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NBA Off-Season 2018: Do the Clippers Have Cap Room?

Stop asking me every 10 minutes on twitter, and read this instead.

NBA Legend Jerry West Sits Down for SiriusXM Town Hall at the L.A. Forum, hosted by James Worthy Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for SiriusXM

It’s twitter’s favorite question: “hey Lucas, do the Clippers have cap space?”

For the last several years, the Clippers have operated well above the cap, making the notion of adding a free agent for more than the mid-level exception essentially impossible. Their one big free-agent contract, which was given to Danilo Gallinari last summer, was a sign-and-trade that involved the Clippers dumping Jamal Crawford’s contract to make a deal work.

But following today’s news that DeAndre Jordan has declined his player option, there’s a chance that the Clippers can actually use cap room for the first time since... Caron Butler? Check me on that, I’m not looking it up.

From the Clippers’ perspective, a Jordan trade that recouped some value, even if it was just second-round picks, would have been preferable to D.J. walking for nothing. But according to reports, the Mavericks were insistent that the Clippers also take back Wesley Matthews’ $18.6 million expiring contract, which would have entirely ruled out creating cap space for free agents as an option this summer. That would have left them with the mid-level exception (MLE worth $8.6 million) and the bi-annual exception (BAE worth $3.4 million) to add free agents. You cannot use these exceptions and cap room in the same summer, so in order for the Clippers to have usable cap space, they need to be more than $8.6 million underneath the salary cap. After using their cap space, they’ll have the $4.4 million “room” exception to add an additional player. If they can get more than $8.6 million below the salary cap line, they’ll have marginally more money to offer to free agents than they would with the MLE and BAE. That might not seem significant, but in a market where almost every team has the MLE and BAE to offer, being able to offer slightly more can help your offers stand out to top free agents in that price range.

So, are the Clippers more than $8.6 million under the salary cap? Not quite, but they’re capable of getting there with one or two minor moves.

Currently, the Clippers have nine guaranteed contracts to Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, Marcin Gortat, Lou Williams, Boban Marjanovic, Wesley Johnson, Sam Dekker, Sindarius Thornwell, and Jawun Evans. Those total $76,603,896 in team salary.

The Clippers also have three contracts that aren’t guaranteed: Patrick Beverley’s $5,027,028, Milos Teodosic’s $6,300,000 ($2.1 million is guaranteed), and C.J. Williams’ $1,378,242. Let’s assume that the Clippers keep Beverley, but cut Teodosic and Williams. That adds an additional $7,127,028 to the team salary figure.

The team also has qualifying offers out to restricted free agents Montrezl Harrell and Tyrone Wallace. Harrell’s qualifying offer carries a $1,839,228 cap hit, while Wallace’s is a two-way offer that has no cap hit. However, the Clippers do not have Wallace’s bird rights, which means that if another team offers him a contract as a restricted free agent, the Clippers will need to use either cap room or an exception to match the deal and sign him. With Harrell, the Clippers have bird rights, allowing them to exceed the cap to match any offer sheet.

Harrell’s qualifying offer brings the Clippers’ team salary total to $85,570,152. However, they also have multiple cap holds that push them well past the projected $101 million salary cap. DeAndre Jordan’s cap hold, worth nearly $34 million, is easily renounced, as most of the league expects Jordan to sign with the Dallas Mavericks in free agency, rendering that cap hold useless for the Clippers. Avery Bradley also has a cap hold for $13.2 million, which may be a little more of a question mark. If the Clippers choose, they can offer Bradley a short-term deal in an attempt to flip him at the deadline. It’s unlikely that Bradley gets more than the $8.6 million mid-level exception in free agency this summer, so the Clippers could use his bird rights to offer him a bigger one-year deal. Right now, though, let’s proceed assuming that they renounce his hold as well in an attempt to maximize cap room for outside free agents.

The two cap holds that the Clippers won’t be trimming to create cap room are for their two first-round rookies: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. Shai’s hold is $3,346,560 while Jerome’s is $3,020,280. That additional $6,366,840 brings team salary to $91,936,992—$9,063,008 below the salary cap.

That would be enough for the team to renounce their mid-level exception, use cap space to sign a free agent, and then use the room exception to add another... if it wasn’t for one more pesky detail. As part of an August 2014 trade where the Clippers moved Jared Dudley’s contract to avoid the luxury tax apron, the team acquired, waived, and stretched Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica. This season is the last season that the Clippers are paying a portion of stretched salary to those two players—$650,000 to Delfino and $252,042 to Raduljica. Because of that dead cap, the Clippers are only $8,160,966 below the cap.

Technically, the Clippers can still opt to renounce their mid-level exception. That would downgrade them from the $8.57M MLE to their $8.16M in cap space, but upgrade them from the $3.4M bi-annual exception to the $4.4M room exception. It’s an unexciting move, but one that could make sense depending on which players the Clippers decide to target.

More exciting would be finding ways to create more than that $8.16 in cap space. Any cap-shedding move would do, but here are a few small options that the Clippers could be considering, along with how much it would save them. Go ahead and pick out which moves you’d like the team to make, and then you can determine how much cap space you were able to open for the Clippers to sign free agents.

  • Waive Patrick Beverley: I don’t think that this would be a wise move for the Clippers, as Beverley is a valuable veteran leader and he should possess positive trade value at next season’s deadline. However, if they have a free agent target who they like, this is a way to clear a nice chunk of additional change. If they waive Beverley, they can add $5,027,028 to their cap room.
  • Trade or stretch Wesley Johnson: It would be easy to part ways with Wes this summer, especially if the Clippers use their cap space to target better backup forwards. But it might be costly to move his salary off of the books. It’s unlikely that they can dump his contract without adding an asset, and stretching his contract splits his cap hit into $2,044,840 in each of the next three years, biting into the Clippers’ potential cap space in the summers of 2019 and 2020. If they trade Johnson, they can add $6,134,520 to their cap room (minus any incoming salary). If they stretch Johnson, they can add $4,089,680 to their cap room.
  • Trade or stretch Milos Teodosic: The Clippers reportedly already plan on waiving Milos and only paying him $2.1 million of his $6.3 million contract—a move that is reflected in my calculations above. But if they find a way to trade his deal before releasing him, they can avoid even the smaller cap hit. In this case, simply sending a team a 2nd round pick and cash to cover the $2.1 million would be enough for multiple teams to be interested in a deal. A team like the Phoenix Suns, who reportedly value Teodosic as a player, could simply absorb his contract. The Clippers can alternatively choose to stretch the $2.1 million hit across three years. If they trade Teodosic, they can add $2,100,000 to their cap room (minus any incoming salary). If they stretch Teodosic, they can add $1,400,000 to their cap room.
  • Trade or stretch Sam Dekker: Sam is probably in a similar situation as Teodosic, although his contract is worth slightly more than Milos’ guaranteed portion. Trading him, along with a 2nd and $2.7 million in cash to cover his deal, would move his entire contract off of the books, while stretching him hits for $920,032 in each of the next three seasons. If they trade Dekker, they can add $2,760,095 to their cap room (minus any incoming salary). If they stretch Dekker, they can add $1,840,064 to their cap room.
  • Let Montrezl Harrell leave in free agency: This probably isn’t something the Clippers will consider unless their hand is forced, because Harrell adds a lot of value as an energy backup center. However, if another team gives Montrezl an offer in restricted free agency that the Clippers aren’t comfortable matching, his qualifying offer comes off of the books. If Harrell leaves in restricted free agency, they can add $1,839,228 to their cap room.