It’s no secret that the Clippers are taking (and making) calls about DeAndre Jordan going into this Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline. In an effort to avoid making long-term salary commitments to a core that the front office feels cannot contend for a championship, the team hasn’t offered DJ an extension suitable to the center’s demands. And, in an effort to get younger and add draft assets, the team has been exploring trade options for Jordan and Lou Williams—especially after moving franchise player Blake Griffin last week.
Williams is relatively easy to find hypothetical deals for. His inexpensive $7 million contract is expiring this summer, making him an easy fit into any team’s cap sheet. The Clippers won’t take a bad contract back in a deal, but most teams have either a TPE with which to absorb Williams, or a combination of expiring or two-year deals that fit in the Clippers’ plan to have cap room in the summer of 2019. From there, it’s just a matter of which teams (if any) offer suitable value—likely a decent first-round pick.
DeAndre Jordan, however, is a much trickier case. The All-NBA center makes $22.6 million this year, and he has a player option for $24.1 million next season. There aren’t many teams that can complete a legal trade which absorbs that salary without sending the Clippers back long-term money. It could be worth it for the Clippers if the package carries sufficient value, like a young player and a first-round draft choice, but that might not be a realistic return—while Jordan carries immense on-court value, but he’ll turn 30 this summer and could seek a big contract and potentially leave any team that he’s traded to. That means teams are less likely to offer substantial packages, which means it’s less likely to be worth it for the Clippers to take back the contracts necessary to complete such a deal. If DeAndre Jordan is willing to commit to picking up his player option for certain destinations, it would go a long way towards boosting his value and making a trade possible, but his motivation to make such a commitment is murky at best.
Multiple teams have registered interest in DJ over the last month or so, which is pretty understandable for a player of his caliber. The question, though, is if any suitors are a good fit: they need to have a window that fits with DJ’s age, a confidence that they can re-sign him this summer, and the contracts and assets to pull a trade off.
A great example of a team that doesn’t really fit is Jordan’s most-discussed potential destination: the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tristan Thompson’s massive three-year deal is a non-starter from the Clippers’ perspective, and Cleveland’s only worthwhile asset, Brooklyn’s 2018 1st round pick, seems like an untouchable building block for the Cavs. Without that pick, even a non-Thompson package of centered around Iman Shumpert’s still-bad-but-more-manageable contract is unappetizing for the Clippers.
The other two teams that have been mentioned a lot recently are the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers. Both are playoff teams that have reason to pursue an upgrade at the center position, and both provide environments (read: Giannis and Dame) where Jordan would probably be willing to re-sign.
Still, we end up returning to the problem I described above: a package from either team would have to include some long-term salary, and with Jordan able to bolt in July, it’s incredibly risky to give up the assets necessary to make taking those contracts worthwhile for the Clippers. And without those assets, why would the Clippers take back a bad contract when they could just let DJ walk this summer and get flexibility?
Both teams have stud shooting guards that would make for amazing returns for the Clippers, in Khris Middleton and C.J. McCollum. But I’d be shocked if either of those guys, each the second-most-important player on teams currently in the playoffs, was available for DeAndre Jordan’s expiring contract. Let’s move forward assuming Middleton and McCollum are off the table.
Any package from Milwaukee probably starts with John Henson. Similarly, any Portland package starts with Jusuf Nurkic. It’s a pretty logical progression: both are the existing starting center that would be replaced by DJ, and neither would really be able to share the floor with Jordan.
Henson, at 27 years old, is having a season that has surface comparisons to DeAndre Jordan’s age 24 season, the year before Doc Rivers arrived in Los Angeles. Henson is averaging 9.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. In 2012-13, Jordan averaged 8.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 24.5 minutes per game. While it’s incredibly unlikely that Henson would ever reach the same peak as DJ, he could find a similar role as a shot blocker and finisher around the rim. His contract, which pays $11.4 million this season, $10.6 million next season, and $9.7 million in 2019-20, is a solid value for a starter if the Clippers believe in him—but it’s duration does mean that it eats into flexibility in the summer of 2019.
In order to make a trade package work for Jordan, the Bucks would need to pair another contract with Henson. Mirza Teletovic, who makes $10.5 million this season and next season, is an option, but he carries little on-court value (if he’s healthy enough to return to playing, which is up in the air as he recovers from knee surgery and pulmonary emboli on both of his lungs). A worthwhile deal for the Clippers probably isn’t possible down this avenue, especially since the Bucks don’t have a future first this season to attach.
The same can be said for the deal of Matthew Dellavedova, which is slightly cheaper than Teletovic’s contract but runs for an extra year. Tony Snell has a little more on-court utility, but he’s a major rotational piece for the Bucks—and his long-term contract doesn’t line up with the Clippers’ expectations.
There’s only one more contract which the Bucks can pair with Henson to make salaries work for Jordan: Jabari Parker. While Parker may be the forgotten man due to the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s still a former #2 pick and 20 PPG scorer, recently returned from a torn ACL. His value is so unclear at the moment that it’s hard to see him being involved in a deal. The Clippers aren’t going to take for granted that he’ll be 2017 Jabari until they’ve seen more of him post-ACL recovery, and the Bucks aren’t going to use him as an expiring contract when he could still fully bounce back.
The final nail in the coffin for a Jordan-Milwaukee deal is probably the recent injury to Malcolm Brogdon. Brodgon won rookie of the year last season and has maintained that level of play this year, but a torn quadriceps could cost him the rest of this season. His cheap $1.3 million salary is an after thought from a math perspective, but he would have likely been included in any Jordan deal as the actual centerpiece of the Clipper’s return value.
That leaves Portland, who seems to be gaining momentum as the front-runner for Jordan’s services, according to reports. Their package likely centers around Jusuf Nurkic, who is a solid 23-year-old center that the Blazers acquired from Denver last season. Nurkic is posting averages of 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds this season, and he’s a major change from DeAndre Jordan’s style: a far more offensively versatile player who lacks Jordan’s athleticism and defensive chops. His contract situation is also a little tricky—he only makes $2.9 million, so he doesn’t help much in terms of salary matching, but he’s in the final year of his deal, so the Clippers would likely have to commit to him long-term this summer. Fortunately, he’ll be a restricted free agent, which could help his deal be more reasonable.
When it comes to salary filler, Portland’s your team. Former Clippers GM Neil Olshey has badly mismanaged the Blazers’ cap sheet, overpaying players in a manner that puts a fringe playoff team in the luxury tax annually.
Similar to Tristan Thompson’s albatross contract, Evan Turner’s 3-year, $55.6 million deal is a dealbreaker for the Clippers—they’d be better off letting Jordan walk in free agency. Fortunately, Portland has a quartet of smaller deals that give the teams options in this negotiation. Maurice Harkless has 3 years and $32.5 million remaining, while Meyers Leonard has 3 years and $31.8 million remaining. Those two deals work, but neither is appealing to the Clippers. One of them might be more palatable, and the math works if either is paired with Al-Farouq Aminu’s 2-year, $14.3 million deal or Ed Davis’ $6.4 million expiring contract.
Aminu is one of Portland’s most important players, and while he’s not untouchable, it seems as though Davis’ expiring deal is a much more reasonable target here. Portland also owns their own 2018 first round pick, which figures to be in the early 20’s. Now we have a package starting to come together.
Harkless or Leonard, Davis, Nurkic, and Portland’s 2018 1st round pick. It’s a reasonable deal for DeAndre Jordan—in fact, given Jordan’s contract status, it’s pretty good value in a vacuum. But given the Clippers’ insistence on preserving long-term flexibility, I don’t think they’d be willing to take on Harkless’ deal and pay Nurkic this summer. At that point, why not just pay Jordan?
If it sounds like the Clippers are asking for an impossible deal, they might be. If it sounds like there’s no way to meet the Clippers’ front office’s demands while providing a deal that another team would accept, that’s because that might be the case. The alternative for the Clippers, if they can’t find a deal, is to enter the summer, where Jordan could either opt in to the final year of his contract, opt out and sign the extension that the Clippers want to offer him, or opt out and leave. It seems like they value their long-term flexibility highly enough that they’d rather let him walk than take on long-term money.
So, is there any way to make a trade work? If there is, it’s probably in Portland, thanks to a massive $13 million TPE that the Trail Blazers have from the Allen Crabbe trade. If the Clippers aren’t willing to take on the contract of Harkless or Leonard, then in order for salary matching to work, one of those players has to head to a third team. Portland’s ability to absorb another big contract into the TPE creates a whole world of possibilities here—though they’re possibilities that would come with an almost-unspeakable luxury tax bill.
Leonard is out of the Blazers’ rotation, so he’s difficult to move, but Harkless has a lot of on-court value. His contract is the real drawback—but if teams are able to send one of their own bad deals back into the Blazers’ TPE, it might work. If those deals are two-year contracts, it’s also possible that the Clippers might be willing to take them back (if the third year of Harkless is their real reservation).
What are some third-team options for Harkless? Let’s name a few: Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert (2 years, $21.3 million), Denver’s Kenneth Faried (2 years, $26.7 million), Detroit’s Jon Leuer (3 years, $30 million), Milwaukee’s aforementioned Teletovic deal (2 years, $21 million), Minnesota’s Cole Aldrich (2 years, $14.3 million, but only $2 million guaranteed next season), and Oklahoma City’s Alex Abrines (2 years, $11.2 million) and Kyle Singler (2 years, $9.7 million).
There’s a lot of options—tons of teams have one or two expendable contracts that add up to $10 million. Each of the six teams listed above is a playoff team that would get more utility from Harkless than they’re currently getting from the players I’ve listed. But aside from Detroit, every team listed would be adding salary for the 2019-20 season. Do any of them want Harkless badly enough to be willing to do that? Even if they are, would the Blazers be willing to use the Crabbe trade exception and face a massive luxury tax bill?
Cleveland, needing immediate help and facing a long-term post-LeBron rebuild, might not mind the extra money down the line. Are the Clippers or Blazers open to taking on Shumpert’s deal? Minnesota would love to turn Cole Aldrich, a non-rotation piece, into a valuable contributor, and Aldrich’s contract is by far the most agreeable of the lot. But with big salaries already causing luxury tax anxiety, the Wolves would be very hesitant to add three years of eight-figure salary for Harkless.
Maybe the most intriguing deal of the bunch is with Oklahoma City. They’re getting absolutely no on-court utility from Singler and almost none from Abrines, making both of those contracts easily expendable. The Clippers and Blazers could each take one, a palatable hit for each team. With Roberson out, the Thunder are desperately looking for wing defense, and Harkless can handle SGs, SFs, and PFs. As OKC tries to prove themselves to Paul George, they need to go all-in on this season before he hits free agency, making the long-term cap hit low priority (and, if George does leave, the Thunder won’t have cap room to add a replacement—at which point Harkless becomes the starting small forward).
Let’s take a look at what this three-team trade would look like (we’ll send Abrines, the better player, to POR and Singler to LAC, but they’re interchangeable for math purposes):
LAC gets: Ed Davis (into Paul TPE), Jusuf Nurkic, Kyle Singler, POR 2018 1st, $15M TPE
LAC gives: DeAndre Jordan
POR gets: DeAndre Jordan, Alex Abrines (into Crabbe TPE)
POR gives: Maurice Harkless, Ed Davis, Jusuf Nurkic, POR 2018 1st
OKC gets: Maurice Harkless
OKC gives: Alex Abrines, Kyle Singler
The Clippers end up with 16 players on the roster, so they’d have to either give an end-of-bench player to someone, or cut someone before making the deal. The specifics of that could vary depending on a potential Lou Williams or Avery Bradley trade (if one of them is moved for Channing Frye’s expiring deal and Cleveland’s pick, then cutting Frye is an easy decision).
If these three teams called the NBA league office with this trade, it would work with the NBA. But does it work for all three teams? Certainly it meets the Clippers’ demands—they don’t add long-term money, and they get a young player and a pick. Is Portland willing to give Nurkic and a pick for Jordan? Is Portland willing to take on this much extra money this season? Are the Thunder interested in Harkless’ contract? The answer to all of those questions is only maybe.
Told you finding a workable trade for DJ was hard.