This week’s Blake Griffin blockbuster sealed a philosophical transformation that’s been underway since Chris Paul pushed his way out last summer: The Clippers have become the anti-Clippers, even if they haven’t been able to ditch their long-standing injury bug.
Instead of clinging to a well-oiled starting lineup and treating the bench as an after-thought, coach Doc Rivers has started 16 different players this season, including multiple rookies, and turned to deeper rotations. Instead of winning with superstars like Paul and Griffin, they’ve grinded out games with a roster of anonymous stand-ins. Instead of running up the luxury-tax bills to pursue a title at any cost, they’ve punted on contention, sought greater flexibility and tried to level their books. And instead of underachieving in the face of inflated hype, the Clippers (25–25) have arguably overachieved by remaining in the West’s playoff picture despite a nine-game losing streak early in the season caused by catastrophic health problems.
“You lose nine in a row and you think maybe it’s just one of those years, maybe the universe is talking to you,” Clippers' President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank told The Crossover during an interview at his office earlier this month. “Injury. Injury. Injury. Injury. F---. God d--- it. But we came into the season wanting to redefine who a Clipper is: blue-collar, competitive, capable of withstanding adversity, tough, high IQ, plays hard, great teammate. Our guys stayed the course and the outside noise never got to us. We’re a feel-good story that no one saw coming.”
No doubt, some of the storybook charm disappeared with Griffin’s abrupt trade. And, with the trade deadline fast approaching, L.A.’s on-the-fly identity overhaul could produce a scrappy late-season push for one of the West’s last playoff spots, or it could lead to a further teardown as L.A. positions itself to attract a new crop of stars in free agency.
Either way, the Clippers are in a far better spot than seemed likely when Griffin, fresh off a new $173 million contract, was lost to another knee injury in late-November. While scoring guard Lou Williams and center DeAndre Jordan did the heaviest lifting to keep LA from bottoming out, Rivers attributed much of his team’s resilience to a brand-new rule aimed at player development, one that didn’t generate much attention when it was introduced by the NBA last summer.
In Rivers’ view, these anti-Clippers, for so long driven by max-contract superstars, were largely kept afloat by players earning less than the league minimum. “The two-way contracts have been a godsend,” Rivers told The Crossover, with his team just a half–game out of the West’s eighth seed entering Tuesday. “Without the two-ways and without our G-League team [the Agua Caliente Clippers], we’d probably be in last place. And that’s not an overstatement.”
A new shot at the NBA dream
Tyrone Wallace, 23, was the last player picked in the 2016 draft, a California kid who strongly preferred to stay stateside after earning All-Pac 12 honors in Berkeley. Scouts praised his length, finishing ability and defensive versatility, but he had to settle for the G-League in his first season out of college. After paying his dues and enjoying a strong 2017 Summer League, he landed a training camp invite from the Clippers. Now, the rangy 6’5” guard wears No. 12, often hears his name in the starting lineup introductions, and delights in playing in front of friends and family, who drive in from his hometown of Bakersfield for home games.
Asked separately about Wallace’s ultra-confident NBA debut against the Warriors earlier this month—in which he scored 13 points and played 31 minutes—Frank and Rivers both started gushing. “I never thought I would come right up and be starting and playing 30 minutes,” Wallace said. “I was in Utah with the G-League team and, next thing you know, I hopped on a flight and I’m playing Golden State. It was exciting, nerves. I settled in after running up and down a few times. It’s been a blessing.”
While Wallace says 2018 is shaping up to be the best year of his life, he isn't exactly living the NBA dream yet. Not quite.
Although Wallace is averaging 12.1 PPG (third among healthy Clippers) and playing more than 32 MPG (tops among healthy Clippers), he is not one of L.A.’s 15 NBA contract players. Instead, he holds one of the Clippers’ two two-way contracts, a new designation that was added to the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) last summer.
The two-way contract was designed as a grand compromise between NBA teams, G-League teams, and fringe free agents. After months of negotiations, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) gave each team a pair of two-way slots with a guaranteed salary of $75,000 and a maximum salary of roughly $300,000. While those figures fall short of a minimum NBA contract, which start above $800,000, it’s far more than the typical G-League deal, which is closer to $25,000.
From the players' side, this meant 60 new jobs that were financially competitive with professional contracts they could receive playing overseas. From the NBA team’s side, this meant greater opportunity to develop fringe talents and greater roster flexibility in the event of injuries or trades. From the G-League team’s side, this meant enhanced credibility and an improved player pool, given that two-way contract players often spend most of the season with the G-League affiliate.
Big picture, the two-way contract was seen an incentive to help keep fringe NBA talent in the states and to encourage NBA teams to invest in, and fully utilize, their minor-league affiliates. Their introduction is viewed as a key step towards building out the NBA’s desired 30-team, 30-affiliate arrangement, and a way to create additional administrative jobs—such as G-League GM—that could appeal to former players and eventually lead to NBA front office and coaching opportunities.
The Clippers proved these theories correct. “When the two-way came out, that was the impetus for us to get a G-League team,” Frank said. “For years, we were hit with the criticism that young players don’t get a chance to play for the Clippers. Our thinking [in the past] was just that we always had better players in front of them. We had wanted a G-League team for years but now we would have been at a competitive disadvantage if we didn’t have one.”
In crafting the two-way contract stipulations, the NBA and the NBPA wanted to ensure that the concept and its lower wages wouldn’t be abused, according to sources familiar with the discussions. While some teams pushed for additional two-way contract slots so that they could field a quasi–scout team, the negotiations landed on two slots so that cost-conscious teams couldn’t get around paying normal NBA salaries.
Importantly, the NBA and NBPA also decided that each two-way contract player signed early in the season could have a maximum of 45 “countable days” with the NBA team, with a “countable day” applying to game days, practice days and travel days. The rest of the player’s time was to be spent with the G-League affiliate. Here, the compromise provided teams with an option that was longer than the 10-day contract—usually deployed as a desperation fill-in for injuries—but short enough that teams would eventually be forced to make a decision. Teams wouldn’t be allowed to lean on the lower-salaried players indefinitely, instead forced to send the player back to the G-League, waive him, or sign him to a normal, higher-paying NBA contract.
The concept, which essentially establishes two-way contract players as the NBA’s second class of 16th and 17th roster spots, has caught on quickly. Wallace is among a group of more than 50 two-way players who have logged NBA minutes for at least 26 different NBA teams this season. Most of those teams are utilizing their two-way players in limited action, However, because of injuries to Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic, the Clippers have become the NBA’s guinea pigs for two-way contracts, testing the concept’s rules and regulations in unforeseen ways.
The hectic life of the NBA’s second class
C.J. Williams, 27, is one of thousands of vagabonds chasing his professional hoop dreams wherever they lead. After going undrafted out of NC State in 2012, he has spent the past five years playing in the G-League and playing overseas in Cyprus, Germany and France. In 2016, Williams conferred with his agent and decided to return from overseas, hoping that he could crack into the NBA from the G-League during his prime years. “Sometimes you have to take a chance on yourself instead of doing what may seem logical to some people,” Williams said.
Last year, that meant toiling for the Texas Legends, earning far less than he made overseas. But this past summer, the 6’5” wing impressed the Clippers with his play as part of coach Jeff Van Gundy’s AmeriCup team, drawing a camp invite thanks to his 3–and–D game, positional versatility, and steadiness. “He’s not going to make game plan mistakes,” Frank said. “Doc trusts him. Rock solid.” Although Williams didn’t earn a roster spot during camp, he secured a two-way contract and made his debut during the Clippers’ bloody November. With Griffin out in December, Williams spent most of the month as a starter, compiling respectable season averages of 5.9 PPG and 1.5 RPG and helping L.A. close out the month with an 8–4 push.
When Williams saw his first extended action, against the Hornets in his home state of North Carolina, he wondered whether he would be able to keep himself together. “I was thinking nonstop about scoring my first NBA basket,” he told The Crossover. “I honestly thought I was going to break down and cry. But when it happened, I felt nothing. At first, I thought: ‘Why doesn’t this feel good?’ Then I realized it was because I always felt like I belonged in the NBA. This is what I was supposed to be doing.”
Like Wallace, Williams is finally living his NBA dream. Almost.
To arrive at that first bucket in Charlotte, a reverse layup, Williams crisscrossed the globe for a half-decade. And he also had to endure a week for the ages. On Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, he played 31 minutes for the Agua Caliente Clippers in the G-League. On Saturday, he headed to the airport at 4 a.m. to take a commercial flight from Reno to Charlotte to play for the Clippers that night. On Monday, he played for the Clippers against the Knicks in New York. On Tuesday, he flew commercial cross-country to Ontario, Calif., to play for the Agua Caliente Clippers that night. On Wednesday, he flew commercial cross-country to Atlanta, rejoining the Clippers for a game against the Hawks that evening.
All told, Williams played five games in six days for two teams while taking three cross-country commercial flights on game days. “It was very taxing on my body by the time I was done,” he said, noting that the Clippers had Thanksgiving off following the Hawks game. “I got to spend the holiday with my family and I slept like 10 hours straight.” But the very next night he was in Sacramento to face the Kings. “What C.J. went through was incredible,” Frank said. “We kept changing his plans because of injuries and he showed great humility. He’s never complained once, regardless of the circumstances.”
The absurdities of “countable days”
The Clippers’ circumstances—and thus Williams’s hectic travel schedule—have been driven by more than just injuries. Under Steve Ballmer, the ultra-wealthy former Microsoft executive, the Clippers have regularly been in the luxury tax, triggering the punitive repeater taxes that non-contenders avoid like the plague. L.A. entered 2017-18 just under the luxury tax line of $119.3 million, meaning that any signing—even using their open 15th roster spot to sign a player on a minimum contract—would trigger tax penalties. With so many injury holes to plug early on, a single signing wasn’t going to be sufficient anyway.
Frank and the front office responded by turning to their two-way contract slots, devising a carefully-crafted schedule whereby they could cycle through the cheaper players to limit their payroll. “You’re always looking for production-over-cost players,” Frank said. “We set up a strategy group to line up our schedule and Agua Caliente’s schedule and form a giant plan that stretched out for months. These two-way guys were game-changers for us.”
L.A. first turned to Williams and forward Jamil Wilson, who appeared in 15 NBA games before being released and dealing with an off-court legal issue. To get the most bang for their buck, the Clippers realized that they must hoard their “countable days” at all costs. Ideally, in their view, the two-way players’ ability to play in games would be maximized, which required cutting out practice days and travel days whenever possible. By the way, teams can’t fudge the numbers, as the league office diligently tracks “countable days” and G-League assignments.
For Williams, that meant leaving the Clippers to fly back to California during the November trip because that saved a single countable day. Rather than being charged three days on that trip for Monday (Knicks game), Tuesday (travel day) and Wednesday (Hawks game), Williams was only counted for two because he spent Tuesday with L.A.’s G-League affiliate. That extra day, plus others accumulated in a similar manner, thereby helped extend his tenure with the Clippers, delaying L.A.’s decision on whether to sign him for the season for as long as possible.
Meanwhile, Wallace, who stepped in for Wilson after he was released, has seen his “countable days” squeezed in a similar manner. Last week, the Clippers traveled to Salt Lake City on Friday for a Saturday game against the Jazz. Rather than fly with the team and lose a “countable day” to travel, Wallace woke up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to fly commercial to Salt Lake City, where he attended the Clippers’ shootaround and played 39 minutes in a loss.
“It’s something I have to go through right now,” Wallace told The Crossover. “The flying thing is the toughest thing. It’s definitely a hassle. They could call you in the middle of the night and you have to stop what you’re doing and go to the airport. It can be tiring moving around so much and not knowing what you’re going to do. But that’s the life we live.” On the plus side, Wallace noted, he does get to fly first class.
The Clippers are so careful with Wallace’s “countable days” that he often is held out of practices. NBA rules dictate that he must count any day that he works out with Clippers players or coaches, so Wallace arrives at the practice facility before his teammates so that he can go through workouts and lift weights alone. “We shut the blinds down so that no one comes in,” Wallace said. “I have to hurry up and get my workout in before they’re ready to come on the court. It’s a hassle, honestly.”
Should the two-way contract system be tweaked?
Midway through its first year, the two-way contract system appears to be functioning as intended for the major involved parties. Wilson, Williams and Wallace combined to fill major minutes for L.A., and the Clippers’ two-way contingent easily leads the NBA in starts and total minutes played. According to Frank, “it’s probably fair to say” that L.A.’s two-way players have “been worth five wins” this season.
The NBA, in turn, clearly benefited from one fewer team going in the tank early, and it’s pleased with the new system’s widespread adoption across the league. “By providing more and better development opportunities, two-way contracts are proving to be a win-win for teams and players,” NBA Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe said in a statement to The Crossover.
The NBA and G-League have benefited because the two-way contract concept was instrumental in convincing Ballmer to fork over the $7 million franchise fee to launch the Agua Caliente Clippers, and to agree to operate the franchise at a loss going forward. The Clippers also embody the league’s goal of creating quality jobs for former players. Dee Brown, the 1991 NBA Dunk Contest champion, serves as the Clippers’ G-League GM after spending years as an assistant coach. By helping to identify, acquire, compensate and manage NBA-level talent, Brown is now on a front-office track.
As for the two-way players themselves, Williams and Wallace are both knocking on the door of their first real NBA contract, and making enough money that they are glad they aren’t overseas. “This is the best thing besides an NBA deal,” said Wallace, who would consider playing on a two-way again next season if an NBA deal doesn’t materialize. Despite all the logistical hiccups, Williams said he “loves the idea of the two-way” because of its financial benefits, the visibility of playing in the NBA, and the flexibility it offers once a player completes the 45-day term.
Even so, the Clippers—from Frank to Rivers and on to the players—believe the system can and should be improved. Their main point of contention centers around the stipulations around “countable days,” which in practice has separated the two-way players from the regular roster players.
“The biggest tweak they need to make is to stop counting travel days,” Rivers said. “I think they should only count game days. That would help the players. We’re doing silly things like sending guys to the G-League for practice and bringing them back for games. Tyrone had to fly on the day of the Utah game and he’s missed two or three practices. He’s only 23. He has a chance to be a heck of an NBA player. He shouldn’t be missing those days.”
Brown, who has seen the “countable days” impact both the Clippers and the G-League affiliate, suggested that the NBA designate a set number of game days (say, 30) and a set number of NBA practice days, while eliminating travel days. He wanted to see this change because the shuttling of players to avoid travel days has a disruptive effect upon the G-League team’s rotations and because it stunts a young player’s development by limiting practice time. “Allen Iverson would have loved to be on a two-way,” Brown joked. “Just show up for the games and never practice.”
Looking to avoid the sunrise flights, both Williams and Wallace agreed that easing the travel rule would benefit all involved parties. Williams views the current travel setup as confusing, overly taxing on a player’s body, and unnecessarily wasteful of the organization’s finances. For Wallace, the issue is about both convenience and professional pride. “I believe that I’m with the team and that I’m an NBA player,” he said. “I’m playing with the team, and I feel like it would be great to get treated like that. This is something that could be improved to be more player-friendly.”
Of course, one could argue that the Clippers’ travel issues are a team-specific issue—rather than a systemic failure—because they could always convert their two-way players to regular contracts and swallow the financial hit or loosen up their approach to the “countable days.” Sources familiar with the CBA discussions said that the NBA and NBPA decided to count travel days because that time spent around teammates on the road should be viewed as its own form of development, with two-way players enjoying the perks of life as an NBA player and therefore deserving to be compensated like an NBA player on those days.
Another thought that has bubbled up: Why not extend the length of a two-way contract longer than 45 days or allow teams to pick-up a second term once the first 45 days are exhausted? This would be similar to the NBA’s 10-day contract system, in which teams can sign players to up to two 10-day contracts before deciding whether to sign the player for the season. Supporters argue that a two-way contract extension would reward the player and team for their mutual developmental work, generating more salary for the player and helping teams that are in dire need of roster help do so at a reduce price. Opponents counter that a team that wants 90 days of NBA service from a player should sign that player to a typical NBA contract.
In addition to rethinking the “countable days” criteria, the Clippers are intrigued by the idea of expanding the number of two-way slots. After years of taking flak for burying and/or trading away first-round picks, Rivers appears to have found religion with the two-ways, saying that he “would love to have three” slots rather than two. Frank said that he wouldn’t mind having four, joking that the NBA “shouldn’t give teams an option to get more [because] we’d always want more.”
Given the wide scope of the two-way program, it’s fair to assume that the NBA and the NBPA will take a gradual approach to future modifications. The NBA’s CBA includes language that mandates an annual discussion between the league and NBPA regarding G-League operations, meaning that any potential tweaks would take place no earlier than this summer. Clearly, no team will have more information to contribute to those conversations than the Clippers, whose two-way players have combined to make more starts than those representing the rest of the league’s 29 teams combined.
What’s next for the anti-Clippers?
The Clippers’ experience with the two-way contracts, and their newfound appreciation for the potential of the G-League, is a useful prism for viewing the Griffin blockbuster trade with Detroit. “We want to be really good for a really long time, and we want to build a sustainable organization that can compete for championships,” Frank told The Crossover, prior to the trade. “Not just now, into the future.”
There was no model for a Griffin-led Clippers team to achieve that vision, especially once he lapsed back into injuries again this season. Applying the “production-over-cost” evaluation framework that Frank used to explain his interest in two-way contracts, it’s natural to conclude that Griffin’s muted impact numbers (+0.8 net rating, 17–16 record with him in the lineup) did not align favorably with his $29.5 million salary figure.
Moving Griffin allowed L.A. to spread his contract number over multiple contributors, drastically reduce its long-term financial burden, and add two blue-collar types in Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley from Detroit. The trade also put the Clippers in better position to pay their top upcoming free agents—Jordan, Lou Williams and Bradley—should they so choose, while opening a path for new front-office consultant Jerry West to chase top upcoming free agents, like LeBron James or Paul George in 2018 and Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson in 2019.
In the meantime, Tyrone Wallace and C.J. Williams will continue to fight for their first real NBA contracts, and both will be eligible to see time in the NBA playoffs once the G-League season is over. Maybe, by then, one of their fellow plane travelers will have recognized the Clippers’ silent saviors. So far, the two-way players said they have conducted their parallel travel plans through major airports without arousing the attention of a single autograph hound or selfie seeker.
“I go a lot of places overseas and everyone knows who I am,” Williams said. “Now I’m playing with a question mark on my jersey. It’s pretty funny to me. There’s also been a few times on the court where players are like, ‘Who are you?’ I enjoy that part. I’m out here showing people that all you need is an opportunity. If you don’t know who I am, I’m about to show you.”