Over at SB Nation, Tom Ziller did his yearly rankings of the top 100 pending free agents. It’s a must read for anyone interested in what player movement might be coming this summer and how teams’ dollars will be allocated in the search for outside roster help (non-trade variety). I’d suggest giving the entire entry a read, especially since the Lakers are primed to be major players in the FA market with, potentially, $60 million to spend on reinforcements.
But my focus isn’t on who the Lakers might target from outside their roster, but instead on one of their own core players who enters free agency: Jordan Clarkson. The 2nd year guard ranks 21st on Ziller’s list and has the following entry attached:
Clarkson continues to impress on a really bad team. He’s just plain solid. He doesn’t do anything spectacular (not shoot, not defend, not pass) but he also doesn’t do anything poorly. He’s 23 and he’s had pure, unadulterated trash around him in his NBA tenure. He’s one of those prospects who’d probably look like a better shooter and defender if he had anyone around him playing worth a damn on a regular basis.
He’s also miscast as a part-time point guard — he’s a two-guard naturally, and really should only play there — and has been weighed down by the Kobe farewell tour and Byron Scott’s bizarre tenure. If the Lakers are interested in building organically, paying Clarkson in the $12-15 million range per season to develop with D’Angelo Russell would be a nice plan. If L.A. would rather reserve that kind of dough for fully formed stars, some other team will make out with a nice prospect who has the potential to become the next Wes Matthews or, hell, Jimmy Butler. (The free agent rankings balance hope and reality precariously.)
First, I agree with Ziller’s take on Clarkson being a solid, if unspectacular, performer. Clarkson does a lot of things well and his athleticism helps him get to spots on the floor where he can be effective as a scorer. He’s also improved his jumper and is becoming a viable three point threat. He has work to do defensively, but the effort is there as are the physical tools. Awareness can be improved upon and the nuances of defending on-ball in the P&R are a work in progress. All in all, though, Clarkson is worth a long term investment and I expect there to be interest from many teams.
What needs clarification, however, is how much Clarkson will get paid and the mechanics which will dictate his next contract. We covered some of this ground before, but now is as good a time as any for a quick review.
As Ziller points out, Clarkson is a restricted free agent, but because he is a 2nd year player rather than a 3rd year player (when most drafted players enter RFA), his situation is a bit different. First, Clarkson is subject to the “Arenas Provision” which limits what opposing teams can offer Clarkson in FA while also allowing the Lakers to match.
Second, because Clarkson is a 2nd year player rather than a 3rd, he is unable to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017 by simply signing the Lakers qualifying offer this summer and playing out a single year under that contract. Signing the QO only puts him back in RFA in the summer of 2017 when he would face standard RFA limitations (without the Arenas Provision). This is, for Clarkson, not ideal.
These details put the Lakers firmly in the driver’s seat when trying to retain Clarkson. In fact, the Lakers have such control here that the only way they actually lose Clarkson is because they no longer want to keep him. Consider the following:
- Because of the Arenas Provision, the most any team can offer Clarkson in his first two seasons is $5.6 million in year 1 and $5.9 million in year 2.
- The salary cap is scheduled to jump in the next two seasons with early projections estimating a salary cap of $89 then $109 million in the next two seasons
- Any team offering Clarkson a contract can try to insert a “poison pill” year into his deal, with a large jump in salary in the 3rd season. However, the value of any contract offered by another team is averaged by the number of years of the deal for that team. So, if Team X offers Clarkson a 3 year $33 million dollar contract (this is a made up number just for the purposes of easy math), they would actually need $11 million in cap space to sign him to that deal, even though he would only make $5.6 million his first season.
- For the Lakers, however, the cap hit on that offer sheet is not averaged, but instead hits their cap at the actual annual value of the deal. So, citing the example above, the cap hit the Lakers would experience if they matched that offer sheet would be: $5.6 million (year 1), $5.9 million (year 2), $21.5 million (year 3).
That’s a lot of math I just threw at you, but it’s important to understand this conceptually because it’s one of the key reasons the Lakers’ hand is so strong. Should another team try to steal Clarkson via a backloaded offer sheet, the structure of the contract actually helps the Lakers because of the impending cap jumps and the timeline for when the Lakers will be good again.
Said another way, in the seasons the Lakers want to maximize free agent spending (the next two summers) Clarkson’s potential contract (per the example above) is the most inexpensive it will be. When his contract jumps, the cap will likely be over $110 million and Clarkson’s salary will likely be 1/5th if the total cap (or less). If you’re looking for a present day comparison, the salary cap this year is $70 million so a comparable contract to what Clarkson could make in year 3 is around $14 million in today’s money. That’s totally reasonable for a starting caliber player.
All of the above is why any report that Clarkson may become too expensive for the Lakers to afford is not taking all the facts into account. If the Lakers want to keep Clarkson, they will. It really is that simple and any haranguing to try and make it seem otherwise is off-base. Now, go read Ziller’s entire post to get a gist of the other guys the Lakers will try to chase in FA and stop worrying about Jordan Clarkson.