Money may not be able to buy happiness, but as Steve Ballmer is proving, it can sure buy one hell of an NBA team. A little more than a year ago, the Portland Trail Blazers traded two first-round picks to get Robert Covington. A few months later, Norman Powell was one of the most coveted players available at the 2021 deadline, and the Blazers got him by sending out a premier young talent in Gary Trent Jr. Together, they comprised 40 percent of a starting lineup that outscored opponents by more than 13 points per 100 possessions.
Now, both of them are Clippers. Los Angeles didn’t land those players by sending back commensurate basketball value. They didn’t even give up a single first-round pick, though recent No. 21 overall selection Keon Johnson was included. No, they acquired two high-level starters largely by flexing Ballmer’s wallet. The Blazers started the trade roughly $3 million above the luxury tax line. Now they’ve not only ducked the 2022 tax, but have gotten off of the last four years and roughly $74 million remaining on Powell’s deal.
Ballmer didn’t mind paying it. It’s not as though Powell is egregiously overpaid, after all. He’s a valuable player, and an owner worth almost $100 billion has the means to pay valuable players. He’s going to be paying a lot of them for the next few seasons, though. As it stands right now, the Clippers have over $172 million committed to player salaries this season. While that number would produce a gargantuan tax bill, there’s a very good chance the Clippers cut into it by dealing Serge Ibaka into Oklahoma City’s cap space.
Next season, however, is shaping up to be even pricier. If Ballmer’s commitment to winning a championship above all else persists, his Clippers are in line to be one of the most expensive teams in NBA history.
As of right now, the Clippers have roughly $149 million salary in committed to eight players next season. Those players are Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, Norman Powell, Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Jason Preston and B.J. Boston. We can safely bump that figure up to $156 million for nine players thanks to the valuable team option the Clippers hold on Ivica Zubac. Soon after Friday’s trade, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the NBA is projecting a $147 million luxury tax threshold next season. With only 60 percent of their roster signed, the Clippers are already $9 million above the line. It’s going to get a whole lot more expensive, though, because of the following moves that may come after:
- Robert Covington is an unrestricted free agent. Cap space is limited this offseason, but this is also an extremely weak free-agent class. To keep things simple, let’s project that re-signing him would mean paying him exactly as much next season as he is making now: a little bit under $13 million.
- Nic Batum is also an unrestricted free agent. His situation is far more complicated. Batum easily could have gotten the mid-level exception from a contender in the offseason. Instead, he took a 120 percent raise on his 2020-21 minimum salary using his Non-Bird Rights. On the surface, it looked like he was doing the Clippers a favor because he wanted to remain in Los Angeles, but he had a very real financial incentive for taking this approach. By remaining with the Clippers, he positioned himself to gain Early Bird Rights in Los Angeles for the 2022 offseason. This allows the Clippers to pay him 105 percent of the average player salary, which is the amount used to determine the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. This figure is yet to be determined for next season, but based on the projected cap increase, we can estimate it will come in at around $10.6 million. While under-the-table deals are strictly illegal, we can also speculate on the possibility that the Clippers gave Batum a wink-wink agreement to give him this whole amount to compensate him for the money he left on the table last summer to stay put.
- The Clippers will have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception, projected to come in at roughly $6.2 million. They could use that on an outside free agent. More likely, they’ll need to use at least some of it in order to retain Isaiah Hartenstein, who has emerged as a stellar backup center for them this season.
- Standout two-way guard Amir Coffey will be a restricted free agent. He deserves a payday, but given the harsh realities of restricted free agency, we’ll assume for now that he is forced to take his $1.6 million qualifying offer.
- That leaves one roster spot. Filling it with a veteran for the minimum salary would cost the Clippers roughly $1.7 million.
The Clippers don’t necessarily have to follow this exact blueprint. If Ballmer isn’t comfortable spending quite this much, he doesn’t necessarily need to, and for all we know the Clippers will make more moves before the deadline that address their possibly enormous 2022-23 tax bill. However, if the Clippers did indeed follow this path, they would be looking at over $189 million in player salaries for next season. Throw in $145 million in luxury tax payments and the total cost of the roster would be roughly $334 million.
Would this be the most expensive team in NBA history? Well… kind of. No team has ever spent $189 million on salaries alone. This season’s Golden State Warriors currently hold the record as their players are earning roughly $175 million. The Warriors have a higher overall payroll, though, because of the luxury tax. Not only is this season’s luxury tax threshold lower than next season’s, but the Warriors are paying the repeater tax penalty thanks to their years of largesse with Kevin Durant on the roster. Fortunately, the Clippers are not in line to pay the repeater tax until the 2023-24 season. If we did apply the repeater penalty to our projected Clippers roster for next season, though, their combined salary and tax bill would exceed $375 million. That tops even this season’s Warriors.
But it probably won’t beat next season’s Warriors. Golden State has approximately $171 million on the books for next season, but that’s with only eight players on the roster. Once they get to 14, presumably by re-signing some combination of Gary Payton II, Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee, Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala that number will grow even more. Keeping most of those players will likely take the Warriors beyond $189 million in raw salary, but even if it doesn’t, the repeater tax all but assures a higher combined salary and tax bill for Golden State than what Ballmer will be paying.
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In the end, the Clippers will probably come up slightly short of that $189 million salary figure. Covington’s offers are likelier to come in closer to the mid-level exception than his current salary just because of how few teams have the cap space to pay him more. Batum might not get quite up to the full Early Bird max, and Hartenstein might not have the leverage to demand the full taxpayer mid-level exception. However, it should be noted that the Clippers could easily still make more moves. They managed to retain their 2028 first-round pick in the Portland trade. That will be a valuable chip in future negotiations. If the Clippers wanted to combine it with some of their high-priced veterans, they could probably get in the mix for another major piece and potentially add even more salary.
Even if Ballmer doesn’t break the NBA’s record for the most expensive roster, he’s dwarfing pretty much every other American professional sports franchise. The Dodgers topped Major League Baseball with a $285 million payroll last season with the competitive balance tax factored in. The NFL uses a hard cap, meaning no team can exceed the $182.5 million salary cap. Ballmer has now effectively purchased one of the most expensive rosters in the history of American professional sports. Only time will tell if he’s also managed to purchase a championship in the process.