Before the news that Chris Paul would no longer be with the Los Angeles Clippers came Wednesday morning, we expected the Clippers’ off-season to be fairly similar to the routine we’ve become accustomed to over they years: Doc Rivers searching through the bargain bin to find average veterans to take paycuts. Maybe one above-minimum signing—but not much, and look how those tend to turn out (Spencer Hawes, Paul Pierce, and Wesley Johnson being three examples).
Instead, the Chris Paul trade has thrown the Clippers’ summer upside-down. While the sobering and unavoidable reality is that the Clippers are a worse basketball team than they were just days ago, losing a maximum-salary player who was thought to be untouchable in trade talks gives the team a degree of flexibility that they haven’t had in years.
The first step when the clock strikes 9:01 PM Pacific time tonight is to ensure that Blake Griffin re-signs. Without an answer from Griffin, it’s hard for the Clippers to chart their next move: if they keep Blake and make good decisions around him, they could still be in the 45-50 win range next year and have a ton of cap room in the summer of 2018 to add another major piece. If Blake departs, the Clippers are in a position to move their veterans for future draft assets. It would certainly be foolish to pay big money to aging players like Andre Iguodala with Griffin gone.
The key detail that is separating the Clippers and Griffin from an agreement is the 5th year on his maximum-salary contract. Griffin is seeking a full $172 million deal over five years. The Clippers, for their part, would rather give him four years totaling $133 million. Other teams can only offer Blake 4 years and $128 million, so while the Clippers still have an advantage, it’s a slight one. Possible compromises could include a 5-year deal at a discount (if Blake’s contract were to start at 25 million instead of 30, his deal would look like 5/145. If it started at 26, it would look like 5/151, etc.) or a partial guarantee based upon games played. Mike Miller had a similar contract earlier in his career, where the guarantee for his final season was based upon the number of games he appeared in. If the Clippers and Griffin agreed to a threshold of 250 games over his first four seasons, Blake would have to appear in an average of 62 games a year to have his fifth year guaranteed. Any less, and the Clippers would have the option of moving on.
Once the Clippers keep Griffin, they turn to the task of putting a roster around him that can compete, while maintaining their flexibility for the summer of 2018. This likely means trying to add a quality wing player on a reasonable deal. I don’t think the Clippers will look to overpay just to add talent, but if they can get someone in the 8-12 million range, they would still have flexibility moving forward.
According to a report from Brad Turner of the L.A. Times, the Clippers are interested in a group of wings that could be right in that price range: Jonathan Simmons, Rudy Gay, Danilo Gallinari, P.J. Tucker, James Johnson, Joe Ingles, and Andre Iguodala.
While some of these players figure to offers outside of the Clippers price range, a few of the veterans could be interested in paycuts and some of the lesser names on the list might listen to mid-level exception offers for a starting role. The Clippers basically have three avenues to add help:
- They could sign-and-trade for a player. The team generated a $7.3M trade exception in the Chris Paul deal, but that’s not likely to help them land one of the better players on this list (the maximum they could offer using the TPE would be $31.7 million over 4 years.) It’s possible that James Johnson or P.J. Tucker would be willing to talk at this price point, but they could also get more. The other avenue in a sign-and-trade would involve sending out one or more of the medium contracts that remain on the Clippers’ books: Jamal Crawford ($14,246,988), Austin Rivers ($11,825,000), Lou Williams ($7,000,000), and Wesley Johnson ($5,881,260). This gives them more options, but teams are unlikely to want just these bad contracts—they’d like ask for draft assets or one of the Clippers’ prospects.
- They could use the mid-level exception. Without Chris Paul, the Clippers are going to avoid the luxury tax and have usage of the full mid-level exception, which has greatly increased in value under the new CBA. The starting price is $8,406,000, which projects out to $36,145,800 over four years. While this is still low on the spectrum for the bigger names that the Clippers are targeting, it isn’t totally out of the question that someone like Joe Ingles, Jonathan Simmons, or Andre Iguodala could consider this price point. Ingles and Simmons, however, are restricted free agents, so the Jazz and Spurs would eagerly match this contract. Iguodala, on the other hand, is likely to get more offers and would have to be recruited to join Blake Griffin and Jerry West at a discount.
- They can clear cap room. Becoming a cap room team places some limits on the Clippers—while they can use the TPE and MLE together, they’d have to give up both to use cap room. They’d be left with just the room exception ($4.328M) after they used their cap room. Still, by making some trades to move salary the Clippers could open up a substantial slot for a wing free agent—the kind of move that was impossible in past summers. Presently, if the Clippers were to waive DeAndre Liggins ($26,773 guaranteed) and Kyle Wiltjer ($0 guaranteed), they’d be about 7 million over the salary cap. Then, you cut costs. Lou Williams’ $7 million deal should be easy to move into a team’s cap space for a future 2nd round pick, leaving you at the cap. Jamal Crawford’s deal isn’t as enticing to other teams and you aren’t likely to get any assets in return, but because it only has $3 million guaranteed past this season it’s doable. Austin Rivers probably won’t fetch much of a return and probably shouldn’t be salary-dumped as he figures to be the team’s shooting guard next season. Lastly, Wesley Johnson’s deal, which has 2 years and $12 million remaining, might be cheap enough for some team to take a flier on him.
One outside-the-box move could involve trading DeAndre Jordan for a cheaper center. Jordan makes $22.6 million, and potential replacements like Tyson Chandler make just $13 million. It’s a downgrade, but it leaves the Clippers with more options this summer as well as next, when they would have a hard time re-signing Jordan and opening a max slot for a free agent.
You can do your own math here: moving Williams (7M) and Crawford (14M) gives you 14M to use on a free agent. Moving Williams (7M) and trading Jordan (23M) for Tyson Chandler (13M) gives you about 10M to use on a free agent.
Once the Clippers land one of their wing targets, they’ll be left to round out their second unit with minimum-salary deals. If they use cap room to add a wing, they’d also likely have to renounce players like Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Luc Mbah a Moute, whose rights could prove useful in attempts to re-sign them. By using a sign-and-trade or the mid-level exception, and staying above the cap, they’d be able to keep those cap holds. At this point, however, those 30+ year-old role players aren’t worth stopping yourself from adding a core piece on the wing. I’d be hesitant to lose Luc’s early bird rights to sign P.J. Tucker, but if the Clippers can get Iguodala or Gallinari at a good price, it’s a no-brainer.
The Clippers’ present roster looks like this:
By opening night, Hicks, Liggins, and Wiltjer will all likely be gone. The team’s first move is to attempt to keep Blake Griffin. They’ll also sign their second-round picks (Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell), although that will likely wait until the big free agency questions have been settled. Those two players could also end up on two-way contracts.
Within 48 hours—or at the latest, a week, the team’s roster could feature Blake Griffin and a new free agent starter at small forward, but be lacking a combination of Crawford, Williams, or Jordan.
Then, somewhere down the line, the Clippers will have to look for a backup point guard (I doubt they go into the season with only Beverley and Evans, the 39th pick in last week’s draft, at point guard). And while Harrell figures to be the team’s third big, they could pursue another veteran down low depending on how ready they feel Brice Johnson is for rotation minutes.