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NBA Off-Season 2018: Avery Bradley Could be the X-Factor for the Clippers’ Free Agency Plans

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A player who barely had an impact on the court seems poised to be very important off of it.

Los Angeles Clippers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This is an interesting spot to be in.

Avery Bradley came to the Clippers as part of the mid-season Blake Griffin trade. He’s always been a nice NBA player (sometimes quite good!), but there wasn’t really much question as to why he was included in January’s deal: he hadn’t performed for the Pistons, and his expiring contract was the most convenient way to bridge (part of) the gap between Tobias Harris’ salary and Blake Griffin’s much larger maximum contract.

After an underwhelming first half of the season for the Pistons, where he spent a good portion of the time playing hurt, Bradley played just six games as a Clipper before being shut down for the season with surgery for a sports hernia. He came into a crowded backcourt that featured a pre-season rotation of Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, and Lou Williams, along with rookies Jawun Evans and Patrick Beverley. Add in two-way contract guard Tyrone Wallace, who was phenomenal after joining the team mid-season, and the Clippers’ decision to select guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson in the first round of last month’s NBA Draft, and you’re left with an incredibly congested guard rotation.

Even last week’s trade, which sent Austin Rivers to the Wizards, and the uncertain statuses of Teodosic (partially guaranteed contract) and Wallace (restricted free agent) don’t leave much playing time open at the guard positions, especially if the Clippers want Shai and Jerome to get playing time as rookies. So how does Avery Bradley fit into the picture?

As currently constructed, there’s very little need for the Clippers to use their mid-level exception or bi-annual exception on a shooting guard. They clearly have plenty of depth there, with more serious needs at the backup forward positions and, to a lesser extent, an upgrade at the center position. Unless the Clippers make a major trade that totally re-shapes the roster, it would be pretty unwise of them to use one of their tools on another guard while Wesley Johnson and Sam Dekker man the backup forward positions.

What makes Avery Bradley so interesting is that, unlike other free agents, the Clippers can sign Bradley to an above-minimum deal without utilizing one of their cap exceptions. Because Bradley was on the Clippers last season, and he has gone at least three seasons without switching teams as a free agent, the Clippers have his bird rights—meaning they can exceed the cap to sign him to any contract they like without having to use an exception. Even if Bradley isn’t one of the Clippers’ preferred targets, they can utilize his bird rights to add value in a bunch of different ways. Aside from the obvious, ever-present infinite spectrum of trade scenarios, Bradley’s bird rights are the variable with the most permutations in the Clippers’ free agency puzzle. Here are some ways it could play out:

  • Keep Avery: This is the simple one. Bradley’s bird rights allow the team to re-sign him to a mutually agreeable contract in addition to using their mid-level exception and bi-annual exception on outside free agents at positions of need. That means that the real opportunity cost here isn’t financial, it’s in terms of minutes and roster spots. We’re assuming that Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams will be back in major roles next season, so keeping Avery around will make all of the Clippers’ young guards compete for one rotation spot, basically meaning that only one of Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson will be able to earn minutes. It also makes it incredibly unlikely that all three of Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell, and Tyrone Wallace will be able to be on the roster next season—the team can carry 7 guards if they have to, but carrying eight would make for an irresponsibly unbalanced roster. For those reasons, I don’t expect the Clippers to keep Avery around on the sizable multi-year deal that he’s going to want. But, if he doesn’t find that kind of contract elsewhere, he could very well end up stuck with only mid-level exception offers. The Clippers can beat that on a one-year deal where Bradley can rebuild his value for next summer’s free agency. If he plays well, he’ll have positive trade value at the deadline, and if he doesn’t, he can come off the books next summer.
  • Sign-And-Trade Avery: Speaking of trading Avery at the deadline, why not trade him now? It seems as though a nice collection of teams will be interested in him, and if some of those suitors don’t have the salary cap room to make competitive offers, the Clippers can help facilitate a deal by using Bradley’s bird rights to sign-and-trade him to an above-MLE deal. The teams have to comply with normal salary-matching rules in this scenario, so the Clippers would have to get some sort of compensation back: either in terms of players they like coming back in the deal, or draft compensation attached to expiring contracts. The Memphis Grizzlies, for example, could give Avery Bradley a starting salary of almost $10 million in a sign-and-trade where they sent Ben McLemore’s expiring contract back to the Clippers. Not to get too far into any dream scenarios, but a Bradley sign-and-trade could also become a valuable piece in a potential Kawhi Leonard trade. The Spurs were reportedly interested in Bradley at the trade deadline (the rumored deal of Danny Green and a 1st round pick never made sense, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any interest at all), and it’s possible that they would be more interested in a deal if the defensive guard included was 27-year-old Bradley instead of 30-year-old Patrick Beverley, who is coming off of knee surgery. As part of a larger, more complex Leonard deal, Bradley’s outgoing trade value could be used in a one-for-one side-trade with Patty Mills, allowing the Clippers to relieve the Spurs of a long-term, cumbersome contract in exchange for a player they both like and won’t be able to afford in free agency. That’s not a bad way to add short- and medium-term value for the Spurs as they seek to remain competitive post-Kawhi.
  • Renounce Avery: If the Clippers can’t find a way to fit Bradley into a sign-and-trade that’s beneficial to the team, and if they either aren’t interested in keeping him around or aren’t willing to beat other teams’ offers, then it’s time to renounce Bradley’s bird rights, a move that comes with its own unique set of advantages. As long as Bradley’s free agent cap hold is on the books, the Clippers aren’t going to have cap space and are restricted to use the MLE and BAE to add free agents. But if the Clippers do renounce Bradley, they put themselves in a position to open up enough cap room to marginally improve their free agency tools. The team can either use the MLE ($8.641M) and the BAE ($3.382M), or they can renounce those exceptions, use however much cap room they clear, and then use the room exception ($4,449,000). My calculations suggest that the Clippers can easily clear $8,975,186 in cap room by renouncing Bradley and waiving Milos Teodosic and C.J. Williams. That gives them a little over a $300,000 edge on their bigger free agency tool, and an increase of just over $1 million on their smaller free agency tool. Those marginal increases probably aren’t worth the potential value that the Clippers could recoup in a Bradley sign-and-trade, but if such a deal isn’t workable then this would be a nice silver lining, and could be key a key advantage when pursuing free agents who only have MLE/BAE offers.

Everything else that we’re waiting on in the Clippers’ free agency plans seems pretty straightforward: either they match Montrezl’s eventual offer sheet or they don’t, they pick players to use their exceptions on, and then we’re set unless they pull off a trade. Bradley is the biggest remaining unknown, with the most potential to spark a chain reaction, determining what tools the Clippers have moving forward and influencing their decision-making with those tools.