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To TPE, or not to TPE: that is the question

The Los Angeles Clippers possess two trade exceptions. One expires in July. Will they use it? Well, that’s dicey.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

William Shakespeare, the famed starting small forward for the Warwickshire Wombats in 1589, once was quoted in a post-game interview as saying, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” Well, that’s the exact query the Los Angeles Clippers are facing with a trade exception at their disposal — sort of.

Last summer, as we all were busy wondering how the NBA was going to pull off an 82-game season on a tighter schedule than usual during the middle of a pandemic, the Clippers traded Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Daniel Oturu to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Eric Bledsoe. The deal opened up what’s called a “Traded Player Exception” — or, as it’s more commonly known, TPE — for the Clippers.

That TPE came in at $8.25 million, which was the byproduct of the cap minutia involved in the deal. In not-so-hoity-toity terms, the trade was split into a couple parts. It essentially was Rondo going into the space that Memphis had open initially, and then Beverley and Oturu being swapped for Bledsoe.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers
Former Clippers’ point guard Rajon Rondo, whom the team dealt to Memphis and got a trade exception out of.
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Rondo made $7.5 million this past season and had another $750,000 in “likely incentives.” Add up those last two numbers and voila! You get $8.25 million, the exact amount of the trade exception that was created.

That trade exception has an expiration date, and it is quickly approaching. The Clippers must use that TPE by July 18 or, quite simply, it vanishes. Simple as that. To quote another well-known scholar: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Quite often these things will go unused as teams opt to let them expire rather than attempt to add a player (or players) via trade. The main reason is because, well, it’s sometimes tough to find a trade partner willing to give up a player for what essentially amounts to nothing. Sure, picks can be tossed into those deals to sweeten the pot, but most teams like to get a player back when giving one up.

However, there are instances of teams using their trade exceptions to acquire players. The most notable occurrence actually just happened, as the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons agreed on a deal that would send Jerami Grant to Portland in exchange for a future first-round pick. No player was sent to Detroit.

That trade is going to happen before the start of the new league year, which is July 1. That means the trade has to be finalized by June 30. The two sides are absolutely going to make that happen, and it was of great benefit for Portland to get it done now rather than wait for the new league year to officially start. The reason? Math.

Grant has a cap hit of $20 million at this present moment in time. If this trade was to happen after July 1 — which, remember, is a whole new league year which means a whole new salary for Grant on his current contract — then Grant is slated to make almost $21 million.

The reason this is important is because Portland was in possession of a massive $20.8 million trade exception as a result of them dealing C.J. McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans this past February. Should the Blazers wait until July 1 or after, Grant’s salary would exceed the size of the trade exception and thus Portland would not be able to do this type of deal. Hence, it behooves them to do this as soon as possible.

Detroit Pistons v LA Clippers
Jerami Grant, who now finds himself in Portland, was acquired by the Blazers via trade exception.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

In March 2021, the Boston Celtics acquired guard Evan Fournier from the Orlando Magic with a trade exception. That TPE that Boston held, which totaled $28.5 million before they used a hefty portion of it on Fournier, was the largest in league history. It was a result of the Celtics executing a sign-and-trade that sent Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets in November 2020.

The Celtics later shipped Fournier out in a sign-and-trade deal to the New York Knicks this past offseason and, in the process, created yet another trade exception that amounts to roughly $17.1 million. They, like the Clippers, have until July 18 to use it since it’s essentially one calendar year since they obtained the exception.

After Portland’s use of their massive TPE, the Celtics now own the largest trade exception in the league. It’s the aforementioned one they got for Fournier. But the Clippers own one that amounts to $8.25 million, the byproduct of that Rondo trade nearly a month ago. And, as things stand, Los Angeles could potentially use it to add another player to the mix who they might not otherwise have a shot at — provided it’s a player that a team is totally fine offloading for what could amount to nothing but future second round picks.

With the way that everything is currently situated — assuming that the Clippers are able to bring back all their main pieces, including free agents such as Nicolas Batum, Isaiah Hartenstein and Amir Coffey — the team is basically at 14 guaranteed roster spots, thus meaning one final open roster spot that the Clippers would have at their disposal to potentially pique a player’s interest.

As far as actual targets are concerned, it depends on what you think the team needs. Or, better yet, what they think that they need. And while you can use a trade exception to pick up a player off of waivers, we’re not going to entertain the possibilities of who might fit that bill since one of the key candidates for the final roster spot, assuming he hits the free agent market after a buyout, is John Wall, and a trade exception can’t be used to sign a player as a free agent.

New York Knicks v LA Clippers
Evan Fournier found his way to Boston and then New York thanks to the magical elixir of trade exceptions.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

So who should the Clippers add?

Should a backup point guard be of the utmost importance for this front office, perhaps players like T.J. McConnell (Indiana Pacers), Cory Joseph (Detroit Pistons), Ish Smith (Washington Wizards) and George Hill (Milwaukee Bucks) are guys they could take a look at.

McConnell is the guy who makes the money out of that group. He’s slated to make $8.1 million next season, so just below the $8.25 million trade exception that the Clippers are in possession of at the moment. But McConnell also has another two years left on the books, the final one being non-guaranteed, which could make this a no-go since that’s a long-term commitment to someone who might not factor into the team’s plans two years from now.

Of the remaining three, Joseph probably makes the most sense since he’ll be an expiring contract after he picked up his player option, as reported by Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes. Joseph is due nearly $5.2 million for the 2022-23 season, and that’s pretty much a sweet spot for the Clippers. But it also must be noted that since the Clippers will be firmly in the luxury tax, that $5.2 million is going to equate to a lot more than just that number.

The other interesting options, as far as other positions go, are: JaMychal Green (Oklahoma City Thunder, $8.2 million); Justin Holiday (Sacramento Kings, $6.3 million); Zach Collins (San Antonio Spurs, $7.4 million); and Alex Len (Sacramento Kings, $3.9 million).

So will the team actually use it?

It must be mentioned that any player the Clippers potentially acquire with this trade exception, should they actually use it, would increase their luxury tax bill. Now, fans shouldn’t care about this sort of thing whatsoever. It’s pointless to them. It’s not pointless, however, to owners.

Steve Ballmer showed a willingness to spend last season while the team was going through a “gap year” due to Kawhi Leonard’s injury, and he made that evident by approving the deal for Robert Covington and Norman Powell. So maybe he won’t care about delving into the coffer a little bit more and spending some more tokens on this magical carnival ride of a team.

On draft night, when asked about the possibility of the team using their trade exception to potentially acquire a player, Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, was transparent about the team’s viewpoint:

“Yeah, I think you’re always looking. Look, the TPEs are valuable tools and I think you do everything in your power to explore different options, and to see if it makes sense to utilize the tool or not. Many times, TPEs get unused. But it’s part of your job to do all the due diligence to figure out using the TPE, does it help make us a better team? Does it fit within the larger goal of what we’re trying to get done? And so yeah, I mean, we’ll continue to explore all different ways to try to get the group better.”

The Clippers will have until July 18 to make that decision, or else the means in which to add a player via trade for what almost amounts to nothing will have passed them by. That is until their other trade exception — worth $9.7 million as a result of dealing Serge Ibaka to the Milwaukee Bucks way back at the trade deadline — expires on February 20, 2023.

So, hey, they’ve got time. And they have the pathways to add more players. Will they use them? Well, as Shakespeare once shouted at an opposing playwright while throwing down an alley-oop in the 1589 Sonnet Finals, “That is indeed the damn question.”

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.