Is Your Team Ready for NBA’s ‘Clean Slate Protocol’?

There are several ways to rebuild or restructure an NBA franchise.

By far the most popular one, the NBA Draft is where a team may decide it’s time to establish a young core and spends a handful of years accumulating players on cheap rookie-scale contracts, allowing greater financial flexibility in free agency.

Another option is doing everything you can to shed contracts off the payroll, only to re-invest that money in free agency, (but on significantly better players).

But how do teams get there, if they’re trapped in NBA purgatory, (i.e. an on-the-bubble playoff team that’s too good to tank for influential draft picks), or have too much money locked up in existing players?

First, it’s about making an organizational decision on the direction of your franchise. Are you willing to sacrifice years to regain a stronger foothold in the league? Are there options that will improve you drastically in the next round of free agency, assuming you can clear up the money to take a swing?

The Los Angeles Clippers are betting on both horses

By trading Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Clippers received a return that not only provides them with great financial flexibility this very summer, they also acquired multiple draft picks and rookie guard Landry Shamet. He immediately joins their already youthful guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, as well as centers Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac—the latest of whom is also a recent acquisition.

The Clippers have a ton of money available for the free agent market this summer. The contracts of Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green, Patrick Beverley and Luc Mbah a Moute all come off the cap after combining for a 2018/2019 cap hit of $38 million.

LAC’s three highest-paid players going into the summer—Danilo Gallinari, Harrell and Lou Williams—combine to earn just $36.6 million, with everyone else on the roster earning less than $4 million. If they waive Sindarius Thornwell before June 20th, an additional $1.6 million will come off the cap, meaning the Clippers will go into summer 2019 with just $47.7 million in contracts, not including cap holds. With a 2019/2020 cap estimated at $109 million, the Clippers should have somewhere in the area of $60 million to play around with.

Feb 2, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; LA Clippers guard Lou Williams (23) goes to the basket as Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) and forward Blake Griffin (23) defend during the first quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

That money is likely earmarked for a strong attempt at signing All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard which, if the venture proves successful, would catapult the Clippers into a top-tier team.

If not successful, the Clippers can pivot and focus on building their roster from within, by virtue of their young core and multiple draft picks. In order words: The organization built a fail-safe, should their primary priority (i.e. immediate improvement) not become a reality.

Building that fail-safe is what separate the good teams from the bad.

The Clippers technically did complete a clean slate protocol but, unlike the New York Knicks who received just a lukewarm return for Kristaps Porzingis, did so in such calculating fashion, they will have multiple angles to play regardless what happens this summer.

One team who should be trying something similar are the Detroit Pistons who, ironically, helped facilitate Los Angeles’ current situation by taking on the contract of All-Star Blake Griffin last season.

The Pistons have been stuck for over a decade

Detroit has a single playoff appearance, (a first-round loss in 2016), since 2009 and are nowhere closer to making significant noise in the Eastern Conference with their current 26-30 record. Their bloated salary cap and overpaid role players are clogging up not just their cap, but also their flexibility in making trades.

Point guard Reggie Jackson—who after this year has another season on his contract for over $18 million—is not viewed as an asset around the league. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks on a recent episode of Lowe’s “The Lowe Post” podcast, teams were demanding that Detroit throw in a pick in any Reggie Jackson trade. It’s fair to assume similar conversations have taken place regarding the contracts of Jon Leuer ($9.5 million next season) and Langston Galloway ($7.3 million next season).

The Pistons, who drastically need to activate The Clean Slate Protocol, must come to the realization that having Griffin and center Andre Drummond as their main cogs is not going to break them out of their current struggles. In fact, those respective contracts will more than likely hinder having any type of financial maneuverability. Griffin stands to earn $34.2 million next season, and Drummond $27 million. By 2020, those contracts will be worth $36.6 million and $28.7 million respectively, drastically limiting what can be offered new players in free agency.

It’s time for the Pistons to cut bait and start over. They currently do not have a single blue-chip prospect on their roster, suggesting a strong need to enter a rebuilding process through the draft. As such, it would make no sense to package the contract of Drummond with one of Jackson, Leuer or Galloway, as that would limit the value of Detroit’s return in any trade. The Pistons must accept that the aforementioned trio will have to sit on their books until they are free agents in 2020.

They have zero trade value and won’t fetch any attractive asset in return. Trading Drummond and Griffin, however, could theoretically fetch a return with assets worth hanging onto.

Feb 2, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) and center Andre Drummond (0) high five during the first quarter against the LA Clippers at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

This brings us to the 2019 off-season. Several teams are clearing cap space for the big-name free agency pool, but not all will succeed in signing Kevin Durant. For teams striking out, who haven’t prepared as well as the Clippers, the stench of desperation will come into play quickly.

Should the Knicks not sign a single top-tier free agent, their fan base might start an actual riot outside Madison Square Garden. Trading for an established star in Griffin or Drummond could help them save face. Even if Detroit shouldn’t receive a major return in such a trade (say, for example, a package around Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, plus a few second-rounders) it’s enough to check a few boxes moving forward. The Pistons would immediately acquire financial flexibility, a few noteworthy assets, and will thus be able to make several creative trades.

Should Detroit even succeed in trading both Griffin and Drummond for similar returns, they can allocate the money they freed up to take on even more dead money for picks or young players while they build through the draft. It doesn’t matter if they’re near the cap limit while rebuilding in this phase, as they won’t be free agent players anyway.

What’s essential when cleaning slate is how you extract value through trading and signing players. You needn’t look to acquire the best player in any exchange, nor will you have to look for big-money players in the summer. Starting over means not only a new chance at getting the foundation right, but it also means evolving as a franchise and learning from experience and failure how to correct mistakes and apply that knowledge moving forward.

If ownership gives you that kind of time, that is.