Despite being possibly one of the hotter potential properties on this week's trade market, L.A. Clippers guard Lou Williams has agreed to sign an extension with the team that will tie him to the franchise for three more years.
GiveMeSport can reveal that Williams's extension will pay him an even $8 million in each of the next three seasons. The final season, 2020/21, is currently guaranteed for only $1.5 million, but the level of protection can increase if certain performance incentives are met.
For this price, the Clippers will keep hold of a near All-Star who salvaged their season, and who was by far the best part of the return they received in the trade that sent Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets. They get to control the immediate future of a player averaging 23.3 points and 5.3 assists on the season, a player who continues to improve despite his age, and who they can now re-trade down the road, with the team control providing greater leverage.
From Williams's point of view, however, the benefits are less obvious. .
Williams was eligible for an extension that could pay him a maximum of $30,349,728 over the three years he has signed for. Instead, however, he has taken a deal for slightly under 80% of that amount. Indeed, the amount he has signed is less even than the full amount of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which had a first year salary of $8.406 million this year and would have gone down only if the salary cap did.
It is unclear why Williams agreed to take the smaller amount, as it seems unlikely that the Clippers would balk at doing so. If the aim is to keep him as a player, then he has more than earned the slightly-over-$19 million he would cost over the next two seasons, and if the aim is to re-trade him next season using the greater team control as leverage, then it is hard to see Williams being so much more untradable at $9,367,200 than he will now be at $8 million.
At The Ringer, Kevin O'Connor argues that Williams's decision to take below what it was supposed he might get on the open market was just the market readjusting after the ludicrous 2016 overspend that has clogged so many team salary caps and stifled the entire market. And maybe that factors. But this, surely, is not solely that. That alone would explain some form of discount, relative to other big contracts signed in recent years, but it does not alone explain why Williams would take less than an MLE deal like he now has.
In agreeing to take only $24 million, then, Williams has undervalued himself.
Remember here that the point of the MLE is to be equal to the average player salary - that is to say, a means for capped-out teams to still be able to acquire an average reinforcement. And Williams is no average player. It is true that he is ageing, turning 32 at the start of next season and into his 13th NBA season, and the new contract will take him through to nearly age 35. But he is only improving with age. Those improvements will eventually end, but barring some form of precipitous decline that there is nothing to suggest is forthcoming, Williams is a very good NBA player who is going to stay above the average threshold for a while.
This underpayment is somewhat par for the course for Williams, who has long struggled to get his own at the NBA level. His first NBA contract, a de facto three-year minimum salary contract with a slight boost in year one, paid only $450,000, and although his second contract paid $25 million, it did so over five years.
In his days at the helm of the Philadelphia 76ers, Billy King famously gave out as-long-as-possible of contracts to free agents with remarkable frequency. And when such contracts go badly, it is a problem. But when the player performs up to if not better than the contract's annual value, they are stuck being underpaid, or at least unable to test their worth once again. And that is what happened with Williams.
Williams opted out of that deal as early as he could (2012), but could subsequently get only $15,675,000 over three years from the Atlanta Hawks, seemingly tarnished by the always-stubborn "sixth man" label that always drives prices down. Then to top it off, in 2015, just before the cap spike that led to the insane 2016 overspend, Williams could command only a three year, $21 million deal from the L.A. Lakers, and missed out on the cheddar that far lesser players than he subsequently got.
None of these are bad contracts for Williams, per se. But none of them are especially good to him either, and leave Williams as a player who has never been able to turn his huge talents into huge salaries and who surely now never will. And while bad luck in terms of which years his free agency came up is somewhat of a factor in the above, it was also one within his control. After all, at no point did he ever have to sign for that many years.
Perhaps the key is that both of these last two contracts have been signed with Los Angeles teams - despite being originally from Georgia, hence the signing with the Hawks, Williams has professed his love for the City of Angels and clearly wants to stay there. Perhaps, too, the Clippers signed Williams with a promise not to trade him during the duration of it. But in the midst of a reload, the Clippers may quickly find that Williams's greatest value to them is as a trade asset. And they have plenty of recent evidence at being willing to trade away those it was assumed they never would.
Williams's new contract will start are more than 105% of the amount of the final salary of the old one, so he cannot be traded until six months from the date of signing, or 7th August 2018. Nevertheless, once that window has expired, the Clippers can re-trade him at will. And barring serious injury, Williams should command some value. Just as he was doing in the run-up to this week's deadline.
This, however, serves only one party well. If Williams signed to be in this city, then he will not want to be traded. The Clippers are the biggest winners here - they increase or at least sustain the value of a trade asset, and get the continued services of a good player at a great price, whether or not they later trade him. This is the very definition of the water-treading that the team has positioned itself to do with and after the trade of Blake Griffin.
Williams, however, just settled for second prize.