NBA teams received an updated projection for the 2017–18 salary cap last week, and it dropped once again. The salary cap will come in at $99 million, $2 million less than the most recent $101 million projection, and way off from the $107 million that was floated around early last year.
Teams can blame the new numbers on the lack of money-making postseason games. The 79 of a possible 105 playoff games played this past postseason is tied for the fewest since the NBA expanded the first round of the playoffs to a best-of-seven format in 2003. The lower salary cap and luxury-tax projections will put a strain on teams, as The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy wrote last week. The Cavs could face an even harsher luxury tax, while the Clippers and Raptors would have to spend into the tax to retain their cores. Teams like the Spurs, Heat, and Celtics that are looking to create cap space to make a run at max-level free agents will have a harder time creating the necessary room. The new cap number stings.
Nonetheless, teams will have to adjust. The 2017 NBA draft and a week filled with endless rumors are now in the rearview mirror and we must look ahead. Here’s what could be coming next:
Are the Clippers Imploding?
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick will be unrestricted free agents and it’s conceivable that none return, plunging the Clippers into a sudden rebuild. Even though the Clippers have been consistently competitive since Paul’s arrival in 2011, the grass may indeed be greener on the other side — and that’s especially true for Redick.
Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to expect the Sixers and Nets to make a hard push at Redick. Were he to go to either of those teams, Redick could receive an opportunity unlike anything he’s had before. He is one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high six 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot of triples, but it’s not enough. Even Sixers swingman Robert Covington averaged more last season, at 6.1 per game, and he shot only 33.3 percent. A gunslinger of Redick’s caliber should be averaging about 8.5 treys, in the same range as Klay Thompson or Eric Gordon. Had Redick taken 8.5 3s last season and posted the same 42.9 percent clip, he would’ve averaged 18.2 points per game. Redick could receive those chances with the Sixers or Nets, all while living within close proximity to his home in Brooklyn.
Then there’s Griffin. The sense I’ve gotten over the past month from chatting with agents and front-office executives is that it would be shocking if the Clippers offered Griffin the full five-year max contract, valued around $170 million. The Clippers’ caution would be understandable. Griffin has been hampered by an endless list of injuries over his career. Offering all that guaranteed money would be a monumental investment carrying tremendous risk. If the Clippers don’t go to five years, the door opens for teams willing to offer the four-year max, which is worth roughly $128 million. Teams could be even more comfortable offering Griffin a max deal with options for the third or fourth season, or a four-year deal at a value lower than the max. Griffin will have to choose between lifestyle, long-term security, or a winning situation — or some combination of the three — in a place like Miami or Boston. The bottom line is that it’s not a certainty that Griffin returns to the Clippers. Lob City could officially die.
We tend to think of a free-agency destination as an individual decision by the player or an institutional decision made by a team, but in the case of Los Angeles, each of its free agents could impact what the other does. If Redick and Griffin leave, there’s not much keeping Paul in Los Angeles other than the money. The Clippers can offer an enormous deal worth roughly $200 million over five years, which is the exact contract Paul helped negotiate into the new collective bargaining agreement, while other teams can offer only about $150 million over four years. The Spurs and Rockets are expected to make a run at Paul, which could be a leverage play by Paul’s reps for Paul to demand a no-trade clause from the Clippers. To sign Paul, the Spurs would have to create cap space, which began with Pau Gasol opting out and could end with a trade involving LaMarcus Aldridge. The Rockets would have to take the same salary-shifting measures. Either way, the Spurs and Rockets can offer him a better chance at taking down the Warriors than the Clippers.
Houston’s interest might come as a surprise, considering it already has a ball-dominant superstar guard in James Harden, but Rockets general manager Daryl Morey attempted to pair the two studs together in 2013. Back then, Bill Simmons reported Paul was prepared to sign with Houston after L.A.’s trade for Doc Rivers fell apart. Only after the Clippers offered a first-round pick to acquire Rivers did Paul decide to commit.
Rivers has failed to evolve with the changes in the league. The Clippers have never, in franchise history, gotten over the second-round hump. Maybe Paul realizes they’ve hit their ceiling and it’s time for a change. Even though he’d make significantly less money elsewhere, he’d still make a lot of money, and he’d have an opportunity to actually compete for a title.
When you read between the lines, it looks like the Clippers are preparing for a mass exodus. They recently had trade discussions with the Suns, Celtics, and Wolves centered on DeAndre Jordan, but none of those teams were willing to give up a first-round pick, according to the Los Angeles Times. I speculated on Twitter that had it happened, the Clippers would try to flip the high pick for Paul George. Acquiring George would’ve put them in a better position to make a run at LeBron James and strengthened their odds of bringing back CP3.
But George was just a fantasy. The reality is that they spent cash to acquire two second-round picks: guards Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. These moves have Jerry West’s fingerprints all over them, since West understands something that Rivers never will: Developing young players is better than overpaying for retread veterans. The acquisitions of Evans and Thornwell help, regardless of what happens with Paul, Griffin, and Redick. If the stars return, the two are low-cost rookies ready to contribute off the bench early in their careers. If Griffin, Redick, and Paul leave, the Clippers will have some talent in the pipeline as they build for the future. Feeling out trade offers for Jordan could have been as much about setting the table for a trade later, in the event of a team reset, as it was about trying to get George. The Clippers need to be proactive no matter what happens over the coming weeks.
Teams are circling the Clippers’ stars. They all are still extremely talented. Redick has the highest probability of leaving, while Griffin and Paul have wandering eyes. Doc missed his chance to blow it up — he forgot that the players themselves can press detonate.
Where Will Paul George Be Traded?
Paul George will be traded unless something drastic changes in the coming weeks. Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard admitted as much during his post-draft press conference. "We’re gonna do something that we feel comfortable with," Pritchard said. "Right now, there’s enough on the board that we feel good about that we could pull the trigger at any time."
George’s agent Aaron Mintz told the Pacers front office earlier this month that George will leave Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. The Lakers are reportedly his preferred destination. Indiana needs to get something for George, and Pritchard knows it. During the presser, he described the types of deals the team could accept, whether it’s swaps for the short term that bring back established players, or future-looking deals that bring back young players and draft picks. "It depends on the direction. We could go a lot of different places," he said. "We’re keeping everything on the board."
The Pacers find themselves in virtually the same spot that the Timberwolves were when they traded Kevin Love to the Cavs for the 2014 no. 1 pick (Andrew Wiggins), the 2013 no. 1 pick (Anthony Bennett), and Thaddeus Young (from the Sixers). Love was set to hit free agency in 2015, so the return was muted, though Minnesota was still able to create enough leverage to get something of value. Wiggins has developed into a solid player, but the deal pales in comparison to what one league front-office executive told me was on the table at the time from the Warriors: Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, plus a draft pick. Zach Lowe reported a similar trade structure in 2015 at Grantland. The Wolves obviously would’ve been better off taking the deal with younger players and a pick, rather than all draft picks. Green is clearly the best player in that deal, and Barnes, still only 25, is currently better than Wiggins.
The Clippers, Rockets, Wizards, and Cavaliers have talked George trades with Indiana, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported last week. On Sunday, Stein reported that the Spurs and Lakers also "aggressively" pursued George, and that Cleveland tried to loop in Denver as a third team in a deal that would’ve sent George to the Cavs, Love to the Nuggets, and assets to the Pacers. It seems the talks have quieted, but they could always be revived. At one point during draft night, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Celtics had gained "significant momentum" on a deal for George. Then, poof! All George trade reports went away. Teams ran out of time on draft night and it’s certainly possible the 2014 Love trade could’ve been on Pritchard’s mind when opting to pass on any draft-night deals. The allure of a top pick can be enticing, but when trading away a star, acquiring a haul of younger, established players with future picks can yield greater reward.
The Pacers would be wise to target a package that resembles what the Warriors might have offered the Wolves back in 2014: a mixture of players entering their primes and future picks. The problem is finding a team capable and willing to do it. Fortunately for the Pacers, two of the handful of teams reportedly interested in George could meet those criteria.
The Clippers could dangle DeAndre Jordan, but they don’t have much else. The Cavaliers would have to flip Love for assets, unless the Pacers are fine with running on the playoff treadmill of mediocrity. The Wizards don’t have much to offer other than a sign-and-trade involving Otto Porter. However, both the Rockets and Celtics can put together a mixed bag of assets, greater than any other team rumored to be chasing George. Houston has tradable veterans like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Patrick Beverley, and younger talents like Clint Capela and Sam Dekker. Similarly, the Celtics have Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and a long list of future draft picks they can put on the table.
Pritchard said it was a "gut punch" when Mintz said George will leave Indiana. But the Pacers have already received acceptable offers. It could all work out. The path now is to continue creating leverage, further drive up the price, and then press go. Patience could pay for the Pacers.
What Is Danny Ainge Waiting For?
Speaking of patience, the most patient person in human history, Danny Ainge, could finally be ready to cash in on assets this summer. The Celtics president of basketball operations has been sitting on a pile of draft picks, waiting for the right time to strike, and that time could be approaching. Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said on 98.5 The Sports Hub after the trade deadline that they are "two stars" away. They could conceivably get two this summer: Gordon Hayward, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, and Paul George, whom they have been in talks to acquire.
The Celtics were ripped for not topping Minnesota’s trade for Jimmy Butler, but George is better — he’s not as ball-dominant and he’s a better shooter, and he doesn’t carry the same health concerns, despite his fluky leg injury in 2014. The key to understanding the Celtics’ summer, and Ainge’s patience, is Grousbeck’s statement about two stars. Getting one doesn’t get them where they hope to, but getting both does. The $1.4 million they saved from moving from no. 1 to no. 3 could also provide a vital sliver of cap room they’ll need to acquire both George and Hayward or Griffin.
The order of operations in which they make transactions this summer matters, but it’s flexible depending on their goals. The Celtics can easily create max cap space, and then put a trade package together for George. It’s not hard. What does get complicated is if they want to, as 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Adam Kaufman reported, renegotiate and extend George’s contract. George would obviously have to agree to bypass 2018 free agency, but it would make financial sense for him. He could stand to gain about $17 million over the next five years by opting to renegotiate and extend now, and then by signing the five-year max in 2020 for players with 10 or more years of experience.
George could also renegotiate and extend for less, or Hayward could sign for slightly less than the max, too. Alternatively, Boston could skip the Hayward sweepstakes and instead focus on a potentially lower-cost option like Griffin. The Celtics were hot for Blake in the past. They had casual conversations with the Clippers going back to at least the 2016 deadline, per multiple league sources. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Celtics are the team that’s "really the danger" to pry Griffin away from the Clippers.
If teams are hesitant to offer Griffin the full max, or even a four-year deal, the Celtics could always offer Griffin more years at less than the max. Griffin is a better player than Hayward in virtually every category other than 3-point shooting. He’d solve Boston’s major rebounding issues, while also providing a playmaking presence that Brad Stevens could unlock.
The best ability is availability, but Griffin has more upside than any other player that’ll be available this offseason. Higher variance carries greater risk and greater potential reward. To beat the Warriors, teams will need to gamble.
What Is Popovich Cooking Up?
San Antonio has turned itself into a free-agency and trade player over the past three seasons after years of being the Green Bay Packers of the NBA. The Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge in a bidding war, got a meeting with Kevin Durant, and are now linked with Chris Paul and Paul George. Rumors are rumors, but the message is clear: Gregg Popovich is not wasting Kawhi Leonard’s prime by waiting for the Warriors to cycle down. He’s attempting to load up.
"We’re happy with the group we have," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said on draft night. "If we can make it better, we’ll do it, at any opportunity we can." The Spurs made only two picks on draft night, but they were busy working the phones. Wojnarowski reported that Pau Gasol planned to opt out of his $16.2 million contract and instead work on a longer-term deal; later, the Spurs reportedly dangled Danny Green in trade talks with the Cavs. While all this was going on, Aldridge was being shopped for a top-10 pick. If we’re connecting the dots to Stein’s report that the Spurs were "aggressively" pursuing George, then it’s possible they were attempting to do the same thing the Cavs want to do: get an asset they can flip for George.
Unlike the Cavs, the Spurs also can create a significant amount of cap space to do more in the free-agent market. Clearing Aldridge from the books would give them enough room to sign Paul to a max contract. Trading Green and Tony Parker — as painful as it’d be — would allow them to pursue a second max player, like Hayward or Griffin. The Spurs can position themselves to be nearly as flexible as the Celtics if they take extreme measures. It’s unclear if they’re even interested in Hayward or Griffin, but if they’re pushing for George and/or Paul, one can deduce that they may also fancy other available superstars.
The Warriors are a juggernaut. The rest of the NBA needs to think bigger and aim higher when team-building. The Spurs have always valued continuity when making personnel decisions, but drastic times call for drastic measures. The Spurs are up to something big. They’re not sitting around and waiting for Golden State to fade away.
An earlier version of this piece described Patrick Beverley as a young talent; at 28, he is a veteran.