According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst, the Clippers and veteran 6th man guard Lou Williams are gaining ground in contract extension negotiations ahead of Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline.
Williams has an expiring $7 million contract, but has been beyond impressive in his first season in Los Angeles, averaging career highs in points (23.3) and assists (5.3). He’s also doing it at impressive (and uncharacteristically) efficient rates: 43.9% from the field and 38.0% from deep.
In a normal year, the Clippers would probably prefer to trade Williams rather than sign him to an extension, but unusual circumstances surrounding the market at this trade deadline and for free agents this summer might make this the kind of deal that exploits a market inefficiency. Normally, teams are very willing to part with a first-round pick to acquire a player of Williams’ caliber at the deadline—the Clippers did it with Jeff Green a few years ago in one of many examples. However, a glut of bad contracts on rosters around the league, along with pick-trading anxiety resulting from future draft picks being undervalued for years, mean that many teams want the Clippers to take back long-term salary as part of any Williams-for-a-pick deals. Clearly, that’s unappealing for a Clippers front office that has shown their preference for maintaining long-term flexibility.
Still, something is better than nothing, and if the Clippers don’t trade Williams at this deadline, they could lose him in free agency this summer, where his price range figures to be around $18 million a year (this is a number I keep seeing from fans in my twitter mentions), right? Wrong. Very few NBA teams have above-MLE cap space this summer, and those that do are going to be targeting bigger names than a career 6th man, or avoiding committing big money to players over 30 years old. If Lou Williams goes down the road of entering free agency, there’s a very good chance that he doesn’t get offers for more than the mid-level exception.
At that point, considering the success he’s found in L.A., the fact that he gets to live in Los Angeles, and his self-proclaimed desire to stick with the Clippers rather than switching teams for the fifth time in the last four years, it isn’t out of the question that Lou would sign an around-MLE-level extension in-season. Due to NBA extension rules, the most that the Clippers could offer Lou would be a deal in the range of 4 years and $42 million, though I expect that the deal might be a two-year deal with a player option for the second season. This would allow Lou to test the free agent market in 2019, when there should be more money available.
Of course, nothing that you hear reported at the trade deadline is what it seems. If the Clippers are looking to trade Lou—and we know that they’ve spoken to several teams about him in the last week—then this report helps them by driving up his trade value. With Williams expiring, teams know that the Clippers have little leverage because the alternative to accepting a trade is risking him leaving for nothing in free agency. If other teams believe that the Clippers can safely extend Williams after the deadline if he isn’t moved, they lose that leverage and will have to give up more.
Ultimately, I buy the report that the Clippers and Lou Williams have made significant progress on an extension. A 1+1 deal like I described above makes a lot of sense for both sides, giving Williams slightly-above-MLE money to stay where he wants to stay, while allowing him to test free agency in 17 months in an attempt to land one last big contract. It also preserves the Clippers’ flexibility by not tying up 4 years of money in an aging bench scorer. The two sides probably have a framework in place for an extension.
But that doesn’t mean that the Clippers are committed to keeping Lou. If they were, they’d have signed the extension Tuesday night instead of leaking that they were close to one. I think it’s very possible for legitimate extension talks to coexist with the Clippers leaking this report to drive up Williams’ trade value. They are likely still entirely open to moving Lou if they get an offer that they feel helps the team in the long-term—which is pretty much where they sit with almost every player on the roster, as evidenced by the move to trade franchise icon Blake Griffin last week.
The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3:00 PM Eastern Time. I would be shocked if Lou Williams and the Clippers sign an extension before then—and I wouldn’t be shocked if Williams is traded before then. If a good enough offer doesn’t come in, though, I buy that team and player have found a mutually agreeable extension to sign after the deadline passes.