Pursuing Blake Griffin
With Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook agreeing to a renegotiated contract yesterday to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder for at least two more seasons, the speculation about his immediate future and a possible trade will sort of fade out for a while.
However, with Westbrook on-board, there is a new rumor in Oklahoma City to watch and that is the Thunder’s potential pursuit of L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin.
On the surface it seems foolish and somewhat unlikely to believe that Griffin lands in Oklahoma City anytime soon. However, there are many in the NBA that believe if the Clippers cannot get over the top this season, there will be big changes made to ensure the Clippers do not lose star guard Chris Paul to free agency next summer.
Clippers president and head coach Doc Rivers has said all the right things about Griffin and his future, suggesting that the team would like to see Griffin retire as a Clipper. The problem is, in order for the Clippers to really make a splashy upgrade, they’ll have to part with someone and with Griffin having the option to be an unrestricted free agent next July, will the Clippers look at their options if things don’t go as expected or let things play out and possibly lose their star forward for nothing in return?
The Thunder have a truckload of assets to offer in trade, or simply the ability to be the threat in free agency next July that the Golden State Warriors were this summer.
Thunder sources say there were no promises made to Westbrook on a pursuit of any specific player, but there continues to be talk that the Thunder’s number one target next summer will be Griffin if he indeed opts for free agency.
The Thunder won’t be alone if Griffin hits the open market. The Boston Celtics have long had eyes for Griffin, and there has been talk that the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls would also make a hard push at Griffin. Coincidentally, both teams have tradable assets now if the Clippers decide they want to consider a trade.
Last year, Griffin was a popular name around the trade deadline as teams tried to tempt the Clippers with offers only to be turned away.
There was some renewed talk around the draft, but as Rivers pointed out recently, he’s made it clear to teams that talks involving Griffin are a non-starter for the team. However, like many things in the NBA, if enough games go the wrong way that stance could change.
To say this season is a big one for the Clippers is an understatement. Both Griffin and Paul have the option to be unrestricted free agents after the year and as we saw play out this July, jumping ship to a new team closer to a championship is not out of the question – especially with more than a dozen teams having the ability to get to a maximum salary slot next July.
If the Western Conference turns out to be the one-team show many are expecting with Kevin Durant now part of the Warriors, is it such a huge stretch to believe one or both Clippers consider life in the Eastern Conference? If so, at some point do the Clippers consider their options?
Cap Space As A Tool
It’s fairly common to think about salary cap space as simply a means to sign free agents; however, as we’ve seen play out over the last few years, having cap space and a lot of it can mean much more than just the chance to steal a player from someone else’s roster.
Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets used some of their cap space to renegotiate contracts for their stars (James Harden in Houston and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City).
Keep in mind, not every player is eligible for a renegotiation – only contracts that are four or more seasons can be renegotiated. And they can only be renegotiated after the third anniversary of its signing. This includes extensions or a previous renegotiation, assuming there were raises greater than 4.5 percent in the deal.
While renegotiating a contract has always been part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, this summer represented the first time that teams had ample cap space to consider using it in this way. Normally, teams have $10 to $12 million and need that space to add players. With the huge windfall in cap space this summer and even more coming next summer, opting to use that space to re-work a star player’s deal is not only a smart use of the money, it may end up sparking a whole new process teams consider using as a means to avoid losing a player to free agency.
The current thought process is that in order for a player to truly maximize their earning potential, they have to get to unrestricted free agency. However, as the Rockets and Thunder did with their deals, both teams got their star player to the new max levels a year or two earlier than their expected free agency. In Westbrook’s case, he’ll net some $8.7 million more over the life of his new deal than if he had waited for unrestricted free agency and signed for the same length.
Historically, we’ve seen teams willing to trade away players to open up space to pursue a free agent, often dumping long-term contracts in favor of ending deals or trading away contract dollars for draft picks.
Will teams fearful of losing a star player start looking at moving off money to create cap space renegotiate deals?
With two star players agreeing to those kinds of deals, it seems that a seldom considered tool in the rule books might actually turn out to be the missing piece to retaining a player teams have sought for some time.
Admittedly, the huge jump in what a max contract looks like today won’t remain that way indefinitely, but for those players currently on old NBA economy contracts, the ability to immediately add 25 to 30 percent to their deal right now might be the advantage the home team needs and it may inspire a little more pre-planning than we’re used to seeing.
For years, the concept of cap space was always about what a team could add from the free agent pool or in trade. With two major players on-board for longer deals, cap space to renegotiate likely becomes a bigger part of the process, especially with so many teams looking at space going forward and not nearly enough free agents to really spend it on.
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