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2017 NBA Off-Season: The Clippers Have Limited Tools to Add Free Agent Help

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If all goes well, they’ll only be able to add one free agent for more than a minimum salary.

Sacramento Kings v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If all goes well, the Clippers aren’t going to have a lot of options for adding outside help in free agency this July. With their existing salary sheet, and the massive, looming contract offers that L.A. will tender to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the team will be left with only the taxpayer mid-level exception (the mini-MLE or mMLE, worth $5.192 million this summer) and minimum-salary deals to fill out their roster.

As things start going worse, the Clippers’ free agent options expand. If they lose one of their stars, they’ll have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (the full MLE, worth $8.406 million this summer). If they lose both, they’ll have a massive amount of cap room, and access to the room mid-level exception (worth $4.328 million this summer) if they spend up to the cap. No matter what happens, the team won’t be able to utilize the bi-annual exception (which they used last year on Luc Mbah a Moute, worth $3.29 million this summer), and they’ll ultimately end up using the minimum salary exception to round out their bench.

For now, we’ll focus on the Clippers’ options in the ideal scenario—one in which they re-sign Paul and Griffin, and (whether they land Carmelo Anthony or not) are only working with the taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum salary exception. The tax-payer mid-level exception carries 5% annual raises for a maximum of three seasons, making the total contract look like this:

Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception

2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 Total
2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 Total
$5,192,000 $5,451,600 $5,711,200 $16,354,800
The values for the taxpayer mid-level exception Lucas Hann, ClipsNation.com

The minimum salary is a little more complicated: the Clippers can use the minimum salary exception to offer players contracts of either 1 or 2 seasons at set values based upon their NBA experience. On one-year minimum deals, like the ones signed by Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson last summer, the Clippers only face a cap hit for the 2-year veteran’s minimum, saving some luxury tax dollars. Once a second year is added, as with the player option given to Marreese Speights last summer, the Clippers’ cap sheet carries the full salary. Last season, that cost the team about $420,000 on the payroll, and more in luxury tax payments—not a huge burden to Steve Ballmer’s checkbook, but still noteworthy.

Here are the best possible contracts that the Clippers can offer players of varying experience with the minimum salary exception:

Minimum Salary Exception

Experience 2017-18 2018-19 Total
Experience 2017-18 2018-19 Total
Rookie $815,615 $1,378,242 $2,193,857
1 $1,312,611 $1,544,951 $2,857,562
2 $1,471,382 $1,600,520 $3,071,902
3 $1,524,305 $1,656,092 $3,180,397
4 $1,577,230 $1,795,015 $3,372,245
5 $1,709,538 $1,933,941 $3,643,479
6 $1,841,849 $2,072,867 $3,914,716
7 $1,974,159 $2,211,794 $4,185,953
8 $2,106,470 $2,222,803 $4,329,273
9 $2,116,955 $2,445,085 $4,562,040
10+ $2,328,652 $2,445,085 $4,773,737
The possible two-year contracts that can be offered to various players using the minimum salary exception, depending on their years of NBA experience. Lucas Hann, ClipsNation.com

What’s especially compelling this season is the increased spending power of these exceptions as the Clippers seek free agent additions. They still aren’t much—we saw Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers get 8-figure salaries last summer, and these tools don’t come close to that—but compared to last summer, the Clippers are in a little better shape to lure bench pieces.

Last summer, the Clippers had the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which they used on Wesley Johnson. It was worth a starting salary of $5,682,000—just over this year’s taxpayer MLE, and a little over 6% of last year’s $94 million salary cap. Last year’s taxpayer MLE was worth just $3,477,000, or about 3.7% of the salary cap. This year’s taxpayer MLE is worth 5.1% of the salary cap, while this year’s non-taxpayer MLE is worth 8.3% of the salary cap. While the Clippers face a slight decline because they are transitioning to the taxpayer exception this season, the significant increase in the value of exceptions is only good for a consistently capped-out team that is constantly using them to maneuver around the edges of their max contract-filled cap sheet.

The more notable increase in spending power, however, comes with the minimum salary exception. With so many teams possessing excess cap room, many free agents that would normally be considered minimum-level players were able to get some extra cash. Last year, Raymond Felton, a 10+-year veteran, earned a salary of $1,551,659—about 1.65% of the cap. This season, the Clippers could offer a similar player $2,328,650—up to 2.3% of the cap. The increased values of the room and bi-annual exceptions around the league will negate some of that increased spending power, but it certainly makes a minimum deal with the Clippers more attractive than in years past when compared to taking more money on a lesser team.