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Summer Salary Cap Mailbag #1: Digesting the Durant News

Will KD opt in to his contract? Should the Clippers still sign him? That and more in our first salary cap mailbag.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our first summer salary cap mailbag of the year! Over the next few weeks, I’ll periodically be answering questions from readers/twitter followers about the Clippers’ salary cap situation and how the salary cap works around the league in general. It’s no surprise that a lot of this week’s questions focused on the unfortunate news of Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury. Let’s get into the questions!

Dogman: Let’s say Kawhi signs with the Clippers… is also signing Durant still feasible with KD likely out for all of next season? His salary would make it really difficult to fill out the roster. I’m assuming the disabled player exception can’t be applied to someone you sign who you know is injured, right?

Lucas: Feasible? Sure. In fact, if you can land both of them, you probably still should. But you’re right—it would be really difficult to put a good team on the floor next year. First, you’ve gotta off-load tons of money so that you can max KD. Then, you need to spend over $38M on his new contract to get him on the team... just so that you can’t play him all of next year. If the Clippers go the simple route, they’ll renounce all of their cap holds (except for Zubac and McGruder’s qualifying offers) and waive Thornwell and Wallace to maximize their cap room.

This would leave them with enough money (around 8M) to hopefully re-sign JaMychal Green to be their starting power forward. Then, they’d have the room exception ($4.75M) to get forward depth—maybe Anthony Tolliver? That leaves you with a starting lineup of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Leonard, Green, and Ivica Zubac and a second unit of Jerome Robinson, Lou Williams, Rodney McGruder, Tolliver, and Montrezl Harrell. That team would also have cut Sindarius and Ty, meaning depth would be their second-round pick(s), maybe Jonathan Motley, and veteran’s minimum contracts. The depth is less than ideal—and Kevin Durant is technically on your third string, taking up a potential roster spot that could be used on additional depth. But it’s still a decent 10-man unit that should be able to lure some okay vet’s min guys. And the real pay-off is after year 1, when Durant returns and the Clippers become title favorites.

Jbugs: In regards to JMG, is he even going to get offered $15M this summer? I believe the consensus was he was overpaid in memphis. Even though he looks to be worth it on the Clippers (especially in the playoffs), I can definitely see teams not wanting to risk overpaying him again. I wouldn’t be surprised if we could keep him for $13M (and I’d be happy with that).

Lucas: Yeah, this is a really tough one for me. Generally speaking, we’re at a point in NBA history where it’s really hard to guess what the market is going to be for players of in-between quality like JaMychal. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clippers renounce Green only to be able to keep him on a one-year deal for their $4.75M room exception. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he gets multi-year deals in the $12M range. In 21 minutes per game last year, he averaged 9.4 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 40% from three. In the playoffs, the Clippers—after having him for only 24 regular-season games—used him as their starting center and had him guard Kevin Durant on defense.

At the same time, he’s a guy who has seemingly always been under-appreciated. He went undrafted, didn’t stick with the Spurs on a ten-day deal, and was seemingly perpetually productive yet on the trade block in Memphis. Finally, his expiring deal ended up being given to the Clippers for essentially free this February as they tried to dump Avery Bradley’s contract. You’d think that a solid all-around PF who shoots 40% from three would have some type of positive value as an expiring deal at the deadline. If he didn’t, will teams’ valuation of him have shifted drastically in the months in between?

From where I’m sitting, it’s impossible to know. My hypothetical scenario the other day assumed a scenario where Green gets a 3/30 offer somewhere, but the Clippers convince him to stay with a larger, one-year deal using his $15M cap hold. Hopefully, that’s not the case. Normally, we think of teams using their own free agents’ bird rights last, taking advantage of low cap holds to exceed the salary cap. Maybe this is a chance for the Clippers to use Green’s bird rights first—giving him the larger annual raises allowed in a bird rights contract, but replacing his larger cap hold with a smaller starting salary amount to maximize cap room.

Thretch: Will there be enough cap space next summer for AD? I don’t like eviscerating the roster for him this year, but would love to poach him next summer from whatever foolish team trades for him this year. Gallo off the books, but unfortunately Lou and Trez’s deals are up as well.

Lucas: The answer—tentatively—is yes. If the Clippers sign two max free agents this summer, obviously cap room next year out the window. Similarly, if they don’t get any of their big targets, it’s fair to expect that this front office will be frugal and hoard their cap space (though, if they don’t like their chances with Anthony Davis next summer, and don’t like the other names who will be available, they could always use their cap space to absorb other teams’ bad deals and get additional future draft picks in return).

The real place this gets sketchy is if the Clippers only add one star. How do they balance wanting to build a roster that can contend next year with wanting to maintain flexibility to add a second star down the road? They might be in a situation where keeping Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green is contingent upon giving one—or both—of those guys long-term security in exchange for them taking less money than other teams are offering. But two long-term, 8-figure contracts pretty much close the door on adding major help in future free agencies.

ClipperFernald: Who’s this McGruder guy? Why is he the one plugged into these hypotheticals?

Lucas: This might be a good time for a reminder: Rodney McGruder is on the Clippers’ roster! McGruder’s been a solid rotational wing piece for the Miami Heat for the last few years, but with his contract expiring and their playoff hopes extinguished, they waived him near the end of the regular season in an attempt to avoid the luxury tax. The Clippers jumped on the opportunity, releasing the injured Luc Mbah a Moute and claiming McGruder. While McGruder played for the Heat far too late into the season to be playoff-eligible for the Clippers, by claiming him off of waivers (vs simply signing him as a free agent), L.A. acquired his bird rights.

While McGruder is older than most restricted free agents at 27 (he’ll turn 28 in late July), he’s only finishing his third year in the NBA, which means that the Clippers are in a super advantageous position to keep him around long-term. His cap hold is only $1.9M, meaning he takes up virtually none of their cap space, allowing them to pursue big free agents and then work on a deal with him. The Clippers have his bird rights, which means that they can exceed the cap to give him whatever deal is necessary. And he’s a restricted free agent, meaning that so long as they extend the aforementioned $1.9M qualifying offer, they can match any contract he signs with another team and he has to return to the Clippers.

It wasn’t the most exciting acquisition, but he’s a solid, cost-controlled rotation piece that the Clippers have long-term control over.

@1bengalsjunkie: What would KD accepting his player option and Klay resigning on the max this offseason do to the luxury tax threshold? Would they go over? Would they still be fine?

Lucas: Well, first of all, I don’t think that Kevin Durant will accept his player option. We’ve talked extensively about the risks that teams will take to acquire star players—giving KD a four-year deal so that you can get three years of him is pretty much a no-brainer for any team in the league. Even factoring in the risk that he might not fully recover from such a serious injury, I expect that the Clippers and any other team that was interested before will still be interested now.

But let’s imagine how much KD opting in could cost the Warriors. Here’s the quick version of what I’m doing: KD opts in, Klay re-signs for the full 30% max, GSW waives Shaun Livingston’s partially-guaranteed contract, signs a veteran to their taxpayer mid-level exception, uses their first-round pick, and fills out the roster with veteran’s minimum deals. That would leave them with a payroll of around $163M, around (rough math here) $32M over the luxury tax. That number could be higher if they keep Livingston or choose to re-sign players like Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook, or Jonas Jerebko to above-minimum deals. If could also be lower if they trade or stretch Durant or Iguodala, or decline to use their taxpayer MLE. For example, stretching Durant’s contract saves the Warriors’ payroll about $20M this coming year—but adds $10M to the payroll each of the next two years.

Let’s say $32M. At the repeater tax rate, that would be 126.5M in luxury tax payments—on top of $163M in payroll—meaning a total of $289.5M in roster payments. Again, that’s a super rough estimate. It would also keep them in the repeater tax going forward, and they have to give Draymond Green a new contract next summer and figure out how to try to add depth while likely losing Durant, Iguodala (even if he comes back after next year, he’ll be 36), and Livingston. It would be a rough situation if they weren’t in their 5th straight NBA Finals right now! Fortunately for them, I feel pretty confident that Durant will opt out—leaving them in a situation where they might even be able to dodge the luxury tax altogether for a year.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! For the purpose of not writing a million-word mailbag, I couldn’t take every question that I received. But please leave more questions in the comments to this post (or tweet at me, or e-mail me!) and as long as they keep coming in, I’ll keep doing salary cap mailbags!