As the eyes of many NBA fans shift towards the postseason, some front office executives are thinking about how they can improve the fates of their franchises that are not currently vying for postseason play. The pre-draft process is filled with tons of scouting, evaluation periods, internal discussion and workouts for some of the hopeful rookies that want a spot in the NBA.
Taking the drafting needs and picks into consideration, financial considerations can paint the biggest picture to what decisions will be made beyond the draft. Trading some players, utilizing cap space for taking on others, and preparing for free agency all are highly informed by the team's salary situations – after all, the NBA is a business.
The Nuggets and Clippers were the two teams that came up just short of the postseason in the Western Conference and found themselves as the odd-men out. Both organizations are trending in different directions and have unique issues they must tackle this summer.
2017-18 Record: 46-36
2018 Draft Picks: 14th, 43rd (from LA Clippers), 58th (via Golden State)
Restricted Free Agents: none
Unrestricted Free Agents: G Will Barton, G Devin Harris, F Richard Jefferson
Other Players of Note: C Nikola Jokic (team option for $1.6m), SG Torrey Craig (2-Way player), F Wilson Chandler ($12.8m player option), PF Darrell Arthur ($7.5m player option)
Committed Salary: $112,706,364
Luxury Tax Room: $11.3 million
Denver has three open roster spots, a key free agent ready to depart in Will Barton and a solid prospect to add with the 14th pick. It feels, with the team $11 million shy of the luxury tax and a huge payday looming for Nikola Jokic, that the Nuggets wouldn't want to tie themselves down with Barton and go over the luxury tax, or even get too dangerously close to it. It feels almost certain that Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur, both of whom have player options, will opt into their deals. The Nuggets have one organizational imperative this summer: avoid the luxury tax at all costs.
So while replacing Barton becomes a key priority, they also will have the $8.86 million non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, which they can split among several players or keep to add one solid addition. Math is a huge factor that will prevent them from using the entirety of that Exception on one player. Their rookie scale contract is projected to be at $2.39 million, leaving $8.9 million left for two roster spots. How the Nuggets navigate the balance between their second-round picks and feel about their international prospects coming over next year will show a lot about how they deal with the exception.
Order of Operations
1. Avoid the luxury tax
Above anything else, the Nuggets know that their salary is going to balloon up in 2019-20 after re-signing Nikola Jokic to a big deal. If that is to be a maximum deal, Jokic, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap will be owed north of $80 million for that season. It's almost a foregone conclusion that they'll be above the luxury tax that year.
The way the tax is constructed, it's really only a burden to an organization when the Repeater Tax is enacted - for teams that are above the tax line for consecutive seasons. Denver should want to avoid that big time, which means that regardless of what aggressive plans may unfold for them to improve their roster next season, they need to keep this long-term approach in place. As detailed above with the complications of the Mid-Level Exception, the Nuggets have to be shrewd with the way they add to their roster and fill their needs without handcuffing themselves next to the tax.
2. Add to their European pipeline
The Nuggets do not have a G-League team, so there's little place for them to hold domestic player that won't outright make the 15-man roster. There might be some value in grabbing more draft-and-stash players, at least with their second-round picks. The Nuggets will only have three roster spots: one is likely to be filled with a first-round pick, and the Mid-Level Exception can take care of the other spots. It's definitely a year where the organization can replenish their depth.
3. Offer Barton early, then move on
The Nuggets don't want to part from Barton, an important playmaker that leaves the roster pretty bare of true wing players. But the financial work dictates as much, since Barton likely has played himself above $7.5 million that the Nuggets can offer while staying below the luxury tax. Denver should float out as large of an offer as possible to Barton - four-years, $36 million.
If Barton and his camp balk at that offer, cut bait and set sights elsewhere. The Nuggets need to add a wing this offseason that can help them next year, and lingering on Barton will only hurt them. They have the Mid-Level Exception to use, and if they renounce the Devin Harris and Will Barton cap holds they'll be able to add someone and stay under that luxury tax. The market for wings is super thin this summer, so the heir apparent to Barton's versatility will have to found either through the draft or pouncing early on one of the wings available, such as Joe Harris.
4. Address the roster imbalance
Speaking of adding wings, this last season the Nuggets really lacked true wing players and featured an overabundance of posts and 4-men. Somehow, Connelly must orchestrate a trade to free the Nuggets of this imbalance. Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler are two names worth shopping, as they would be expiring deals next year. Faried has been rumored to be moved for years now, but it somehow has never materialized. Chandler is growing less happy in Denver, which is why his name comes up, but the guy is one of the only guys that is comfortable playing the 3 as well.
Would the Nuggets try to flip one to Brooklyn for Jeremy Lin? What about Garrett Temple from Sacramento? The trade market is plush with wings for Denver to pick from, but it is hard to imagine them making a straight-up swap with one of their bigs. They may have to use a current second-rounder, a future second-rounder or cut into their European database -- which is why it's so important for them to add to it.
5. Focus on the team's defense
The Nuggets missed the playoffs because their defense wasn't consistent or of high enough quality, plain and simple. With a roster that won't undergo a ton of change and a core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic in place for the foreseeable future, these Nugs will have to find internal growth if they want to improve their defense. Sure, the right addition on the wings and through the draft will aid that cause, but growth must take place internally. This is a huge season for development and a necessity for the team if they're going to make it into the postseason next year.
Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Record: 42-40
2018 Draft Picks: 12th (from DET), 13th
Restricted Free Agents: C Montrezl Harrell
Unrestricted Free Agents: SG Avery Bradley
Other Players of Note: C DeAndre Jordan ($24.1m player option), G Austin Rivers ($12.65m player option), PG Milos Teodosic ($6.3m player option), F Wesley Johnson ($6.13m player option), PG Patrick Beverley (non-guaranteed contract), G CJ Williams (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $113,415,016
Luxury Tax Room: $9.7 million
After trading Blake Griffin away in February, pretty much everyone imagined this would be a period of great change for the Clippers. Over the last year they've been able to endure the losses of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gracefully and without losing a ton of games (they finished only a few games out of the playoff race this year). Still, the Clippers have a ton of player movement on the horizon, a great deal of which is out of their hands.
Four players have player options to be exercised after the draft, and the total sum of money involved: $49 million. None is more important than DeAndre Jordan, one of the most talked about names of the past season. Will the Clippers find a way to keep him, either through signing a new deal or convincing him to opt in? What will come of Doc Rivers, recently relieved of his front office responsibilities but proving his worth on the sidelines? Will the Clippers dip into the luxury tax next season? There are a ton of unknowns.
1. Draft the best players available
Part of the reason the Clippers moved on from Blake Griffin was because they got Detroit's first-round pick in the 2018 draft. Picking back-to-back at 13 and 14, the Clippers will likely try to make a few phone calls to move up and get an impact player, but should feel comfortable slotted where they are.
The severe roster fluidity means the Clippers can pick simply the two best guys on the board without fear of having to move the pieces around to accompany them: the pieces will move themselves based on who the Clippers draft. These two guys could be the much-needed pillars for the franchise to build on for the next half-decade or more.
2. Quickly prepare for free agency after hearing of player options
Until we see what types of players they draft it's impossible to know what each of the four guys with player options will do. Austin Rivers, son of the coach who is unlikely to get more than $12m elsewhere, is most likely to opt-in of the group despite the litany of scoring guards on the roster. Next most-likely is Wes Johnson, a role player that could see an increase in minutes next season. Teodosic and Jordan are complete shots in the dark, both players that have a good deal of control over their markets.
3. What's Plan B to DeAndre, and is it via MLE or trade?
If Jordan does leave, the Clippers are pretty much left without a starting-caliber center. RFA Montrezl Harrell might be worth retaining regardless, and there's a slim chance they draft a long-term starter that late in the lottery. So what's the contingency plan if DeAndre opts out?
A sign-and-trade might be the best way to go, though it's impossible to know who they might acquire unless we know what team can woo Jordan away. The Mid-Level could get the Clippers a decent replacement, but it's hard to supplant that type of production with only $8.8 million. That would mean the Clippers, who have an abundance of guards, should explore snagging one of the big man around the league that might get squeezed out this summer.
At the end of the day there are a slim number of teams that can afford to throw the type of money at Jordan he wants, so I think it's more likely than not he returns to the Clippers. But the organization must plan for departures anyway
4. Sniffing the luxury tax, but staying away from it
Should every player opt-in, the Clippers will have two roster spots, two draft picks and $9.7 million below the luxury tax. The 13th and 14th picks have a projected first-year salary of a combined $5 million, giving the Clippers a $4.7m cushion below the luxury tax. That's a comfortable amount.
But that's turned on its head of one of the players like Wesley Johnson or Milos Teodosic opt out. The cost of keeping them instantly increases, cutting into that cushion – especially with Teodosic.
The Clippers will have access to their $8.8 million Mid-Level Exception available as long as they stay beneath that tax line. Lose Johnson and his $6m deal and the Clippers all of a sudden have $10m below the tax and that full exception to use. Instead of using the exception they could use part of that space to retain Avery Bradley – especially if Austin Rivers walks. It's a good position to be in. The Clippers can commit to winning and spend as much as possible up to the ledge of the luxury tax without going over it.
5. Figure things out with Doc Rivers
Based on what we've seen above, if the franchise does well with their draft picks (as only time will tell) they should be in good shape. That means owner Steve Ballmer has to decide if Doc really is the guy he wants to lead the team. Rivers has become somewhat of a polarizing coach since coming to Los Angeles, based off his strong regular season coaching and overachievement followed by drastic playoff underachievement. He proved to still have the magic touch this past year leading the Clippers through a season with fluid roster changes, injuries and hard-capped movement.
That still may not be enough. Coaches are more expendable than anyone else in this league, and as good as Rivers has been his contract is coming to an end soon. He'll have a good vote of confidence from President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank, who was his former assistant. Still, finding the right head coach when all the dominos fall is important to how the franchise moves on from the Blake Griffin era.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).