow teams to exceed the salary cap in order to resign their own players. There are different level of Bird Rights, with full Bird Rights, early Bird Rights, and non-Bird rights (these terms are also referred to as qualifying veteran free agents and early qualifying free agents in other contexts like in the CBA). The different level of Bird Rights allow a team to resign their players at different amounts. With full Bird Rights, as with DJ, the Clippers can offer a max contract, with early Bird Rights it's the greater of the average NBA salary or 175% of the player's previous salary, and with non-Bird Rights it's the greater of 120% of the player's previous salary or the minimum salary.
In reference to Bird Rights, the Clippers have Bird Rights to Austin Rivers because they acquired him by way of trade from the Celtics. However, with Doogie, there exists an exception to his Bird Rights associated with his rookie contract (this was wisely pointed out by Bolts in a previous comments section, I'm just repeating it for others). Because the Pelicans declined the 4th year rookie option on Rivers's contract, the first year offer the Clippers could give Austin by way of Bird Rights is restricted to his previous option. This means the Clippers can offer Austin a maximum of $3,110,796 next year, a figure that is likely greater than or equal to his market value. As the Clippers are already beyond the full MLE, they may as well reunite the Little Rivers Band next year, at some number equal to or below that figure.