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NBA Off-Season 2019: Do the Clippers have one big move left?

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The Clippers’ front office could have one more trick up their sleeves...

Toronto Raptors vs Oklahoma City Thunder Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Clippers shocked the NBA last Friday night by agreeing to terms with Kawhi Leonard.

Then, about, I dunno, five minutes later, they shocked the world once more by adding Paul George in an absolutely insane trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Los Angeles Clippers, of all teams, became the favorites to win the NBA Championship literally overnight.

Kawhi can sign into the Clippers’ cap space, where they have a maximum-salary slot available, and then the Clippers can legally exceed the cap to acquire Paul George via trade. Simple enough. The only thing is, it hasn’t happened yet.

While the Clippers have reportedly agreed to the Paul George trade as well as new player contracts for Patrick Beverley, Rodney McGruder, Ivica Zubac, and JaMychal Green, none of those deals can be finalized until the Clippers use their cap space to add Leonard.

So what’s the hold up?

Well, it’s possible that Kawhi Leonard simply hasn’t gotten around to signing his contract yet. Maybe he had a lot of errands to run over the weekend. But it seems like you’d make time to officially sign your $140,000,000 deal—and it seems like even if Kawhi wasn’t motivated to do it immediately, I could see Lawrence Frank chasing him down the aisle at the grocery store just to secure Leonard’s future as a Clipper.

The other possibility is that the Clippers are getting creative and trying to make one more big addition before the summer ends.

Right now, the Clippers are $37,227,964 below the salary cap (though once they complete all of their agreed-to deals, they’ll be well over and possibly into the luxury tax). What if, instead of using the bulk of that cap space to sign Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers used the space to absorb another player via trade and then worked with the Raptors on a Leonard sign-and-trade?

Such a scenario becomes phenomenally complex. The Clippers need to find a player worth getting to absorb into their cap, convince that player’s team to give him away for basically nothing, figure out how to scrape together $26,193,000 in outgoing salary to make the Kawhi trade legal, convince Toronto to facilitate the deal, and then navigate staying underneath the $138,928,000 hard cap that would be imposed upon them as a result of receiving a player in a sign-and-trade.

I have two ideas.

Steven Adams

The Oklahoma City Thunder just traded Paul George. After meeting with Russell Westbrook, they’re planning on listening to offers for him as well. It seems like they’re fully tearing things down, and Adams’ bloated contract should be on the chopping block.

Even before George left the Thunder, OKC was reportedly looking into moving Adams, who has two years and $53M remaining on his contract. If the Thunder are still looking to move that salary off of their books, the Clippers are probably the only option unless they wait until next summer.

Adams’ $25,842,697 fits nicely into the Clippers’ cap space with plenty of extra room. Now, the question becomes piecing together the outgoing $26M to get Kawhi Leonard.

After absorbing Adams, the Clippers would have $11,385,267 in cap room. In order to put together a package to bring Leonard back to L.A., the Clippers are going to need to find a deal to absorb into that remaining space to then flip to Toronto. Normally, players who are acquired via trade can’t immediately have their salaries aggregated in a subsequent trade, but that rule is waived for players who are absorbed into cap room. So, the Clippers can find a player in that 11M slot, put him together with Maurice Harkless’ 11M expiring deal, add in Jerome Robinson’s $3.6M salary, and put a deal together.

As long as we’re talking about Oklahoma City, it’s possible that the Thunder would be happy to shed the expiring $10,740,741 salary of Andre Roberson, an injured and flawed player who shouldn’t be in their long-term plans. If the Clippers also absorb Roberson and combine him with Harkless and Robinson, they’d have an outgoing package worth $25,319,697. All they’d need to do then is pay some random team cash to acquire a minimum-salary player (think someone at the level of Thornwell or Wallace, two players LAC just cut) to get them over the hump. It’s similar to what Daryl Morey did in order to trade for Chris Paul two years ago—pay cash to a team like the Detroit Pistons for a player like Darrun Hilliard, and then send Hilliard to the Clippers to help the trade math work for Paul.

There are options other than Roberson. If the Miami Heat make a play for Russell Westbrook, they’ll have to send out a significant amount of salary to stay below the hard cap, meaning the Clippers could assist by taking Meyers Leonard’s $11,286,515 salary, which neither OKC or Miami wants. Even without a Westbrook trade, Miami might like to move that deal to help them avoid the luxury tax this season. John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova each have expiring deals worth just under $10M in Cleveland, with the Cavaliers positioned to pay the luxury tax for a lottery team. The Milwaukee Bucks might even be considering stretching John Leuer’s $9.8M expiring deal—I’m sure they’d be happy to trade it instead. The point being that there are several expiring deals around the league that the Clippers should be able to absorb and then flip, maybe even getting a second-round pick or two for their trouble.

The Clippers could add Steven Adams, and then Harkless, Roberson, Robinson, and a min player could go to Toronto for Kawhi in a sign-and-trade. The value of each deal can be adjusted however you wish—maybe the Clippers get one of those pick swaps back from OKC for eating the Adams money, maybe the Clippers send their own 2020 first-round pick to Toronto in exchange for facilitating the deal, etc. But the Clippers’ roster becomes fierce: a starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, JaMychal Green, and Steven Adams with a second unit featuring Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, Rodney McGruder, Montrezl Harrell, and Ivica Zubac.

Does it all work under the hard cap? It’s perilously close.

If the Clippers perform all of the cap gymnastics I just listed, and then complete all their other agreed-upon deals, they’d be left with a team salary of $137,554,682—$1.4M below the hard cap. Signing Terance Mann to a rookie minimum deal worth about $900k leaves them with a 12-man roster and $500,000 underneath the hard cap. Teams have to carry 14 players on their roster, so the Clippers would need a little more wiggle room to complete their roster. But at this point, we’re operating within the margin of error—Patrick Beverley’s reported 3-year, $40 million deal could easily be worth $39.75M and have been rounded in the reporting process, for example.

Marc Gasol

While we’re dealing with the slim margin the Clippers will have underneath the hard cap if they pull one of these moves off, it’s nice that the other potential target I’ve identified makes about $250,000 less than Adams. Marc Gasol, fresh off winning a championship with Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, has one year left on his contract for $25,595,700.

This scenario plays out the same way as the Adams one I walked through above—the Clippers absorb the last year of Gasol’s deal into their cap space, then shop around the league and absorb one of the Meyers Leonard/Roberson/Henson/Delly/Leuer deals.

(A brief aside: this is the point in the process where the Clippers likely sign Terance Mann and any other potential undrafted/rookie free agents. If they use the minimum salary exception on him at the end of the process, he can only get a two-year min deal, but using cap space, they can give him a three-year deal valued at the league minimum, allowing the team to have his full bird rights when he enters restricted free agency. The team did the same thing with Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell.)

Now that the cap space has served its purpose, the Clippers can use cash and/or second round picks to add a minimum deal via trade (they may need to find two depending if they absorb one of the cheaper contracts listed above). They can send that minimum player, the expiring deal they just absorbed, Maurice Harkless, Jerome Robinson, and likely the Clippers’ 2020 1st round draft pick to Toronto in a Kawhi Leonard sign-and-trade.

Again, the Clippers are left close to the luxury tax line—they’d have a team salary of $137,307,685 for 11 players. If you include Mann, it’s $138,205,955 for 12. Again, that’s within the margin of error for the free agent deals the Clippers have reportedly agreed to.

One interesting note here: when you’re up against the apron, you aren’t allowed to cut corners by signing undrafted free agents to rookie minimum deals. When calculating the hard cap, the league uses the veteran’s minimum number—$1.62M—in place of the rookie minimum number (just shy of $900k). But that only applies to players who sign as free agents. So Mann, as a Clippers draft pick, only counts $900k against the apron instead of the $1.62M. If the Clippers are in a bind where that $700k difference becomes important, they do have options: the team has the draft rights to French point guard David Michineau and French big man Mathias Lessort. Better depth options are available for the veteran’s minimum, but they could be emergency options.

Another emergency option could be re-negotiating the agreed-to deal with Patrick Beverley. It’s possible that Beverley would let his year 1 salary be lowered in exchange for the Clippers giving him a fourth year on his contract. For example, changing Pat’s contract from 3/40 to 4/50 would lower his salary for this season by $1.2M, allowing the Clippers a little flexibility. It’s also possible that, if Kawhi Leonard is pushing the Clippers for these roster upgrades, he could sacrifice a little bit of money from his max deal (like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant just did in Brooklyn) to help bring in another big name.

If there’s no way to make Gasol work, the Raptors also have Serge Ibaka on an expiring $23,271,605 deal—a solid $2.2M cheaper. That would allow the Clippers to potentially give Mann his rookie minimum deal and only be about $200k short of adding two more veteran’s minimum contracts, an amount easily made up for elsewhere.