Doc Rivers has a plan.
The C.J. Wilcox trade, which reportedly sends the young guard to Orlando along with cash, and brings back a future second-round pick and Devyn Marble's non-guaranteed contract, is the first step in that plan. It's the kind of trade that makes a lot of sense as a precursor to another move or two, but is far more questionable on its own. Until we know what's coming next, we can't be certain what Doc Rivers' plan is. In fact, it might take us the whole season to truly see it unfold, and by then he may have been forced into an adjustment. But for right now, here are the possibilities:
Doc Likes Devyn
Occam's razor (which states that the most simple solution is usually the correct one) is probably going to get an L on this one.
The simplest reason for the Clippers to swap disappointing youngsters with Orlando is the most obvious reason you could think of--Doc Rivers likes Devyn Marbles' fit with the Clippers better than Wilcox's, and Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan likes C.J. Wilcox's fit with the Magic better than Marbles'. The second-rounder from Orlando to LAC compensates the Clippers for giving up a player with slightly more market value, the cash from LAC to Orlando makes up for Wilcox's slightly higher salary.
Win-win, right? It's simple, it's easy, it's clean.
In this scenario, what comes next really doesn't matter--the Clippers moved a SG who was never going to play for a young guy at SF, where minutes are vulnerable to a hardworking player who proves himself. If Marble works out, Doc looks like a genius, and the Clippers have his bird rights when he enters restricted free agency next summer. If Marble doesn't work out, he's off the team in one year and the Clippers have the future pick to keep them from walking away empty-handed.
Big-picture, the Clippers trim an inconsequential $220,000 off of their salary sheet, saving them over $500,000 in tax penalties but not taking them out of taxpayer territory. Marble fills Wilcox's roster spot, which doesn't help the Clippers have room on the roster for another free agent.
Avoiding the Tax
Unfortunately for Devyn Marble, his time with the Clippers is likely going to be short-lived. His salary is fully non-guaranteed if he's waived on Friday, so on the same day that he is technically traded to the Clippers, he'll be placed on waivers by them. In this scenario, the Clippers' move $1,209,600 in salary for $980,431, then get rid of that and end up owing $0. It's basically free savings that leave them $509,386 under the luxury tax line. The second-round pick is their compensation for losing Wilcox and the Magic lose Marble, who they were intending to cut anyway.
$509,386 isn't enough money to sign another player for the veteran's minimum and still avoid being taxpayers. In fact, they couldn't even fit David Michineau's rookie minimum salary of $543,471 under the luxury tax--though it would be close. So, what can they do with $509k? Well, they have two options, which are the two sub-plans in the "avoiding the tax" plan.
Hang on to Dawson
The Clippers could have avoided the tax just as easily by cutting Branden Dawson's non-guaranteed deal and keeping Wilcox. They'd have a 14-man roster and $174,422 in wiggle room for 10-day contracts. If they liked Wilcox and didn't like Dawson, this would have been the obvious choice. It's possible that the choice to move Wilcox means the Clippers chose Dawson over him. In this case, since Dawson is cheaper than Wilcox, they can use the $509K of wiggle room they have left to add a mid-season buyout candidate. $509K gets you more than half of the season on a pro-rated version of the $980K minimum salary.
Dump Dawson for a veteran
It's possible that after two years of the C.J. Wilcox experience and one year with Branden Dawson, the Clippers are ready to move on from both and shift their focus to the new prospects, Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone (and David Michineau, although he likely won't be on the roster next season). In this scenario, even after trading Wilcox and cutting Marble, the Clippers could also cut Branden Dawson. This leaves them $1,384,022 under the tax line, which is a good amount of wiggle room. One veteran's minimum signing (Alan Anderson?) at $980,431 leaves Doc Rivers with $403,591, which is enough to pick a player up for about 32 games of the regular season.
Jeff Green joined the Clippers at the trade deadline last season and played in 27 games. When Glen Davis was bought out, he played 23 games with LAC to finish off the season. Getting rid of Wilcox and Dawson with $0 cap hit creates the perfect amount of space to add a free agent now, and keep a roster spot and some money open to add a potential buyout player in February or March.
Screw the tax, we just wanted a roster spot
Here's the thing about avoiding the tax--the reason the Clippers would seek to avoid it would be because of the repeater penalty. If a team has been a taxpayer for three of the last four seasons, they have much harsher tax rates than a normal taxpaying team. The Clippers are eligible for repeater status this season if they stay above the tax line. While their bill would be pretty small due to the massive cap spike and their slim margin over the line, getting under for a year is the first step towards getting away from being "repeaters". Unfortunately, the Clippers have been taxpayers in each of the 2016, 2015, and 2014 seasons, meaning that regardless of their status in the 2017 season, they'll still enter the summer of 2017 (and 2017-2018 cap year) having been taxpayers three of the last four seasons, and facing stiff penalties.
Additionally, huge raises coming to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick are sure to massacre the Clippers' payroll and force them well into the tax. So, sure, the Clippers could save a couple million this year--but it won't help them avoid tens of millions in penalties next summer.
If not for the tax, why would the Clippers do this trade? The same two sub-plans as above:
Hang on to Dawson
Even if the Clippers don't care about the luxury tax, the roster was shaping up in such a way that the only vulnerable spot was Dawson's non-guaranteed deal. The team already had 14 other guaranteed contracts, so unless they were going to cut guaranteed money, they were going to have to cut Dawson if they wanted to add another free agent. If the team didn't want to cut Dawson, moving Wilcox accomplished a simple goal--opening up another roster spot. Now, the team can add a new 14th guaranteed deal, and keep Dawson's non-guaranteed salary in that 15th slot. This would put the Clippers slightly over the tax, but that might not be Doc's biggest concern.
Dump Dawson for a veteran
Hey, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are in contract years, right? It might not be the most prudent decision if you value Wilcox and Dawson as prospects, but if you've given up on the experiments, then why not give up youth that won't help for veterans that might help. There are always injuries, fit issues, and locker room problems over the course of an 82 game season. By replacing Wilcox and Dawson with 2 more capable contributors, Doc increases his arsenal to adjust to whatever circumstances arise.