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Salary Series: Clippers Can't Lose Now

Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."

In these weekly posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.

For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.

When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.

This week the Clippers embark on their new future after an eventful trade deadline. Let's look at why they might be in the most favorable situation in the entire league moving forward.

Without Further Ado...

The Los Angeles Clippers are all the proof we need that you don’t have to tear down a team to spare parts and loose change to pivot in a new direction. Just two years ago, they boasted a core that included three All-NBA players (CP3, Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan) and one of the best shooters of our generation in JJ Redick. No matter what Small Forward they took a rental on during their impressive run to round out the starting five, the starting lineup was always a massive wrecking ball on offense.

If we glance at their 2014-2015 season in particular, their five man lineup that featured those four players + Matt Barnes had an efficiency differential of +18.4 (88th percentile) and scored 120.3 points per 100 possessions (90th percentile).

That six year run that brought the Clippers out of the dark ages and into the shining light of deep playoff runs didn't turn out as well as the organization had in mind when they pieced together their deadly core. Chris Paul was a godsend for them following his arrival from New Orleans in 2011 and contributed a franchise high 78.2 win shares during his stay. That certainly won't be bested for quite some time. However, tragedy struck at some point in each season, and Paul in particular was heavily scrutinized for critical errors in the blockbuster showdown against OKC in 2014. The fact that this overwhelmingly talented until couldn't even sniff the Western Conference Finals in all their years together goes to show just how difficult it is to win at the highest level in the National Basketball Association.

Eventually, this roller coaster ride had to circle back to the station and give way to a new generation of Clipper ambassadors. Despite obvious disappointment in the moment, there is one silver lining that is abundantly clear when looking back at the deconstruction of their experiment. They recognized that the end was drawing near and abandoned ship before things completely went overboard. Following their 1st round exit to the hands of the Utah Jazz in 2017, they renounced their free agent rights to JJ Redick and traded Paul to the Rockets for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year and cash considerations (via NBA.com). The punt on JJ Redick was a relatively easy decision, because he was already 33 years old and there was no telling when a sharp decline would hit his aging body, sapping production. It was better to cut ties than to pay $15+ million for a risky asset who wouldn't fit into a possible rebuilding phase. Next came franchise icon, Chris Paul. He was entering the final year of his contract where he was due $22.8 million and coming up on a very pricy free agency. Paul was giving off subtle hints that he would nor resign with the team once his deal expired. LA performed a sign and trade that jettisoned Paul over to H-Town before he could bolt for nothing.

Things got tricky when the focus shifted to Blake Griffin. Management assured him that he was their main man for the foreseeable future and handed over a 5-year max deal worth $171 million to drive the point home. Unfortunately, they pulled a DeRozan and pulled the plug on the Griffin experience as well. (This calls the concept of player/team loyalty into question and might be discussed in a future post.) This also ended up benefiting the Clippers as well in the form of additional current and future assets.

This transaction just over one year ago included the departure of Griffin, guard Willie Reed, forward Brice Johnson and a second-round draft pick to Detroit for guard Avery Bradley, forward Tobias Harris, center Boban Marjanovic, plus a first-round and a second-round draft pick. No matter how sketchy it was for the Clippers to go back on their commitment to Griffin as the longterm centerpiece, the swap was unquestionably the right move. Griffin is a bonafide All-Star capable of taking over games at a moments notice. He's averaging a career high 26ppg this season on an incredibly impressive 59% true shooting percentage. So let's be clear here, the Clippers didn't move on from Blake because he failed to meet expectations. It was truly about their future. At an average annual salary of ~$35 million, the Clippers would have been somewhat hamstrung when it came to upgrading the roster or obtaining valuable draft picks. Floundering in mediocrity was a real possibility. Jerry West and company were NOT on board with that impending reality.

Of course, Deandre Jordan departed as well, but the Clippers simply had to let him walk as they did with Redick once he declined his $24 million player option for this season. He;s basically the same age as Griffin, so he also did not fit into the new timeline established by the organization

Instead, they cut their losses with the former #1 overall pick to obtain key rotation piece and future draft picks they could realistically develop in hopes of seeing another perennial All-Star rise up right before their eyes.

Looking at the return they received for Paul and Griffin, several of them have been instrumental to the relative success seen in the time since they decided to change directions. Montrezl Harrell who was acquired in the exchange for Chris Paul has been fantastic in his 2nd year with the team and is in the hunt for a 6th man of the year award. Tobias Harris who came back in the Blake Griffin deal did very well last year and had was having a true breakout season before being recently traded to the Sixers since he was coming up on unrestricted free agency.

So why was Tobias not retained and integrated into LA's long term outlook? Well, there are two possibilities here.

First, LA might not have been confident that they would have been able to keep Tobias from walking for nothing. New York will forever be a free agent destination because it is a A1 market within the United States. They will now have a huge reservoir of cap space this Summer due to their trade of Porzingis in exchange for Wesley Matthew's and Deandre Jordan's (remember him??) expiring contracts. Brooklyn was another potential destination. They will be able to clear sufficient cap space by letting go of D'Angelo Russell after this season and they are also in the New York area. Oh yeah, and their roster ain't half bad. Check out last weeks post for a little bit about their story, here. Basically, there were tempting options out there and LA could have been down on their luck in that situation.

Another possible scenario is that LA simply has eyes on a bigger prize. By letting go of Harris who would have commanded at least $25 million a season under a new extension, the Clippers will now have the option to clear TWO max player slots. They used the trade-deadline to obtain several expiring contracts. Wilson Chandler came back in the trade for Harris, while Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green came aboard after Avery Bradley was sent away. If the Clippers let these three players go in addition to Patrick Beverly and Mbah a Moute and other non-guarenteed deals, there could be $62 million available to spend on available free agents like Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and others.

Any way you slice it, the Clippers are well positioned to pivot in a variety of directions. This is possible due to their extraordinary flexibility. By having that much cap space, they can be major players in free agency. If they want to stay competitive and shoot their shot another year, they could just hang on to a couple players, develop their draft picks and stock up ammo for the Summer of 2020. None of the players on this roster that are coming up on free agency will command that much money if things hold steady. Wilson Chandler will be 32 by this Summer with injury concerns, Luc is 32, Bev is a defensive specialist, (historically, they make much less than offensive players) and Temple is solid, but certainly limited like Chandler. $10 million for a couple years should be enough to retain any of the four.

That brings us to the final assets the Clippers received in the wheeling and dealing they've been up to the last year or so. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was taken with the 11th pick last Summer, while Jerome Robinson came in at 13th overall. SGA has had promising flashes as a composed guard with a well-rounded game. Robinson has not had the same opportunities to this point and has even been sent to the G League on occasion. You can see where Jerome could fit in as a floor spacing off guard as evidenced by his 35% three point percentage. Sure it's only league average, but that's not bad at all for a rookie. It will be a fun time watching these two young guards grow and learn together.

Ultimately, the Clippers face a win-win situation going forward. They can go all-out on their recruiting trip this Summer in pursuit of some of the biggest names in the Association. Their geography is a massive advantage in itself...I mean, who wouldn't want to play in one of the biggest, badest cities in the nation? The state income tax could be a negative, but a small one, if it even registers as one as all. If their ambitious plans fall through, they will still have the freedom to stay patient and develop their young core. Danilo Gallinari is on the books for one more season after this, but his $22 million will come off the books and that will turn into even more cap space for this glamorous market.

Not many teams have the luxury of being ultra-aggresive with such a nice safety net to fall back on. The Clippers should come out as big winners after their slight "Post Lob City" restart when it has run it's course. Maybe not today, where their chance of making the playoffs is slim, but certainly soon.

Coming next week - The Veteran Extension Curse

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