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How Can the Clippers Approach the Future?

Posted By Taylor Smith On Feb 28 2013 @ 5:44 pm In Los Angeles Clippers | No Comments

The Los Angeles Clippers’ franchise has never been in a more favorable position than it is today.

They’re 41-18, comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, and are considered by many to be on the short list of teams with a legitimate chance of winning a championship this season.

Prior to this season, they were able to lock-up franchise cornerstone Blake Griffin to a five-year extension worth as much as $95 million.

Their other cornerstone, Chris Paul, will be a free agent once this season comes to an end, but, barring some kind of massive catastrophe, is a safe bet to hitch himself to Clipperland for the foreseeable future.

Other than Griffin and (hopefully) Paul, the only other player on the roster with a guaranteed contract past the 2013-14 season is DeAndre Jordan, who will make about $11.5M before coming free following the 2014-15 season.

With Griffin and Paul on the roster, and, if they can remain relatively healthy, there isn’t much reason to believe the Clippers won’t be one of the more desirable destinations for free agents for the next several years. So, how can they approach this?

The roster is currently constructed in such a way to make the team competitive today, with legitimate title aspirations. You don’t bring in older guys like Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups with an eye on the future. You’re going for it today.

If they retain Paul, he’ll likely make something in the neighborhood of $20M next season, which is up from the $17.8M he’s on the books for this year. This year, the Clippers’ total salary is in the neighborhood of $69M. The salary cap this year is just over $58M, while the luxury tax threshold is about $70.3M. Still with me? Me neither.

Any team that exceeds that tax threshold has to pay a penalty of $1 for every $1 that puts them over it. This is to discourage excessive spending and to try and maintain something of a competitive balance in the league.

The issue here is the harsh luxury tax penalties that will come into effect next season. Instead of $1 for every dollar over the line, teams will have to pay $1.50 for every dollar over the threshold, if they are $5M or less over the threshold. For example, if the Clippers’ total team salary was $73M next season, they’d have to pay $1.50 for every dollar of that excessive three million. This means the team would owe an additional $4.5M to the league in tax penalties.

The penalties get stiffer the higher your team salary is. If you’re between $5M and $10M over the threshold, you owe $1.75 for every dollar. Between $10M and $15M? $2.50 for every dollar. And $15M to $20M over the threshold means you’ll have to pay a whopping $3.25 per dollar over the limit.

And it’s even worse for “repeat offenders”, meaning teams that have paid the luxury tax in four of the previous five seasons.

This new tax restriction coming into effect is likely the reason we saw so few major moves prior to the trade deadline, and why teams are now more hesitant to give up future first-round draft picks. Money is getting tighter.

It’s also why many believe the Lakers simply can’t reasonably retain Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash next season. They are already on the books for $68M in salary for 2013-14, and that’s without Dwight Howard’s likely $20M salary next year added-on. The Lakers, if they do add Howard and don’t part ways with Gasol or Kobe, will be in the neighborhood of $20M over the threshold. With repeat offender penalties, which they’d qualify for, they’d be on the hook for something like $85M in luxury tax penalties.

That franchise is obviously rolling in money, but $85M in a tax penalty is insane, and one would think that would be something they’d like to avoid.

Adding Paul’s likely $20M to the current group of Clippers owed money next year puts the team around $68M in total salary. Other Clippers with guaranteed contracts for next season are Jordan, Griffin, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Eric Bledsoe, and the club holds team options on Trey Thompkins and Willie Green.

Obviously, this means the team will have decisions to make on the key guys whose contracts expire after this season, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups and Matt Barnes.

Odom has been something of a letdown this season, though he’s gotten himself into better shape as the year has gone on and has shown flashes every now-and-then. He’s also still only 33, so there isn’t much reason to believe his basketball skills are suddenly just gone.

He obviously has a unique skill set for a 6’10″ guy, and he’s on the books for over $8M this year. Obviously, that price tag is coming way down, and one would assume that he’d take a major discount in order to stay in L.A., should the Clippers have interest in keeping him around.

Barnes is an interesting case, because he’s having the best year of his career at age 32. Pretty rare, obviously. He’s “only” making about $850,000 this season, so he’s likely in for a bit of a raise if he finishes the year strong. He’s a gritty defender that finishes well around the rim and can shoot it from deep at a decent clip. There are plenty of guys in the league with similar skills, but his toughness is something the Clippers haven’t had too often in years past.

Guys like Shawn Marion, Andrei Kirilenko and Chandler Parsons all may be free this summer, but they’ll also likely all cost more than the Clippers will be able to afford. Realistically, keeping Barnes in a Clipper uniform may be the best path here.

Had the Clippers been able to complete a trade for Kevin Garnett, as was rumored as a possibility prior to the deadline, in exchange for DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe, the chance existed that they may have been able to have enough cap space free following next season to make a run at one of the free agents in the 2014 class. This is a class expected to be headlined by the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and several others. Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Jordan’s $11M salary that season will likely keep L.A. from making a play for any of the stars that may become available. Unless, of course, they’re able to move him before then.

Obviously, the future is looking quite bright for the Clippers, and the new cap and tax penalties may actually help them out.

They’re preventing teams from creating the “super teams” we saw Miami build, which means that after the 2013-14 season, the Heat may have to disband their superstar squad. The Spurs are aging, although still fantastic, and the Lakers don’t appear to be anywhere close to a title.

Teams like Minnesota, Denver and Houston are on the rise, although it looks as though the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder are the teams best-suited to make a run at the Western Conference crown for the next handful of years.

The door is wide open, and the Clippers just need to be smart in taking the next step through it.

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