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Thinking Outside the Box: Split the Mini-MLE

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We've known for a while that the Clippers only have one way to sign a player who is better than minimum-salary caliber, but what if they could use it to get two?

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The Clippers have only one tool to sign another team's free agent this summer: the mini-mid-level exception, worth about $3.373 million starting salary.  We've known this to be the case for a while now.  One player, on a contract that maxes out at 3 years and about $10 million.  But what if it wasn't just one player.

Technically, exceptions can be split and shared between two or more players.  The Clippers did it a couple years ago, dividing money between Darren Collison and Matt Barnes, effectively landing two quality role players with one exception.  That, however, was the full mid-level, and the money split was close to $5 million, not close to $3 million.  We see it in other instances where teams don't utilize their MLE and then in the late summer or mid-season use it to sign minimum-level guys or undrafted free agents to deals worth slightly more than the minimum.

Why not apply the same principle here?  Splitting the mMLE would give the Clippers room for two players at rates above veteran's minimum salaries, giving a little bit of incentive to free agents to pick the Clippers over other suitors at the minimum level, and coming close to matching potential bi-annual exception offers from other teams.

The league has a somewhat complex minimum salary system.  Essentially, no matter who the Clippers sign, the cap hit and amount paid by the team is going to end up around $947,000.  The difference between that number, and whatever number the scale determines a player's minimum is based upon years of experience, is paid out by the league.  This gives veterans more money without discouraging teams from signing them to minimum deals.

For example, a 5-year veteran's minimum is about $1.1 million this season.  Any team can give this player a minimum salary contract, in which they pay him $947,000, the league pays him about $150,000, and he ends up with $1.1 million.  The Clippers, however, using a portion of their mMLE, could offer him a slight raise (but significant in percentage considering the size of his contract) at, say $1.4 million.  In this case, the team would pay out the entire sum.

In order for splitting the mMLE to work, the Clippers would need to target players with relatively low experience.  Players with 10+ years of experience have a minimum of just under $1.5 million, making the difference between that and the $1.65 half of the mMLE negligible.

However, to focus on two oft-discussed potential minimum-level guys, let's take a look at Omri Casspi and Alonzo Gee.  While both of these players could get deals in the $3 million range, they could also both end up as minimum signees, and an above-min offer could snag both.  Casspi and Gee both have 6 years of experience, making their minimum $1,185,784.  The value of the mMLE, $3.373 million, when split in half, leaves each player with about $1.688 million.  This gives both of them over $500,000 more, which is pretty significant at almost 150% of the minimum salary, and an extra million for two guys who have been relatively low-salary at $15 million combined in the last six seasons.

Now, it's possible that if both of these players find themselves without substantial offers, the Clippers could have them for the minimum anyway.  It's also quite feasible that both of these players end up in the price range where the full mMLE would be needed to secure them.  However, the idea of splitting this exception between two potential FA targets, players who are among the best of the minimum-salary pool or maybe players at a $1.5-2 million level, it could be the difference between missing out on two players and two competitive offers.

Furthermore the split doesn't have to be even.  If there's a 2nd-year player available, whose minimum is less than one million, the Clippers could give $2 million to one more experienced player, and the remaining $1.376 to the younger guy.  Any way the money can be split to provide two above-minimum deals is a way that the Clippers could fill two holes with one tool.  Gee and Casspi playing SF by committee with Lance getting some minutes there as well doesn't sound bad at all, and may even be better than getting one slightly better guy, then being stuck with an underwhelming backup.

One drawback to this idea is that the Clippers get a new mini-MLE every summer, and it can run for three years, meaning that by signing players for the maximum contract the exception allows, they can lock up a player for multiple years and, by adding one every season, end up with bird rights on more quality players.  Someone like Casspi or Gee may find themselves less willing to sign on for three years at a discounted rate, especially given the low 4.5% maximum annual raise, but if the Clippers could even get them for two seasons, the early bird rights (up to 104.5% of the league's average salary) would likely be enough to ensure retaining them.