Tonight, at midnight ET, it all happens: NBA Free Agency begins.
While technically, NBA teams aren’t able to sign players to new contracts until July 6th, when the moratorium lifts, teams can officially begin negotiating with free agents tonight, which is when the real drama starts.
At 9 PM Pacific, after most Clippers fans on the West Coast finish their dinner and settle down for a nice Saturday evening of streaming a TV show they’ve seen before and scrolling through twitter, players, agents, and executives around the NBA will begin their top-priority meetings. As the first few days of July wear on, teams will reach out to free agents that they’re interested in to determine contract expectations and mutual interest—and, when they feel good about a fit, they’ll extend offers and reach agreements on contracts that will be made official on July 6th.
So, who should the Clippers call at 9:01 PM? What other targets should they consider as the free agency window wears on?
Frankly, the Clippers’ first call should be to Montrezl Harrell, their own restricted free agent. Harrell has a $1.8 million qualifying offer, but he’s sure to demand more than that in free agency. The Clippers’ qualifying offer gives them the right of first refusal, which means that they can choose to match any offer that another team gives Montrezl, and he is forced to stay with the Clippers. They also have his bird rights, which means they don’t have to use cap space or an exception to re-sign him.
Still, it probably favors the Clippers to not let Harrell’s free agency drag out. Not very many teams have cap space this year, so the market should be pretty tight for free agents, but it’s possible that in the later stages of July, a team that strikes out on their primary targets could tab Montrezl with their mid-level exception, starting at $8.6 million. That’s definitely more than the Clippers want to spend on their backup center. At the same time, if nobody goes after Montrezl with a major overpay, he may not sign an offer sheet at all—teams won’t tie up $4 million in cap space when they know the Clippers will match an offer at that rate. If Harrell doesn’t get an offer, he can just sign his $1.8 million offer sheet and play for cheap next year. Then, he’d hit unrestricted free agency next summer, and the Clippers would be at risk of losing him.
It makes the most sense for the Clippers, with both parties knowing that restricted free agency suppresses Harrell’s value, to reach out early and try to get working on a team-friendly multi-year deal in the $4-$6 million range. Anything between 3 years, $12 million and 4 years, $24 million is a win for the Clippers, as they get to keep a young, top-end backup at a reasonable price. If holding on to a productive 23-year-old center wasn’t already the Clippers’ top priority, it definitely should be now that starting center DeAndre Jordan appears poised to leave the team in free agency.
Aside from re-signing Montrezl, which is obviously a priority, it’s unclear if the Clippers will be poised to make any other formal offers on July 1st. Their other restricted free agent, Tyrone Wallace, is in a much worse negotiating position and the Clippers will be happy to let that drag on until Wallace is potentially forced to sign his qualifying offer—a one-year two-way contract that lands him back in restricted free agency next summer. Their two veteran free agents are DeAndre Jordan, who the team is unlikely to even negotiate with, and Avery Bradley, who isn’t a major priority. The Clippers have a lot of guards on their roster, many of whom are priority prospects whose development the franchise is invested in. But, if Bradley finds himself without suitors late in free agency, the Clippers can use his bird rights to give him a one-year deal and then try to flip him at the trade deadline. Like I said, he’s not a priority, but the Clippers will probably at least keep in touch with Avery as an option (unless they opt to make cap-clearing moves and renounce Bradley’s bird rights to use cap space to sign a player, instead of using the mid-level exception as expected).
If the Clippers don’t need guards, they sort of need... everything else. At the forward positions, the Clippers actually have two very good starters in Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris—but they lack any rotation-caliber backup at either forward slot, and Gallinari’s constant struggle to stay healthy means that the team would do well to find a quality backup capable of filling in as a part-time starter, and they actually could stand to add a second backup forward as well, so that Wesley Johnson and Sam Dekker can be bumped fully out of the rotation.
At the center position, the need is slightly less apparent, as the Clippers preemptively addressed the void left by DeAndre when they acquired Marcin Gortat via trade earlier this week. With Harrell likely to return as the backup, and Boban Marjanovic functioning as the third-string center, the Clippers are probably fine. But Gortat, at 34 years old, is far from the solid starter that he used to be, and while Harrell and Marjanovic are both very productive in their current roles, neither projects as the kind of guy who is likely to develop into a player who can fill a starting role. If the Clippers can find the right high-upside option at center at a good price, it could be worth the gamble—Gortat is there as a fallback starter, but ideally, you’d like to get a better, younger piece in place.
To do all of this, the Clippers currently have two possible sets of tools: they can either use the $8.6 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception (up to 4 years, 5% max raises) and the $3.4 million bi-annual exception (up to 2 years, 5% max raise), or they can renounce those exceptions (and Bradley’s bird rights) and use $8.1 million in cap room (up to 4 years, 5% max raises), followed by the $4.4 million room exception (up to 2 years, 5% max raises). If you’re interested in how the Clippers can possibly create more cap room than that $8.1 million number, check out yesterday’s article on the calculations around possible cap-clearing moves.
The Clippers, like many other teams, are unlikely to extend offers on these types of deals early in free agency. Almost everyone in the market is waiting to see where LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George end up, as those will be the first major dominoes to fall this summer, with plenty of teams and players making decisions contingent upon their landing spots. George seems incredibly likely to return to Oklahoma City, but the looming potential of a Leonard trade during the free agency period and the certainty that James will make a decision in the opening days of July have most of the NBA just waiting and watching to see what will happen. In what would be a shocking break from standard practice, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN suggested yesterday that the highly sequential nature of this free agency period, combined with the tight market for free agents, could lead to free agency dragging out into the last two weeks of July, and even early August. Don’t expect the Clippers to buck the trend here—they may be a long shot, but they’re still doing their best to get in on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, and I’d be willing to bet that Jerry West is working his contacts to see if he can’t at least get a chance to pitch LeBron on joining the Clippers. Max cap space for LeBron isn’t an easy thing for the Clippers to get this summer, but there will be ways to shed money if they’re willing to pay, and signing LeBron would be easy justification for moving draft assets to open up that cap space.
Beyond the obvious superstars, here are some other free agent forwards and centers who the Clippers could be in contact with in the coming days:
- Doug McDermott: This would be one way to make sure that DeAndre Jordan doesn’t walk for nothing in free agency. The Mavericks were reportedly unwilling to attach draft compensation to Wesley Matthews’ contract in a rumored opt-in-and-trade deal for Jordan, and the Clippers decided that letting DeAndre walk was preferable to taking on Matthews’ $18.6 million salary for next season. That forced the Mavericks into several cap-clearing moves, including rescinding McDermott’s qualifying offer, leaving the door for other teams, including the Clippers, to lure him away. Doug came into the NBA as an old, 23-year-old rookie, and never seemed to shake the stigma that accompanies a poor rookie season from an older prospect. But by his second season, he was already showing himself as a capable NBA player, averaging 9.4 points in 23 minutes a night while shooting 45% from the field and 42.5% from deep. Those marks are pretty consistent with his career averages (264 games, 21 minutes, 7.9 points, 45% FG, 40% 3pt), which show McDermott as a quality bench shooter, possibly in the mold of a slightly larger Kyle Korver. The one drawback is that Doug doesn’t take enough threes—just 4.8 per 36 last season and for his career, compared to Korver’s 6.4 career average and 8.5 average in the last two seasons in Cleveland. Wherever McDermott ends up, he’s going to have to become comfortable with increased volume. Maybe now, he’ll have a chance to stay with his next team long enough to get more comfortable than he has while playing for four teams during the last two seasons.
- Joe Harris: While he’s definitely the smaller name, don’t be surprised if Harris is in for a bigger payday than McDermott this summer. The former second-round pick hardly played during the first two seasons of his career, but proved he was an NBA player in year 3 and then stood out last year in his fourth season, averaging 11 points per game in a major bench role for the Brooklyn Nets while shooting 49% from the field and 42% from deep. He attempts threes at a healthier rate than McDermott, and trades his smaller size (he’s more of a SG/SF than a pure SF) for more offensive utility outside of his three-point shot.
- Mario Hezonja: Leave it to the Orlando Magic to draft a popular prospect top-5, have him play poorly for two seasons, decline his fourth-year option, and then watch him break out in year 3. Hezonja finally looked like a pro player last season, averaging 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.1 steals in 22 minutes a night as a part-time starter for an injury-riddled Magic squad. He also had respectable efficiency, at 44% from the field and 34% from deep. Mario is a much bigger risk than either McDermott or Harris, but he also figures to have a better shot at becoming a well-rounded starter. At 23 years old, Hezonja still has plenty of the upside that made him a top-5 pick three years ago, and unlike other top prospects who flame out early on, he showed that he belongs last season. Do you commit money to a high-upside 23-year-old because he finally had one decent season?
- Nerlens Noel: We go back to the Mavericks here, examining another underwhelming former high draft pick. Noel earned all-rookie first team honors in 2014-15, and 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks across his first two years in the NBA as Philadelphia’s starting center. He seemed prime to grow into one of the league’s better starting centers until a roster glut at the position forced him out of Philadelphia and into Dallas, where Rick Carlisle’s doghouse and a restricted free agency standoff combined to delay Noel’s career two years. Now, at 24, he’ll get another shot to prove himself in the NBA—but he’ll need to make the most of it, and it’s unclear how much money teams will offer him (or if he’ll be willing to sign a multi-year deal as he tries to rebuild his value and then cash out in free agency).
- Luc Mbah a Moute: You know I had to do it, but hear me out: this is more than just favoritism for every Clippers Blogger’s Golden Son. A team in the Clippers’ current position has to prioritize finding minutes for, and developing, young players who are part of their future. But an important part of that is providing those key prospects with a reliable, well-rounded veteran supporting cast so that those young players can develop in realistic roles and gain experience playing good NBA basketball in advanced systems. The Clippers sucked defensively last season, and they’re going to suck defensively again. None of the higher-profile, younger wing targets provide much of a defensive boost to the Clippers’ rotation, but Mbah a Moute would—and the Rockets, having to pay premiums to keep Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza this summer, and already having P.J. Tucker on the roster, might have to make a frugal financial decision and let Luc leave. If you think you can use your free agency tools to get future pieces, then those are priorities. But if you begin to doubt if the bi-annual exception has sufficient buying power to land you a young player with upside, it’s worth considering how replacing every Wesley Johnson minute next season with a Luc Mbah a Moute minute would improve the offensive spacing and team defense that the Clippers’ younger players will be developing in.