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NBA Free Agency 2019: The Basics of the Clippers’ Salary Cap Situation

How can the Clippers get to two max slots—and what’s left over if they do?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers had such an exciting season, and this years’ playoffs have been so riveting, that it’s easy to forget that free agency is just around the corner.

Okay, maybe that’s a lie. The buzz—from some background shouting in Kawhi Leonard’s sister’s instagram live to nonsense speculation over the degree of Kevin Durant’s injury—has, to some extent, taken away from a post-season where we’ve seen emergent performances from rising stars like Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as the Toronto Raptors (with Leonard’s help) breaking through to finally give us a new NBA Finals match-up. And I think it was last July that a sports talk radio host first asked me about the Clippers’ chances of signing one or two stars this summer. 2019 Free Agency has been much-anticipated—specifically the simultaneous availabilities of Leonard and Durant, two of the league’s premier talents.

One thing that we talk about a lot is if the guys who we know are good at basketball are good enough—can they be the best player on a championship team? “No” answers have inspired the Clippers in the last couple of years to trade Blake Griffin’s maximum-salary contract and move Tobias Harris before giving him one. If we take NBA Finals MVP winners as the simplest (if imperfect) way of measuring which players are of that caliber, it becomes clear how monumental of an opportunity this July is for teams with cap space. There are only four active players who have won Finals MVP—and one is 35-year-old Andre Iguodala who won for his defense against LeBron James.

The other three are LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant—and Leonard seems likely to win again this season, as the Raptors still hold a 3-2 lead and Durant is almost certainly out the remainder of the series. Wherever these two guys end up this summer, whether they stay with their current teams or head somewhere new (possibly even together), they’re going to be headlining contenders on their next contracts. Think about how wild the NBA has gone in recent years over the trade demand/impending free agency dramas of Paul George (lost a couple of ECF to big 3 Miami teams) and Anthony Davis (has only ever made the playoffs twice and won one series). That two players who are a tier above are both going to be taking meetings in free agency sums up this off-season’s potential to drastically influence the league’s future.

Even Durant’s tragic injury doesn’t necessarily change the outlook here. He could potentially miss all of next season, but if he’s willing to sign a 3 or 4-year contract, there will be plenty of teams who will pursue him this summer and be willing to pay him to recover during the first year. There’s also a chance he could opt in to his player option with the Warriors, rehab with them, and then hit free agency next summer, but his option is about $8M less than a new max contract would be.

It’s been pretty obvious for a while now that the Clippers have been positioning themselves to get in on the action this summer, and they’ve been pretty successful in doing so. What follows is the quick version of a “build your own adventure” Clippers off-season.

First, let’s start with the salary cap. While it won’t be finalized until the league’s internal audit in the early days of July, they’ve projected a salary cap of about $109 million. That means that, for the most part, the Clippers’ team salary—pre-existing contracts, new free agent deals, cap holds, and empty roster charges—must stay at or underneath that threshold. There’s only a few ways for them to get over that $109 million in the late stage of the summer. Teams that use cap space to sign free agents are left with what’s called the “room exception,” a small salary slot that can be used to add one additional player. This year, that means that if the Clippers land a star, they’ll have about $4.75M to round out their roster with one final player. They can also use bird rights to re-sign one of their current players—we’ll talk more about that later. And, of course, they could make a late trade, which would be legal as long as it falls within the league’s salary matching rules.

Before we dive in, let’s make sure we keep track of how much cap space the Clippers need to sign max free agents. The NBA has tiered maximum salaries based on years of experience, so a max contract for a guy like Kawhi Leonard (with fewer than 10 years of experience) will be around $32.7M, while one for Kevin Durant (with 10 years of experience) will cost around $38.2M. None of the top free agent candidates aside from Durant qualify for that higher salary tier, so if your summer fantasy includes someone from the second tier of star free agents (like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, or Klay Thompson), make sure you have $32.7M carved out for them.

Here’s how this game works: we’ll work through the Clippers’ roster, and you make decisions as we go. When we’re done, subtract their team salary figure from $109,000,000. If you have enough for the free agents you want, great! If not, time to go back over your work and make some tough decisions.

So, let’s walk through each of those four categories that make up the Clippers’ team salary.

Step 1: The Current Contracts:

Danilo Gallinari - $22,615,559

Lou Williams - $8,000,000

Montrezl Harrell - $6,000,000

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - $3,952,920

Jerome Robinson - $3,567,720

Landry Shamet - $1,995,120

Sindarius Thornwell - $1,618,520*

Tyrone Wallace - $1,588,231*

Total - $49,338,070

These are the 8 players the Clippers have under contract for next season right now. Right off the bat, we can already tell that there isn’t enough cap space here for two maximum salary deals—we’re looking at less than $60 million before getting into cap holds and roster charges. If you’re building a one-star off-season, you don’t need to do much at this stage (though you could!). If you’re building a two-star off-season, it’s time to make your first tough choice: at least one key piece of last year’s lovable Clippers team has gotta go. The likely candidate is Danilo Gallinari, who just had an excellent season and a very movable 1 year, $22 million left on his contract. But depending on the moves you make around the edges, space for two max salary deals could be achieved by trading different combinations of some of the smaller salaries listed above. Keep in mind, though, that you have to find a workable trade without bringing salary back (though that should be easy for high-value players like Gallinari, Williams, and Harrell).

Two of the eight players under contract, Thornwell and Wallace, have non-guaranteed deals for next season. The Clippers have until June 20th to cut Thornwell without owing him any of his salary, and until September 12th to do the same for Wallace. Releasing one or both of these players could be the last move that frees up the cash the Clippers need, but it’s unlikely—an empty roster hold will be about $900,000 this summer, meaning cutting Sin and Ty would only save about $600,000 each.

Step 2: The Cap Holds:

Wilson Chandler - Bird Rights - $19,200,843

JaMychal Green - Bird Rights - $14,946,667

Garrett Temple - Bird Rights - $12,000,000

Patrick Beverley - Bird Rights - $9,551,353

Ivica Zubac - Bird Rights, Restricted Free Agent, $1,931,189

Rodney McGruder - Bird Rights, Restricted Free Agent, $1,931,189

Johnathan Motley - Early Bird Rights, Restricted Free Agent, $838,464

Total - $60,399,705

This is the area where it’s a lot easier to save some dough—and we have to, since the Clippers’ current contracts and cap holds leave them with no cap room whatsoever. The big cap holds are easy ones to trim. Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple might be decent depth pieces, but if the Clippers choose to bring them back, they can do it for a lot cheaper than $19 and $12 million, respectively. JaMychal Green is a guy who has a little more value and showed his versatility in the playoffs, but still, $15 million is steep. I expect the Clippers to do what they can to try and keep Green, but it will be with the money that they have leftover. Clearing his $15 million from the books is an almost-necessary step towards making big acquisitions (the one work-around might be using Green’s bird rights to sign him to a long-term deal for less than his cap hold so they can give him the larger raises allowed by bird rights compared to signing a free agent with cap space).

The smallest holds, on the other hands, are easy to hold on to. I expect that the Clippers will certainly extend qualifying offers to both Zubac and McGruder, as each QO will only eat into their cap room by about $1M more than an empty roster hold. Then, the Clippers can use the combination of bird rights and their restricted free agency right of first refusal to ensure that they get to keep both players. For taking up only a couple million of their cap room, they get to keep their 22-year-old starting center and lock up a defensive wing with over 100 NBA starts. Two big rotational pieces at that price tag is a no-brainer.

The complicated question is Patrick Beverley—at around $9.5 million, his bird rights take up a pretty hefty chunk of the team’s cap room, especially for a backup when the Clippers already have pretty solid depth at guard. At the same time, he’s a crucial part of this team’s identity, and it’s possible to make that cap hold work, especially if they only pursue one star. But how much will he get offered in free agency? Will the Clippers be able to keep him anyway? We’ll have to wait and see.

By July 1st, there’s a chance that the Clippers have some small cap holds for the players they select with the 48th and 56th overall picks. But I doubt that they select two guys who are going to be around next year, For now, I’m going to leave them out of my calculations.

Step 3: Roster Holds

Before we can figure out how much cap space the Clippers have left over for free agents, we need to add in empty roster charges. Count up how many players you’re including in your total salary number—players who are still under contract, who have arrived in any hypothetical trades, or whose cap holds you’re keeping on the books. If the number is less than 12, add $900,000 for every spot you’ve left open.

Step 4: Use Your Cap Space

This is the easy one—take the $109,000,000 salary cap and subtract your team salary figure from it. Whatever’s left over is what you have to sign free agents. Remember, you need $38.2M for Kevin Durant, and $32.7M for any of the other max guys, including Kawhi Leonard. Whatever’s left post-star(s) can be used to round out the roster.

Step 5: Use Your Exceptions

Alright, we’ve signed free agents using cap space to reach the cap. Now, let’s do what we can to keep improving the roster by exceeding it. This is the part where we use guys’ bird rights to sign them to deals that are bigger than their cap holds. For example, if you kept Patrick Beverley’s $9.5M hold, but it takes $12M to re-sign him, this is where you can make that happen now that the cap space is already used up and his new deal won’t work against you when you’re signing stars. It’s also where Zubac and McGruder eventually sign their new deals, both likely well over their $1.9M qualifying offers.

Looping back to the room exception mentioned above, this is where the Clippers will make what is likely their last significant outside addition of the summer—using that $4.75M slot to round out their bench. Finally, the last way to exceed the cap is by handing out minimum salary deals. The good news is that, unlike with the Lob City years, the Clippers have enough quality, cost-controlled depth that they shouldn’t need to overly rely on these minimum guys to play major rotation minutes next season.

If you’re ready to break out your phone calculator and come up with a mock off-season, you’ve got what you need. Below, I took a few minutes to sketch out templates of two popular possible avenues this summer could take. Of course, there’s dozens of variations of each of these possibilities and countless possibilities other than them, so feel free to get creative and share what you come up with in the comments.

Example Off-Season 1: Run it Back, plus Kawhi

For one sample Clippers off-season, I’m going to outline what it might look like for the team to simply plug Kawhi Leonard into their current core. You can use this as a template to tweak if you don’t want to start from scratch.

Step 1: Since I’m doing my best to keep the current core together, I’m not getting rid of any of the Clippers’ big current salaries. No salary-shedding trades needed. However, depending on exactly where the NBA’s salary cap ends up, I think we might run into a tight spot signing Kawhi and holding on to Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green. So, I’m going to tearfully waive Sindarius Thornwell’s non-guaranteed deal before it becomes fully guaranteed on June 20th, hopefully re-signing him to a minimum deal later in the summer (it might be possible to simply move his guarantee date). Then, if I need a little more wiggle room, I can cut Ty Wallace in July once the other dominoes have fallen.

Step 2: Renouncing Chandler and Temple gives me most of the flexibility that I need to sign Kawhi. Naturally, I’m going to extend qualifying offers to Zubac and McGruder, as well as give Motley his two-way qualifying offer. I’m also holding on to Patrick Beverley’s bird rights with their $9.5M price tag—and, for now, keeping JaMychal Green’s as well. Hopefully, I can re-sign Green for less than his $15M cap hold, giving me some wiggle room to keep Ty and Sindarius around. But if necessary, I’m willing to cut both of them to give JaMychal a one-year, $15M deal.

Step 3: Let’s assume we had to cut Sin and Ty so that we could hold on to Green’s bird rights. That leaves us with 11 players or cap holds, and needing to add one $900,000 roster charge.

Step 4: I’ve got $46,131,319 on the books for six returning players, plus $29,198,862 for my five cap holds. Add those together, plus my $900k roster charge, and my team salary is $76,230,181. That leaves me with $32,769,819 in cap room. Kawhi Leonard’s maximum-salary contract, assuming the $109M cap holds, will start at $32.7M. Sign him, and there’s no leftover cap room, so step 4 is done.

Step 5: With Kawhi on board, the championship window is officially open, and that means I can definitely justify overpaying to keep Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green around. Between having their bird rights and being miles away from the luxury tax, I can hopefully do this with big, short-term deals that beat out their other offers without damaging my future flexibility. Similarly, I’ll use restricted free agency to keep Zubac and McGruder around.

My rotation has Gilgeous-Alexander and Beverley at point guard, Shamet and Williams at shooting guard, Leonard and McGruder at small forward, Gallinari and Green at power forward, and Zubac and Harrell at center. Jerome Robinson is my guard depth, and the 12th guy in the picture is Jonathan Motley, although I might keep him on a two-way deal depending on who I can get to round out the roster. The $4.75M room exception goes towards a veteran who is willing to join for depth (Anthony Tolliver?), and we can round out the third string with minimum-salary guys. If Green will take a one-year, $14M deal instead of one-year, $15M, then we could potentially avoid cutting Ty Wallace and have him around as well.

Example Off-Season 2: Kawhi and KD Team Up With LAC

Let’s not waste time speculating over how likely this is or isn’t, and just get into the details of what it would look like.

Step 1: If we want two max-salary slots, then it isn’t going to be possible to keep last year’s team intact. While it may be technically possible to make Gallinari, KD, and Kawhi all work together by cutting every other possible corner, it doesn’t really make sense to try. If you’re adding two Hall of Fame forwards, you don’t need to keep Gallo around for the final year of his deal. He’s good enough and on a reasonable expiring deal that this summer, with cap space abound, he will be a fine short-term consolation prize for any number of teams that strike out. I think the Clippers might even be able to get a future protected 1st back for Danilo, but that isn’t really important for this exercise. What matters is he’s getting traded for no salary in return. While we’re in the clear for Leonard and Durant now, I want to do a little more cost-cutting at this step to help Patrick Beverley stay around too—including Jerome Robinson in the Gallinari salary dump. To save some money on the margins, let’s assume that we’ll have to cut Sin and Ty as well.

Step 2: Gallo makes 22 million. Durant’s max is $38.2M. We’ve gotta clear some more money somewhere. Moving $3.5M of Jerome Robinson helps, but there’s simply no way that Green’s $15M cap hold can stay on the books here. The Robinson move does, however, mean the Clippers can keep Patrick Beverley’s cap hold (or, use that $9.5M to re-sign Green if he’s their priority). I’m sticking with those qualifying offers for Zubac and McGruder—there’s no way to pass up on that kind of value when trying to build the supporting cast.

Step 3: This roster is definitely a bit more bare-bones because of the need to create the second max slot. With four players under contract and four cap holds on the books, I need four $900,000 roster holds, totaling $3.6M added to my team salary.

Step 4: I’ve got four players under contract for a total of $19,948,040. Then, four cap holds/qualifying offers totaling $14,252,195. With four roster holds, my total team salary is $37,810,235. That means I have an astronomical $71,189,765 in cap space. Let’s sign Durant to a max salary deal starting at $38.2M. Our team salary figure goes up to $75,110,235 (subtracting $900,000 for the roster spot he filled). Leftover cap space is now $33,889,765, leaving room to sign Kawhi Leonard. We actually have enough on the margins to not need to have cut Sin and Ty as well!

Step 5: Okay, let’s finish this. We’ve got Shai, Shamet, Kawhi, Durant, and Zubac starting with key bench roles filled by Lou Williams, McGruder, and Montrezl. Beverley’s cap hold means we’re likely keeping him around (though we could also renounce him and take Green or pursue a free agent instead), and there’s enough room on the margins that Thornwell and Wallace are still on the roster as well. That means there’s just the $4.75M room exception, and then minimum salary deals, to fill out the roster. The obvious need is backup power forward, though we don’t need to get into potential targets here to get the point—this is how a summer where the Clippers get both Kawhi and KD looks.

Which of these options do you find most intriguing? How would you tweak them slightly differently from what I did to put the team you want on the floor? Or would you go a completely different direction, perhaps pursuing Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, or Anthony Davis? There’s too many options this summer for me to do a comprehensive run-down of them all. So, using these guidelines, build your own adventure in the comments and let’s see what we can come up with.