The 2016 off-season has long been on the mind of Lakers’ fans. This is the summer where Kobe Bryant’s contract is off the books, the summer the salary cap will jump to (potentially) $90+ million, and the summer in which a certain small forward currently living in Oklahoma City hits the open market. The Lakers have big plans for this summer so, while it is still a year away, it is not really too early to look ahead.
While we all look at the things listed above, however, one thing not often spoke about is the pending free agency of Jordan Clarkson. When Clarkson was signed by the Lakers after being the 46th pick in the 2014 draft, he inked a two year, non-guaranteed deal**. We all know what happened next: Clarkson, after starting slowly and getting minimal playing time, came on strong in the 2nd half of his rookie season and earned 1st Team All-Rookie recognition.
Now, heading into his second year, his summer league play showed continued development, he is slated to be a starter at shooting guard, and will end this upcoming season as a restricted free agent. In a recent article at ESPN, Kevin Pelton mentioned Clarkson as a player who could be in for a big payday come next summer (insider):
Because Clarkson will be a free agent with two years of experience, he’ll be subject to the so-called “Arenas provision” limiting other teams from offering more than the mid-level exception as a starting point on an offer sheet. In year three, however, teams can offer Clarkson what would be his maximum salary — somewhere in the ballpark of $23 million, depending where the cap falls — setting up the possibility of a three-year, $34 million offer similar to the one the Houston Rockets used to acquire Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin as restricted free agents in 2012. Or teams could go an additional year and offer four years and up to around $58 million.
All of this sounds sort of scary, but it really isn’t. Yes, the contracts the Rockets doled out to nab Lin and Asik contained “poison pill” third years similar to that which Pelton describes as a possibility for Clarkson. And, yes, those players’ incumbent teams (the Knicks and Bulls) balked at paying those prices (the Knicks because…who can explain the Knicks and the Bulls because they’re notoriously cheap considering their profit margins). In theory, then, the Lakers might also balk at paying Clarkson a huge amount in the 3rd year of his deal.
But that’s in theory. In practice, I don’t imagine the Lakers deliberating too hard on whether to pay Clarkson huge money in the 3rd year of his deal should he show, next season, he’s on the upward trajectory to be even close to worth that money. I say this with confidence for two reasons:
- By the time Clarkson would be earning that large amount, the cap is very likely to be over $100 million. Clarkson’s salary, then, would be roughly 20% of the cap, which is below the first tier of “max” contracts under the current CBA. (The max contract tiers are currently 25% for players with 0-6 years experience, 30% for players with 7-9 years experience, and 35% for players with 10 or more years experience.)
- The Lakers’ plan — whether flawed or not — is to fill out their roster over the next two summers with max (or, at the very least, highly paid) free agents. With this, Clarkson not getting paid big money until the 3rd year of his deal is less of an issue than if he was getting big money in one of the first two years of his deal.
To build on that second point further, understand that the same “loophole” which would have the Lakers (potentially) paying Clarkson upwards of $20 million on the 3rd (and, maybe, a 4th) year of his contract also allows them to pay him (roughly) the mid-level in his first two seasons. Those seasons just happen to coincide with the ones where the Lakers want to be spending large amounts of cap space on free agents. In other words, Clarkson’s smaller cap hit keeps flexibility during the seasons where the Lakers want to maximize their spending the most.
The other point worth mentioning again is Clarkson would be a restricted free agent. The Lakers, for all the possibilities of poison pills and balloon payments, would still have the ability to match any offer. Further, because of the aforementioned Arenas Provision, they would be matching on a contract that is, at least at the outset, deflated in potential value and artificially capped due to the lower, MLE starting point for the first two seasons. This puts the Lakers in an advantageous position when negotiating his next contract, a topic Eric Pincus covered well here.
Of course, there are always ways this could turn out bad. Free agency represents a gamble and whenever a player and a team have to talk about money all while another team has the ability to come in and influence those discussions, things can turn sour. All these possibilities make Clarkson’s pending free agency worth monitoring, even if we are a year out.
**Here is my chance to once again note that I wish the Lakers would have used some of their cap space last season to sign Clarkson to a deal longer than two seasons to avoid this entire scenario. If you recall, they signed this year’s 2nd round pick Anthony Brown to a 3-year contract, maybe because of the success Clarkson had and the want to control Brown’s rights for longer. Of course, we’ll never know if Clarkson would have signed a longer deal or if the Lakers were trying to get him to sign one and Clarkson’s agent wouldn’t go for it. Still, though, I do wish they could have gotten it done.