Jun 30 2016

The Case for Maxing Out Jordan Clarkson

The Los Angeles Lakers dealt the Philadelphia 76ers’ ongoing rebuild a detrimental setback last June by selecting D’Angelo Russell ahead of Jahlil Okafor. Though the jury remains out on the Ohio State product, he certainly would’ve been a better short-term fit than Okafor given Philadelphia’s crowded frontcourt featuring Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes.

This summer, the Sixers have an opportunity to exact some measure of revenge on the Lakers. According to USA Today‘s Sam Amick, Philadelphia may approach Jordan Clarkson with an offer sheet:

Clarkson, the No. 46 overall pick in 2014, has put up exceptional numbers given his age (24) and draft position. His career per-36-minute averages of 17.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists across two seasons suggest he’ll be a competent rotation player at worst over the coming years. Though his assist total plunged this past season—in large part due to the presence of Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams—he became far more potent from beyond the arc, knocking down 34.7 percent of his 4.1 three-point attempts per game.

Clarkson particularly thrives as a spot-up shooter, having averaged 1.05 points per possession on his 180 such attempts this season, per NBA.com. That put him just outside of the 75th percentile across the league, ahead of players such as Carmelo Anthony, D’Angelo Russell and Gordon Hayward. He’s far less prolific as an isolation scorer—among the players with 100 or more isolations this season, he ranked dead last in points per possessions—but he was in the top quarter league-wide in scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, an area in which the Sixers need drastic improvement this offseason.

Defense is another matter entirely. The Lakers were far worse defensively with Clarkson on the floor than on the bench, having allowed 6.1 points per 100 possessions fewer during his nearly 1,400 minutes off the court, per NBA.com. He also fared extremely poorly in terms of defensive box plus-minus, according to Basketball-Reference.com, although that isn’t the be-all, end-all of defensive statistics. (Klay Thompson ranked even worse in DBPM, and he’s widely acknowledged as one of the league’s best two-way 2-guards.) At 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan, Clarkson can play either guard position, which could make him a huge asset to plug alongside Ben Simmons.

Though the idea of handing Clarkson a max contract might sound absurd based on his relative inexperience, a rarely used provision in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement makes it much more palatable. For restricted free agents with only one or two seasons in the league, prospective suitors aren’t able to offer a typical four-year max offer sheet. Instead, the first-year salary can’t exceed the non-taxpayer mid-level exception—which is set at $5.628 million for the 2016-17 season—and the second-year salary can only jump by 4.5 percent. The third-year salary can be as high as the maximum amount allowed under the current cap, while the fourth-year salary can be a 4.1 percent increase over the third-year rate.

With the NBA now projecting a $94 million cap for 2016-17, per The Vertical’s Shams Charania, here’s a rough approximation of what Clarkson’s four-year max offer sheet from the Sixers would look like:

2016-17 $5.628 million
2017-18 $5.881 million (4.5% raise)
2018-19 $24.1 million (Year 3 max)
2019-20 $25.1 million (4.1% raise)
Total $60.7 million ($15.2M annually)

If the Lakers declined to match the offer sheet, Clarkson would count for roughly $15.2 million against the cap in each his four seasons with the Sixers. With two-thirds of the league set to have room for at least one max contract this summer, that annual salary for Clarkson shouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye. Given the relatively low supply of top-tier free agents, eight-figure annual salaries are going to become the norm for any player with half a pulse.

In all likelihood, the Lakers would match this offer sheet without thinking twice. In fact, the terms of this offer sheet could save L.A.’s management from itself, as incumbent teams have no limitations on the types of contracts they offer to their own restricted free agents. The Lakers are the only team free to offer Clarkson a full four-year max deal worth roughly $98 million, which would amount to a difference of more than $35 million over the next four seasons. Knowing that, L.A. has little incentive to offer Clarkson a penny more than a four-year, $62 million deal.

The Lakers being forced to match an offer sheet rather than signing Clarkson outright could have some consequences down the line, however. Whereas the Missouri product would count for $15.2 million annually against the cap for the Sixers, the Lakers would have his actual salary each season count against their cap if it matched. Clarkson would thus come at a far-below-market rate over the next two seasons, but his salary would jump by more than $18 million in 2018-19, which happens to coincide with a projected $2 million decline in the salary cap, per USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt1. If Los Angeles sign him to a four-year, $62 million deal, his 2016-17 salary would be a bit under $14 million and would only increase by 7.5 percent each season.

While The Vertical’s Bobby Marks believes that type of imbalanced spike in Clarkson’s contract would behoove the Lakers — it would effectively give them an extra $10 million in cap space over each of the next two seasons compared to if they signed him outright — it also may be enough to give them pause, per Amick.

Further complicating matters is the Lakers’ first-round pick, which conveys to Philadelphia if it falls outside of the top three next season (and is fully unprotected in 2018 if it doesn’t convey next year). That gives the Sixers direct incentive to weaken the Lakers’ roster, either by prying Clarkson away or increasing the amount of L.A.’s cap space that he consumes. Until he agrees to a new deal with the Lakers or signs an offer sheet with another team, he’ll only have a cap hold of $2.725 million, per Basketball Insiders, which would allow L.A. to turn its attention elsewhere in free agency before re-signing him. Forcing the Lakers to match an offer sheet would increase his cap hold by nearly $3 million. Though that isn’t a sizable amount, particularly given how much cap space the Lakers have this summer—they currently have just under $27.5 million of committed salaries on the books, including Brandon Ingram’s $4.4 million cap hold—every dollar counts when rebuilding a roster that only has six non-rookies signed at the moment.

The Sixers almost certainly won’t be able to pry Clarkson away from the Lakers, given the amount of cap space L.A. has and the relatively paltry four-year salary Clarkson can receive in a max-level offer sheet from another team. That doesn’t meant Philly shouldn’t try, though, especially given the ramifications regarding the Lakers’ 2017 first-rounder.

1. If the NBA and/or the players’ association opts out of the current collective bargaining agreement by Dec. 15 of this year—a virtual certainty—the new CBA could drastically alter salary-cap projections in future seasons. In other words, a projected decline in the 2018-19 cap means almost nothing at this point in time.

All CBA information via Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ. All contract information via Spotrac, unless otherwise noted.

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