NBA@2: Clippers Weighing Options
The Los Angeles Clippers took some time Monday to reflect on what was one of their best seasons in franchise history. Losing to the San Antonio Spurs via sweep may have been painful for the organization but they’ve clearly made tremendous progress.
“I’m proud of the way they competed, obviously guys are down a little bit but that’s expected and they should be,” said Coach Vinny Del Negro. “It means we’re taking a step in the right direction and that’s a big reason that you can get excited about the future is that there’s that type of commitment and atmosphere that we’re building here.”
Of course that begs the question, will Del Negro be a part of that future?
The Clippers have a team option on Vinny’s final year but refused to discuss his status on Monday.
“We’re going to let it breathe for a little bit,” said Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey. “Vinny and I decided, my contract, Vinny’s contract, the trainer’s contract, [Director of Player Personnel] Gary Sacks’ contract, those will work itself out.”
“Today’s about the players and the future of the franchise as far as what we need to do to build a championship roster and I think Vinny did a great job and that’s as far as I’m going to go today,” continued Olshey. “It’s about the team, the players and what the organization was able to accomplish and as far as individual contractual situation, we’ve got plenty of time to sort that out.”
As Olshey noted, he doesn’t even have his own deal locked in but given his success on the job, it’d be hard to imagine the Clippers changing course.
In the case of Del Negro, he was brought in to get a younger team from mediocre to above .500 and possibly playoffs. Then the Chris Paul trade happened and the case can be made that Vinny’s experience-level as a head coach doesn’t match the roster needs.
This was Del Negros’ third postseason, now with a 1-3 series record after getting his first win against the Memphis Grizzlies.
So does he expect to return?
“I’m not going to get into all my contract stuff, it’s just a waste of energy and whatever I say you’re not going to listen to me anyways,” joked Del Negro.
Vinny has represented the Clipper organization well. He hasn’t made waves. He’s stayed positive through difficult stretches and in the end was beaten by arguably the best coach in the NBA in Gregg Popovich.
“Memphis played one game, which I said was a rugby match and we won that one,” said Olshey. “We got into a chess match with San Antonio and we lost so it gives us a window into where our strengths and weaknesses are and we’ll shore them up.”
Symbolically the chess master would be the head coach and the gut feeling says the Clippers replace Del Negro.
Mo Williams Opting In, So He Says
Guard Mo Williams had a difficult year with the Clippers, initially devastated that his starting job was usurped by Chauncey Billups and then Paul. It took him months to accept his role and shake out of his funk.
“With anything else, you have to adapt to change and sometimes it’s smooth and sometimes it’s a transition and it was a transition for me,” said Williams. “I think overall I think I handled it as maturely as possible, as a team guy as possible. Hopefully on the outside looking in they appreciate it because I enjoyed the season.”
It certainly didn’t look like he was having fun in the locker room, not until late March when he may have smiled for the first time all year.
To be fair, on the floor Williams was relatively consistent with 13.2 points a game on 42.6% shooting and 38.9% from three in his role off the bench through the regular season.
The Clippers have a number of economic issues to resolve heading into the offseason, the biggest is the $8.5 million team option Williams has yet to officially opt into.
On Monday he was clear he intended to return.
“Absolutely,” said Williams.
Olshey welcomed him back if that’s the case.
“Mo’s a great player. The guy’s a former All-Star. He brought a lot to the team. There’s a lot of wins we had this year because of Mo,” said Olshey. “We have two different strategy boards up there we’ve talked about this. If Mo opts in, we’re a Mid-Level/Bi-Annual Exception team. If Mo opts out we’re a room team.”
Neil wasn’t necessarily willing to take Williams’ word for it, as relayed through the media.
“Guys say a lot of things right after the season but I’m sure that Mark Bartelstein (his agent) hasn’t really explored all his options yet but once those are on the table,” said Olshey. “Mo will make an informed decision and either way.”
Neil also said, “Mo has contributed a great deal to the franchise, he’s a valuable piece and a quality player. If he’s back on our roster I’ll be more than happy about that.”
That may be Olshey speaking more like a GM than necessarily representing his true feelings.
“I think we got exposed a little bit with our size at the two,” said Olshey earlier on Monday. “I think we need to get more of a traditional two guard, one that can guard size.”
Clearly Paul is the franchise at the point and the emergence of Eric Bledsoe demands a climb in the rotation. Do the Clippers try and retain free agents Chauncey Billups, Randy Foye and Nick Young?
How can the Clippers spend $8.5 million on Williams, avoid the luxury tax, keep their free agents and add a shooter with size at the two?
Williams opting out would make that process a little easier but if he’s to be taken at his word, opting in would likely put Mo on the trade block.
“We can get back into the deal making mode,” said Olshey. “We’ve got trade exceptions, we’ve got one-year contracts, we’ve got draft picks we can move and the most exciting thing is now we’re a destination.”
Given that Paul and Griffin won’t be available in trade as expiring contracts, that leaves Ryan Gomes ($4 million) and Williams as the only “one-year contracts’ Olshey might be referring to.
Billups Bird Rights
When the Clippers claimed Billups off of amnesty waivers, they initially believed they had his Bird Rights that would allow the team to re-sign him after the season without encumbrance.
Of course at the time the ink on the Collective Bargaining Agreement had yet to dry. Now there’s actually an arbitration hearing in the works involving the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin and Bird Rights when it comes to waiver claims that includes Billups as well.
It’s possible that before the July, the ruling may award the Clippers with Billups’ Bird Rights but ultimately that may not matter a bit.
“It’s unresolved,” said Clippers President Andy Roeser. “We just have to wait to see where that comes out with the league but I don’t think whether we have Bird Rights or not, based on what his salary is, I don’t think it will affect our ability to re-sign him.”
Further clarification with the league confirms that the Clippers can offer Billups 120% of last year’s full salary, including the amount paid by the New York Knicks.
Without Bird Rights, the Clippers would be able to offer Billups up to $17 million for next year which is far more than he’ll get from LA (or any other team).
Nick Young is in a slightly similar position. The Clippers can offer him up $4.4 million (120% raise) without using their Mid-Level Exception.
In addition to looking at two-guard, the Clippers believe they need a floor spacer at a power position.
“We’re going to need to add a third big that can stretch the floor. I think we became a little bit predictable late in the season. We’re such a power team, we’re kind of playing hockey at times throwing it up on the glass and trying to go get it so I think our third big has got to be someone that can play with both Blake and [, step away from the hoop with Blake, play with [DeAndre Jordan], someone that can sort of facilitate some stuff through the high post, we’ll address those via trade, via free agency.’
The prototype “stretch four” in the league might be Channing Frye of the Phoenix Suns. It’s difficult to guess what the Suns have in mind this offseason but a Williams for Frye deal would at least be financially legal.
The Clippers do have their eyes on forward Trey Thompkins who is under contract. He has all the skills they’re looking for but just needs to mature and gain experience after a low-minute rookie season.
Thompkins still has a lot to prove, so the Clippers may be more likely to bring in a player but Trey could emerge in the rotation.
If Mo does opt in, the Clippers would have about $58.5 million in guaranteed contracts going to eight players (Caron Butler, Griffin, Paul, Jordan, Gomes, Bledsoe, Thompkins and Williams). Additionally guard Travis Leslie has a non-guaranteed deal.
That gives the Clippers less than $12 million to spend on their own free agents (Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons, Foye, Young and/or Billups).
The Mid-Level Exception will be $5 million and the Bi-Annual $1.96 million.
Very quickly the Clippers could find themselves nearing the tax threshold.
“We’re already near the luxury tax,” said Roeser. “I think it’ll be a chore for us to navigate the salary issues but I think the foundation is here to build on the team so I think the money considerations are really secondary to the job of improving the team.”
Would the Clippers cross that line?
“Everybody says the tax that by going into it you’re going to win. That’s not the case. There have been plenty of tax teams that have been abject failures,” said Olshey. “The question is, if you’re going to put yourself in that kind of situation with the new CBA it takes away a lot of deal making flexibility. You better be a position to win a championship by doing it.”
To gain a little bit of extra space, assuming they are unable to trade Gomes, would they use the Amnesty Clause on the little-used forward to make sure there is some breathing room under the tax?
“That’s where Andy steps in from an economic standpoint. The question is does getting off the salary with that vehicle actually save money relative to what it would cost to go under the tax, not just in year one but going forward with the repeater tax,” said Olshey. “I can tell you earlier we were on the phone because now we’re eligible to do trades and two of three teams the words that come out are repeater tax. It’s like the death tax, all of the sudden that is the buzz word.”
The repeater or “supertax,” which starts to kick in during the 2013/14 NBA Season, will have a major suppressing effect on spending throughout the league.
Regardless of all the financial details (tax, amnesty, arbitration, Bird Rights, exceptions, etc.), the Clippers say they believe in their core and are fully dedicated to climbing towards a championship.
“One step at a time. I think the most important thing that we have to improve,” said Roeser. “We have to improve our team and then we have to be smart about how we do it.”
How badly was Chris Paul injured the last few weeks? It’s difficult to get a straight answer.
“The hard part with Chris is he’s a warrior. For all I know he’s been carrying his leg with him for the last two weeks but he would never let you know that. There are a lot of guys in our league that, they break a finger nail and they want to have a press conference about it,” said Olshey. “All Chris said was give me a pill, give me a shot, let me go play and I think Caron set the tone.”
“I don’t think Caron gets enough credit for that,” continued Olshey. “He was the first free agent to sign here, he committed before all of the Lob City, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups guys were on board – and he’s the first guy to sustain a major injury during the playoffs and first guy whose agent called me while we were in Memphis and said ‘Neil I know you’re protecting Caron but just understand he’s playing.’ The next day everyone was like, ‘Playing with a broken hand?’”
“The guy needs surgery and he’s got a broken hand and he taped it up and he played so he’s the ultimate example of rub a little dirt on it and get back out there and we don’t advance from the Memphis series without him.”
Making a culture change was one of Olshey’s primary goals and he views Butler as the personification of that ideal.
“Guys that are willing to sacrifice for the success of this organization is what we have now as opposed to guys coming here for their own ends and then moving on and that’s what we’ve gotten rid of,” said Olshey. “Really part of the reason that since we’ve drafted Blake Griffin, the only player left on this roster is DeAndre Jordan because we’ve hand-picked guys that we thought could build and add to the culture we’re trying to create.”
The Clippers have some time to heal now that it’s finally their offseason. Olshey has a lot to measure up to after last year’s tremendous offseason. Can he successfully build upon what he started with the Paul trade and put a roster together that is capable of advancing beyond the second round?
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