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To Keep C.J. Williams and Jamil Wilson, the Clippers Will Likely Need to Trade Brice Johnson—And Soon

It’s the only way to dodge the luxury tax and keep Doc Rivers’ rotation intact.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Brice Johnson has had a rough couple of years. It all started in the 2016 NCAA National Championship game, when Kris Jenkins hit a three at the buzzer to lift the Villanova Wildcats over Brice’s UNC Tar Heels, 77-74. A couple months later, the Clippers picked Brice 25th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, and he led L.A. to a last-place 0-5 finish in the Orlando Summer league.

By the time Clippers training camp rolled around, there were reports that second-round rookie big man Diamond Stone, who was chosen 15 picks after Brice, had already moved ahead of Johnson on the depth chart. In just his second pre-season appearance, Brice suffered a herniated disc in his back which caused him to miss most of the season. By the time he recovered in February, he was so far behind the learning curve that he was unable to break into the Clippers’ rotation, receiving just 9 garbage-time minutes spread across three games. Even Stone, who was rarely used before being thrown in as salary filler in the Danilo Gallinari trade this summer and subsequently was cut by the Altanta Hawks, played more: 24 minutes in 7 appearances.

With Chris Paul gone and the Clippers’ future in flux, it seemed as though Brice would have a shot to earn rotation minutes in his sophomore season and get his career on track, but it never materialized, as off-season additions Danilo Gallinari, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Willie Reed promised to join existing backup Wesley Johnson in soaking up most of the PF and C minutes behind All-Stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Then, on the October 31st deadline a couple of months ago, the Clippers declined Brice’s team option for the 2018-19 season, making him a restricted free agent next summer.

Even with serious injuries keeping starting forwards Danilo Gallinari and Blake Griffin out for much of the season, along with Doc Rivers’ #1 backup forward Wesley Johnson missing time and newcomer Sam Dekker struggling, Brice has been unable to get playing time. He’s played just 38 minutes in 9 appearances this year, and has spent a substantial amount of time in Ontario with the Agua Caliente Clippers. Perhaps most telling is that both of the Clippers’ two-way contract players, Jamil Wilson and C.J. Williams, have clearly surpassed him in the pecking order, getting rotation opportunities before earning starting spots in recent games.

Now, with Wilson and Williams nearing their limit on the 45 days that their two-way contracts allow them to spend on the Clippers’ NBA roster, Brice could be leaving the Clippers ahead of his contract’s June expiration date. Tonight against the Sacramento Kings is Wilson’s 40th day on the roster, while it’s C.J. Williams’ 34th. Once a player reaches his 45-day limit, the team has the option to convert his deal to a minimum-salaried NBA contract, which would allow the Clippers to keep both of these guys for the rest of the season. However, there are two roadblocks: first, a two-way player does not count against the 15-man roster, but takes up a roster spot when converted to a minimum-salary deal, and second, the Clippers are just $122,579 under the luxury tax, and would like to avoid crossing that threshold and having to pay the repeater tax in the years to come.

The easiest way to solve both problems is to trade Brice Johnson. Brice has a $1,331,160 salary figure for this season, which gives the Clippers $1,453,739 to work with underneath the hard cap—roughly enough for two pro-rated rest-of-season deals (though you might need to go a few games without one or both guys between them hitting their 45th day and signing their new deal). Trading Johnson also moves the roster from 14 guaranteed contracts to 13, leaving the Clippers with two spots for Williams and Wilson.

There likely wouldn’t be much of a market for Johnson, due to his career trajectory described above and the Clippers’ desire to move him, but his small and expiring salary makes him incredibly easy to move to any team capable of absorbing his contract. There probably won’t be more than a protected second-round pick switching hands—it all depends on whether or not there are teams out there that are intrigued with Brice as a prospect. If someone likes him, they’ll likely take him for free, and if multiple teams like him, the Clippers might be able to get a fringe asset. More likely, however, is that the Clippers will have to part way with a fringe asset of their own in exchange for another team helping them out—watch for them to dangle Cleveland’s 2020 2nd round pick, or perhaps the worse of Cleveland and LAC’s 2020 2nds.