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Could Carmelo Anthony be a Clipper?

Warning: hypothetical trades ahead.

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Finally, something to get excited about.

It’s been a boring year of hypothetical trades for the Clippers. They really don’t have assets with much trade value, so we’ve been reduced to the unexciting or the unrealistic.

In the last few weeks, we’ve discussed trades sending Wesley Johnson and a 2nd round pick for marginal upgrades like Thabo Sefolosha and P.J. Tucker. We’ve also discussed flipping Jamal Crawford for younger, better wings like Rudy Gay and Wilson Chandler. Nothing has really been enticing or seemed possible.

This Carmelo Anthony business, however, is fascinating.

The reality is that the Clippers can’t make a big, sexy trade (or even a medium sexy trade for a guy like Wilson Chandler) because the assets they’re willing to part with don’t carry enough value. L.A. isn’t interested in moving DeAndre Jordan, and their other three stars (Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and Blake Griffin) are all on expiring contracts, which would make getting a fair return impossible. After those four, there’s some veterans on bloated contracts, a few solid minimum-salary guys, two rookies who haven’t played yet, and Austin Rivers.

The draft pick cupboard is bare, too. The Clippers owe their 2017 pick to Toronto, with lottery protections that could force it to roll to 2018 or 2019. Two years after that pick conveys, they owe another lottery-protected pick to Boston, but that Boston pick can only roll as late as 2020. NBA teams cannot trade consecutive future first-round draft picks and they can’t trade future picks more than 7 drafts ahead of time. That means that the Clippers can trade one future first—either 2021 or 2022 depending on when they end up extinguishing their obligation to the Celtics.

As you can see, they don’t have the pieces needed to swing a big-time deal. So in order for any team to hand the Clippers a lopsided trade, there’d need to be a pretty significant X-factor. That X-factor is Carmelo Anthony’s no-trade clause.

Anthony can veto any trade, and there are rumors that he’s only willing to allow a deal that sends him to Cleveland (to play with LeBron James) or to the Los Angeles Clippers (to play with Chris Paul). This diminishes the Knicks’ ability to shop Anthony and have teams bid against each others’ trade packages. Their leverage is nonexistent—they can either trade him for whatever the Cavaliers or Clippers can scrape together, or not trade him at all. Just like with any trade scenario, the most likely outcome is that the trade doesn’t happen—but if Phil Jackson is really at odds with Anthony and determined to start a new chapter without the high-scoring forward, it could happen.

What can these teams offer? Well, I don’t think the Cavaliers are going to make a play for Anthony. Cleveland has struggled with a lack of depth this year, and unless they’re willing to trade one of their stars, they’d have to give up two rotational pieces to bring Carmelo in, making their short rotation a player shorter. Sure, they’d have more talent at the top, but with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love, I don’t think that’s a concern. Any likely package would center around J.R. Smith but would also have to feature Iman Shumpert or Channing Frye—and that’s just to get the salaries to work, before the teams start talking sweeteners and draft assets.

The Clippers, on the other hand, have the right combination of depth and expendable salary to make an offer without gutting their team. Carmelo has a salary of $24,559,380, so the Clippers (as taxpayers who can take back 125% + $100,000 of outgoing salary) have to send out at least $19,567,504. At first glance, this is an easy task: Jamal Crawford ($13,253,012), Wesley Johnson ($5,628,000), and Paul Pierce ($3,527,920), when put together, put you over that threshold.

But there’s a couple of catches.

First of all, Anthony has a trade kicker worth 15% of his remaining contract. For 41 more games this year and 82 games each of the next two years, Anthony is scheduled to make $66,451,590. 15% of that salary is $9,967,739, and because the final year of Anthony’s deal is following an early termination option, that bonus must be split between the two guaranteed years of his contract. That extra $4,983,869 this year moves his salary up to $29,543,249. In order to match that salary, they’d have to send out about $23,554,600.

In comes the other catch.

The Clippers are hard-capped at $117,287,000 because they used their full non-taxpayer mid-level exception this summer to sign Wesley Johnson. They currently have $2,546,968 in wiggle room underneath that hard cap. That means, essentially, that for any trade to be legal, the following must be true:

(incoming salary) - (outgoing salary) </= $2,546,968

By that formula, the Clippers must send out at least $26,996,281 in salary. It’s important to note that this is the far, far low end of the spectrum for outgoing salary: this places the Clippers at 100% of their hard cap allowance, without any room to sign players into their open roster spots. Depending on the deal, it’s likely that the Clippers will need at least some wiggle room for buyout additions.

Let’s take a look at how you build that offer without moving one of LAC’s stars.

The most obvious piece to include is Jamal Crawford and his $13,253,012 salary. There’s no possible way to build a package that doesn’t include him. Then, you’re also going to need Austin Rivers’ $11,000,000 contract or J.J. Redick’s $7,377,500 to get you within wiggle range of that $27 million mark. Presumably, the Clippers aren’t going to move J.J., and the Knicks would rather have the younger Rivers with a long-term deal than an expiring older Redick. Let’s move on with a package centered around Jamal and Austin. This means that Alan Anderson would now be filling second-unit SG duties.

Now we’re at $24,253,012, and swapping two players for one. The Clippers need to add at least about $3 million more to the deal—more is better, because it provides hard cap wiggle room. Teams are required to carry 13 players on the roster, so if the Clippers send out a package of 3 players, they technically wouldn’t need to sign a replacement, but they’d want to be buyout players.

There’s a lot of ways to get that last chunk of cash. Here are the three easiest:

  • Wesley Johnson: WeJo makes $5,628,000, which easily puts the Clippers over the bar and actually makes it so they’d take back slightly less salary then they’re sending out. This leaves LAC with a Felton-Anderson-Mbah a Moute-Bass-Speights second unit.
  • Paul Pierce: Pierce’s $3,527,920 gets the deal done and leaves the Clippers with just enough room to add a buyout guy in late February. Doc might not want to part ways in this unceremonious fashion, but maybe they can work out a 3-team deal where Paul goes to Boston, or maybe the Knicks can cut Pierce and let him sign a one-day deal to retire a Celtic.
  • LRMaM and Brice Johnson: The Knicks want defenders and prospects—here’s one of each. The two together make $3,476,920, which leaves the Clippers in a similar situation heading into buyout season as including Pierce would, though it would require that they sign a player or take back an additional Knick to give them 13 guys short-term.

The Clippers could also do some combination of these, mixing and matching to find a solution that both leaves L.A. with sufficient depth and appeases the Knicks.

I discussed the Clippers’ few draft assets at the beginning of the article, but they have some flexibility to sweeten the deal for New York. As mentioned above, the Clippers can trade one future first-round pick. They also own their own 2019 second rounder, and Cleveland’s 2020 second rounder.

But if they really need to create more flexibility, they can get creative (and expose themselves to risk) by toying with the protections on their owed picks. Because the Clippers are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs this year, the lottery protection on the 2017 pick doesn’t protect them but does restrain future flexibility. Getting rid of those protections is painless, and frees up the Clippers’ own 2020 and 2021 second round picks.

Much more painful would be giving up the protections on the Clippers’ 2019 pick owned by Boston. However, doing so would free up the Clippers’ 2022 second round pick and, because there would be no chance of that debt being fulfilled in the 2020 draft, the Clippers could trade both their 2021 pick and their 2023 pick. If the Clippers chose to go down this path, they could try to negotiate terms with Boston—perhaps a couple of the Celtics’ extra second rounders in exchange for the pick to become unprotected.

It’s unlikely that the Clippers would want to trade two future first round picks, especially if they’re already giving up Austin Rivers in the trade package, but it’s one way that they could create additional assets to facilitate a trade for Carmelo Anthony.

Here’s the most loaded return that the Knicks could possibly get:

Knicks give: Carmelo Anthony

Knicks get: Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Brice Johnson, 2021 LAC 1st, 2023 LAC 1st, 2019 LAC 2nd, 2020 LAC 2nd, 2021 LAC 2nd, 2022 LAC 2nd 2020 CLE 2nd, 2017 MIN 2nd, other future 2nds from Boston

Clippers give: Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Brice Johnson, protections on 2019 LAC 1st, 2021 LAC 1st, 2023 LAC 1st, 2019 LAC 2nd, 2020 CLE 2nd

Clippers get: Carmelo Anthony

Celtics give: 2017 MIN 2nd, other future 2nds

Celtics get: removal of protection on 2019 LAC 1st

You can tinker with that as you wish to adjust which players the Clippers send out, maybe shipping Pierce to Boston and Jonas Jerebko to the Knicks, maybe not including the Celtics at all (and only having one future 1st to send to New York), and definitely scaling back on the draft considerations—I wanted to demonstrate all of the flexibility, but I really, really don’t think the Clippers should be trading literally every draft asset they own for the next seven years. Maybe a more fair solution would be to lottery protect each of the first round picks going to New York, and have 2021 turn into 2021 and 2022 second rounders if not conveyed, and have 2023 turn into the 2023 second rounder if not conveyed. The Clippers might also be able to hang on to some of the draft considerations from Boston if they choose to make that swap to free up flexibility.

It’s a compelling trade scenario, built around Anthony’s no-trade clause. If the pieces fall into place and the Knicks really want to move Carmelo, and the Clippers really are the team he wants to go to, the deal would work like the one that I outlined above—a package built around the contracts of Crawford and Rivers, featuring a combination of filler salary and sweetener as well as draft considerations—an area where the inclusion of Boston and the elimination of the protections on the 2019 pick could give the Clippers more picks of their own to trade as well as net them a couple of extra second rounders from the Celtics.