In the entire history of the luxury tax, there have been only six teams that have never paid it.
It's about to be five.
The L.A. Clippers got two deals done this year, trading Antawn Jamison to the Atlanta Hawks and Byron Mullens to the Philadelphia 76ers. In both trades, they returned nothing of value because the recipient team did not want the player. The pick received by the Clippers from Philadelphia is so conditional as to be essentially unsendable, and Atlanta, after having given up only the redundant 2005 draft rights to Turkish guard Cenk Akyol to obtain Jamison, is already likely buying Jamison out.
Jamison is embroiled in the worst season of his career by a country mile. With a 40.8 percent true shooting percentage and a 7.9 PER, the 37-year-old designated shooting specialist has lost his shot and, with 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes, has become impossible to hide defensively. Mullens, meanwhile, has hardly been used, a paper-soft big man with face-up offense, a jump shot and a straight line handle, a poor rebounder and weak interior defender who brings none of what the Clippers need. And with 7.1 fouls per 36, he was even less hideable than Jamison.
The two took up two roster spots with scant little contribution and were not desired by the teams that acquired them. These deals, then, were never about the players. These deals were about money and the Clippers' saving of it.
Los Angeles entered deadline week with a luxury tax number of $73,842,432, or $2,094,432 over the threshold. After trading away Jamison's $884,293 and Mullens' $947,907 minimum salaries, the team's current luxury tax situation is this:
Chris Paul - $18,668,431
Blake Griffin - $16,441,500
DeAndre Jordan - $10,986,550
J.J. Redick - $6,500,000
Jamal Crawford - $5,225,000
Jared Dudley - $4,250,000
Matt Barnes - $3,250,000
Darren Collison - $1,900,000
Willie Green - $1,399,507
Reggie Bullock - $1,149,000
Ryan Hollins - $884,293
Hedo Turkoglu - $473,357
Maalik Wayns* - $329,470
Stephen Jackson* - $255,204
Darius Morris* - $52,017
Darius Morris* - $52,017
Sasha Vujacic* - $52,017
Brandon Davies* - $50,000
Maalik Wayns* - $46,404
(* = no longer on the roster)
Total = $72,010,232 = $262,232 over the tax still.
This is an intriguingly and frustratingly small amount. It is an amount smaller than the team paid an injured Maalik Wayns earlier in the season and only slightly bigger than the Clippers spent on the unsuccessful Stephen Jackson era. It is considerably less than Hedo Turkoglu is receiving to not solve the forward question and it is only slightly more than combining the money Brandon Davies received to be waived in camp with the four 10-day contracts given to Morris (x2), Wayns and Vujacic. Strange as it is to say, then, the Clippers have had a great many times when they could have (and arguably should have) been frugal that they did not take. And these un-Clippersy decisions now see them destined to pay tax.
One noteworthy name on that list is Willie Green, the third-choice shooting guard. Green, almost the exact same mediocre and inefficient scoring "specialist" he has always been save for an uptick in three-point shooting over the last two years, came into the season with his minimum salary contract unguaranteed, and a guarantee date of July 1. Perhaps because they had not expected to land J.J. Redick the following week, the Clippers allowed Green's contract to become guaranteed, despite knowing full well that they would have luxury tax issues this season and despite surely knowing Green would not be hot property on the waiver wire and could be re-signed later. Indeed, doing so would have cost them less; due to the rebate system the NBA employs when veterans sign one-year minimum salary deals, waiving and re-signing Green would have seen him cost only $884,293, a $500,000+ savings that would be highly significant right now.
Green could nevertheless surely have been traded this week, either in addition to or instead of Jamison. [Note: trading him as well as Jamison would have resulted in an illegally small 11-player roster, yet this is easily rectified by signing a 10-day contract immediately prior to the trade.] They don't need him as a player, as there is nothing he can do that someone such as, say, Vujacic could not do. Yet the Green love persists.
Furthermore, had he been traded instead, Green's $1,399,507 is significantly larger than Jamison's salary and it would have put the Clippers slightly under the tax rather than slightly over it. It seems certain that Philadelphia would have accepted that deal, given that Green's unguaranteed contract for next season is much more palatable than the risk of Mullens exercising his player option. Yet it did not happen. Green remains with the team to play a superfluous and tiny role, while losing Mullens makes the team even smaller and the tax continues to be paid in such a small amount as to render it a mistake.
More Clippers deadline coverage
More Clippers deadline coverage
It feels counterintuitive and productive to be faulting a team, especially the Clippers, for not losing players to cut salary. It is an ugly practice that goes against what the fundamental tenet of team-building should be about. However, the Clippers cut salary anyway. They clearly had concerns about the tax that they tried to alleviate. If you're going to cut salary and dodge the tax, do it properly.
Still, here we are. The Clippers did not cut enough salary to get under the tax and they're about to add some more. With only 12 players under contract at the moment -- the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to drop to 12 for up to two weeks, but demands a minimum roster size of 13 -- the Clippers will need to sign more players.
Moreover, they will want to. As good as this Clippers team has been, there are holes. Despite DeAndre Jordan's prodigious 14.1 boards per game, the Clippers are still a below-average rebounding team, no doubt a byproduct of having Mullens and Ryan Hollins as the only recognized bigs on the bench and the constant small ball their roster demands. They also continue to search for small forward help and perhaps an extra shooter, hence the roster turnover at the forward and guard spots thus far this season. And with three open roster spots, they can accommodate plenty of this necessary reinforcement.
Help could be on the way in the form of upcoming buyouts. Earl Clark, already waived by Philadelphia, is one possible candidate, as is Glen Davis, waived by the Magic. It seems logical if not yet announced that Chris Kaman might take a buyout with the Lakers, and a return to the Clippers makes plenty of sense. Should he also be waived by Philadelphia, Danny Granger might provide some help at the contentious small forward spot, as perhaps could Ben Gordon -- who can do Willie Green's job better than Green can -- at off guard if Charlotte casts him loose. On the free agent market, Ivan Johnson is coming back from China, as is Delonte West, and the D-League can always be relied upon for depth. The Clippers have options, some of which they need to take.
Signing these players would, barring extremely nitpicky circumstances, involve the Clippers paying tax anyway. It would be possible to avoid the tax had Green been traded to stagger 10-day contracts for the remainder of the season, meeting the minimum roster requirement and dodging the tax in the ugly way Chicago is currently doing. It is probably healthy for the perception of the franchise that it is not doing this, and if this Clippers team is the first one finally deemed worthy of paying luxury tax for, that is something of an endorsement.
However, if you're going to pay the luxury tax, lose out on the rebates non-taxpayers receive, and activate the small but present risk of becoming repeater taxpayers down the road, why do it by so little? Why do it for Willie Green?