With only the taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum contracts at their disposal, Doc Rivers and his front office team will have very little room to improve the Clippers roster this summer. As discussed in our Clippers Off-Season Primer, the only two ways for the team to make a real splash will be through trades and the taxpayer mid-level exception. Trades are a complex and unpredictable world that is very hard to get into without delving into pure speculation. There will be rumors and pipe dreams aplenty as the summer progresses, but for now, it's more productive to focus on free agency.
The Clippers only have one real tool to lure players: the taxpayer mid-level exception, commonly referred to as the mini-Mid-Level Exception, or mMLE, due to being the little brother to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which the Clippers have utilized in recent years on Jamal Crawford (2012), Darren Collison and Matt Barnes (2013), and Spencer Hawes (2014). The full MLE is worth $5,464,000 this summer. The taxpayer MLE is worth only $3,376,000 for the upcoming season, giving the Clippers a significant disadvantage in luring free agents. Furthermore, this contract is only allowed to run for three years with 4.5% raises, capping out the deal at $10,590,596 over three years--hardly the four-year deal worth over $22 million that Hawes signed.
After that exception (which can be split between two players, but is hardly large enough to be), the only route for the Clippers to pursue other teams' free agents is with the league minimum--the type of exception that typically produces non-producers like Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins, Ekpe Udoh, etc. Occasionally, however, a diamond in the rough emerges. If the Clippers can find themselves another player like Matt Barnes for the minimum this summer, who can provide them with quality play and effort in a reserve role, it will be a blessing.
Heading into the summer, the Clippers' situation is as follows: four starters are set in stone (Paul, Redick, Griffin, Jordan). They'd like to upgrade the SF position, although the reality of that upgrade is questionable through free agency. Either way, they will need a strong backup SF to split minutes with Barnes and fill in in case the 35-year-old is injured. On the bench, outside of the SF situation, there's a murky outlook. The team seems to like the rest of that unit: Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, and Spencer Hawes. However, none of them are exactly set into stone, although with limited flexibility, the incumbency advantage is strong.
Rivers is hardly a complete player and far from a steady point guard, but his consistent defensive energy, combined with youth and athleticism, make him a solid combo guard to be the 4th man in a backcourt rotation. He'll add more than a minimum player would, and the Clippers have his limited bird rights, allowing them to re-sign him without using an exception. Throw in his flashes of greatness in the playoffs, and his father's title as head coach, and he's a safe bet to return.
Crawford, long known as a 6th man extraordinaire, has depreciated from a basketball value standpoint in front of our eyes in his three years on the Clippers. His game is the same as it always was, but the percentages keep dipping, and the defense and decision-making remains lackluster as he ages and loses trade value. Certainly, his $5,675,000 contract for next season is the Clippers' most expendable salary to bring back another moderately-paid player in a trade, but that same expendability is what makes him unattractive to other teams. Most likely, if he is to have value, it will be due to the non-guaranteed nature of his contract. Another team could flip a player making up to $7,193,750 for Jamal Crawford, then waive him by June 30 and only owe $1,500,000, saving themselves a few bucks in a last-ditch effort to create cap space. Unless a deal like that is worked out, Crawford likely returns, making bench improvement difficult.
Davis is probably the least valuable player of the retuHrning foursome, but his contract situation is interesting. The Clippers, with Davis' early bird rights, can offer him up to 104.5% of the league average salary, which should be about $5.6 million. He's certainly not worth it, but outside of Steve Ballmer's pockets, there's no basketball disadvantage, and it creates a reality where the Clippers can utilize that salary in a trade as a way of circumventing their lack of avenues to add salary. However, any deal signed using these rights must last at least two years, depreciating Davis' value as he wouldn't be an expiring deal for another year (Hedo Turkoglu is in the same boat contract-wise, but he brings less to the table basketball-wise). He's a serviceable backup but hardly a third big due to his lack of size, and unless Hawes bounces back, the Clippers will be no better than average in the backup big department.
Spencer Hawes, of course, is the largest question mark of this quartet of misfits. He may very well be the high-post-passing, three-point-shooting, valuable reserve that was anticipated upon his signing last summer. Or, he may find himself in the doghouse again, riding the pine and sometimes racking up DNP-CD's. The reality is that Spencer Hawes will be one of the highest-paid Clippers next season: this year he was sixth, and if Crawford and Jordan both return he will be sixth again next season. It's really hard for a cap-strapped team such as the Clippers, struggling with depth, to get nothing out of that salary. Even if Hawes isn't the bargain that he was expected to be at that price point, the Clippers need him to be serviceable, even if he has to rework his game around being 7 feet tall, clogging the lane, grabbing rebounds, and finishing around the basket. Spencer could end up anywhere from a 6th man hero to a benchwarmer in the coming season, but the Clippers hardly have a choice but the gamble again on the man they gambled on last summer and hope for a resurgence.
The curious case of these four main Clippers reserve players is that they all look serviceable on paper, but don't necessarily fit well together. Rivers and Crawford are both inefficient combo guards, neither quite inspiring confidence at the point and neither quite possessing the size to play small forward. Davis is a fourth-big level PF, but the unpredictable nature of Hawes' situation means that the Clippers may need more from their other backup big slot, while also not marginalizing the potential role and contributions of their sixth-highest paid player who already plays behind two All-NBA big men.
Presumably, the Clippers will need to first address their small forward woes. That position features the club's worst starter (with all respect and gratitude to Matt Barnes, who has performed above expectations repeatedly and taken a pay cut to continue giving his heart and soul to this squad) and a lack of a backup, featuring a rotating cast where none of the minimum-salary candidates could stick. This slot will either be filled via trade or mMLE. If it's filled using the exception, there's an obvious list of candidates. If it's filled via trade (with a unpredictable list of candidates), then Jamal Crawford is likely the outgoing player, refocusing the target of the mMLE to a guard that will accompany Austin Rivers in the backup backcourt. Either way, it's hard to see the taxpayer mid-level going to a reserve big, where the Clippers will likely have to roll with Griffin, Jordan, Davis, Hawes, and minimum candidates, hoping for the best.
Potential mMLE Targets: Small Forwards
- Mike Dunleavy, Jr.--MDJr would be an interesting twist for Clippers fans, a throwback(ish) to the days of his father coaching FElton Brand and Chris Kaman to the playoffs, then guiding the team to an era of Baron Davis, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. He's a veteran with a little bit of playoff experience and he's a sharpshooter with size, however he doesn't rebound well for 6'9" and isn't a great defender. Also, he'll be turning 35 before the season begins, and the Clippers could use a little bit of youth on the perimeter given the age of Chris Paul (30), J.J. Redick (turning 31 this off-season), Jamal Crawford (35), and Matt Barnes (35).
- Iman Shumpert--Constantly linked to the Clippers in their quest to find a young wing defender, Shumpert still doesn't quite fit the bill. He's undersized at small forward, not especially consistent or well-rounded offensively, and a restricted free agent on a Cavs team that would be thrilled to match only the mMLE to bring him back.
- Al-Farouq Aminu--The former Clipper lottery pick, who was sent to New Orleans as a part of the Chris Paul trade, has always had length and the tools to be a good SF/PF defensively and on the glass. This season, on a minimum salary deal to rebuild his value in Dallas, he showed that potential, earning a bit of a reputation for himself. However, it's uncertain that given Aminu's shooting woes (27% from three and never above 30% since his rookie season) he will be able to be a full-time SF for any team. It's also quite possible that a rebuilding team likes what they see and throws more money at him than the Clippers can offer.
- Corey Brewer--Brewer's name is thrown around a lot, but he has a player option for $5,000,000 for next season, and he won't get more than that from the Clippers or anybody else if he declines. Brewer will opt back in and his below-average shooting and wild flailing defense will stay in Houston at least another year.
- Wesley Johnson--Johnson is a pretty mediocre player, shooting 41% from the field and 35% from deep and not displaying defensive prowess while still possessing nice size and athleticism on that end. Perhaps if Doc believes in the 27-year-old's potential, he could be brought in to split time with Barnes, but the Clippers should try to do better before turning to Johnson.
- Gerald Green--Green posted nearly identical shooting splits as Johnson last season, but he brings noteworthy world-class athleticism, potentially giving "lob city" their first standout athlete and dunker at SF since the moniker was applied. However, there's more to basketball than that, and Green's skill as a "shot creator" can sometimes mean "chucker", maybe helping a team that needs more dimensions on offense, or maybe hurting an already inefficient second unit.
- Omri Casspi--The 26-year-old brings more efficient offense than most names on this list (49% from the field, 40% from deep) while still providing youth, but he's far from the defensive wing that the Clippers may be looking for, and last season's 40.2% three-point shooting performance could be an outlier for a 35% career shooter.
- Marco Belinelli--Of course a guy who went off against the Clippers would be a target, right? Belinelli is a bona fide sharpshooter, but he doesn't have much else to his game offensively and basically needs to be hidden defensively. Overall, he's limited and the Clippers need more than a one-dimensional spot-up guy with the mMLE
- Paul Pierce--The L.A. native and longtime Celtic who won a championship in Boston with Doc Rivers has bounced around a little bit in the last few years, ending up on a Washington Wizards team this summer where he was huge as a veteran presence and clutch shooter. He shot 45% from the field and 39% during the season, so it would seem that his shooting hasn't dropped off much, but he'll turn 38 before the season starts, which is not an encouraging sign for his diminishing defensive ability. Pierce has a player option for $5,000,000 in Washington, but the hot rumor from David Aldridge is that he will decline this option to return to his hometown and join the Clippers. The Clippers had a chance to get the veteran SF last summer, but chose to spend the Mid-Level Exception on Hawes instead. Maybe this year they'll look harder in Pierce's direction.
- Mo Williams--Williams, who opens the floodgates defensively and chucks inefficiently offensively, would be at his best a replacement Jamal Crawford should the Clippers find good value for Jamal in a trade. He's far from a steady hand who will run an offense, and one would hope that the Clippers could find a better target for the mMLE and if need be turn to Williams at the league minimum.
- Aaron Brooks--Brooks is coming off of a solid season for Chicago where he shot 42% from the field and 38% from deep while appearing in every game. He's an undersized, quick guy, which hurts his ability to play alongside Chris Paul, damaging his potential impact.
- Rajon Rondo--It's impossible to know what Rondo's value will be this summer coming off of his back-to-back flops in Boston and Dallas, but teams with money will almost surely take the gamble on the former all-star. It's possible, however, that everyone else decides to stay away from a point guard with a complex personality and awful shooting ability. If (and it's a huge if, a pipe dream even) no suitors come knocking with a big payday, and if Rondo is forced to choose a place to play for a year to rebuild his value, then nowhere makes more sense than with Doc Rivers.
- Jameer Nelson--Nelson is another candidate whose lack of size hurts his ability to play both guard positions and log minutes alongside Chris Paul. He's a solid guard who, at 33 years old, is probably going to be a backup anywhere he goes and seems likely to decline his player option so he can get out of Denver and chase a ring.
- C.J. Watson--The 31-year-old, 6'2" combo guard is has shot 39% or higher from deep in four of the last five years, meaning that he could space the floor playing alongside Chris Paul as well as handle the point in the second unit.
- Jeremy Lin--Lin was intentionally overpaid, but then underperformed against expectations that cast him as a high-quality starting point guard. Now that the league has a better idea who he is, it's hard to know exactly where his value will fall--he's clearly not a starting point guard, but he's still a solid player despite his defensive shortcomings.