Montrezl Harrell is on one of the best value contracts in the NBA. Whenever the next season starts, that will no longer be the case.
After re-signing with the Clippers for two years, $12 million in the summer of 2018, Harrell is set up for what should be a massive payday this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. He is either the second or third-best big on the market this summer along with Hassan Whiteside. The Athletic reported earlier this season that offers for Harrell will likely start at $20 million annually with a 4-year, $100 million contract not out of the question.
The teams projected to have cap space this summer (and the cap math could change depending on revenue shortages due to the coronavirus shutdown) are mostly lottery teams, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and New York. The Hawks and the Pistons appear to be set in the frontcourt, though Blake Griffin’s health is an important variable with Detroit, and Harrell doesn’t make a ton of sense for a Knicks team already devoid of shooting. He’s also not a power forward.
The Hornets could make Harrell an offer — he grew up in North Carolina and would instantly be the best scorer on that team. Charlotte would probably be better served using their cap space to obtain assets from other teams rather than signing an established veteran, but the Mitch Kupchak playbook definitely skews towards the latter strategy.
Miami could also have some space, but while Harrell embodies the Heat work ethic about as well as any player in the league, he doesn’t seem like a good stylistic fit in the Miami. The Heat are also loath to commit long-term money given that they will surely be big-game hunting in the 2021 offseason.
That leaves the Clippers as the likeliest destination for Harrell next season. Assuming he wants a multi-year deal, which would help set up his family for years to come, then the Clippers are the only contending team that has the flexibility to pay him. The Clippers, as a championship contender, can’t realistically let one of their top four players walk in free agency without having the means to replace him. They need Harrell, and in this free agency market, he needs this team.
The 2020-21 salary cap was supposed to be $115 million before the league-wide shutdown with a $139 million luxury tax threshold. The Clippers hold Bird rights on Harrell, meaning they can exceed the cap to sign him to whatever contract they agree upon. The luxury tax theoretically shouldn’t matter either because Steve Ballmer is one of the richest men in the world and can afford to pay a few extra million to fund a championship team.
However, the Clippers aren’t exactly in the business of overpaying players just because they can. They were in position to acquire Kawhi Leonard and Moe Harkless this summer because the front office efficiently managed the cap sheet, and they shouldn’t give Harrell a bloated deal that would make team building difficult in the future.
The Clippers can pay Harrell a maximum of 25% of the salary cap, which translates to $28.75 million in the first year at the current estimate. With eight percent raises, that becomes about 4 years, $130 million. The Clippers could technically go up to 5 years, $169 million, but we’ll stick with the four-year total to more easily compare it with what other teams can offer him.
For context, Nikola Vucevic and Al Horford, both All-Star level bigs, got four-year deals for $100 and $109 million, respectively, last summer. Harrell is probably closer in production to Domantas Sabonis (4 years/$77 million) or Jonas Valanciunas (3 years/$45 million).
The Clippers probably have to be willing to pay Harrell up to $90 million on his next deal, which the team can mitigate with incentives like reaching the conference finals or hitting a certain percentage from the free-throw line. If he receives an offer beyond that total, it might behoove the Clippers to let him go. They could give Ivica Zubac a bigger role and sign a veteran center to the minimum to soak up minutes, while also retaining Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green for smaller lineups.
“I feel like we’ll continue to be great together. Obviously, business is business and Trezz has a family to take care of, one. Two, this is his career, this is opportunity to put himself in a great position financially and in his career. He’ll find somewhere that, you know, he gets his just due, he gets the money that he deserves and he gets to be in an opportunity that he deserves. And I really hope that we’re going to be that opportunity for him where we continue to build and grow and move forward together.
Harrell may have started his career in Houston, but he is a Clippers success story. He is on track to win a Sixth Man of the Year award, and he is beloved by Clippers fans far and wide. Keeping Harrell should be the top priority for the team this offseason, even if they have to pay him a little extra to keep him around.