Once upon a time, there was a player named Gilbert Arenas. He played for the Golden State Warriors, but as he was a second-round pick they were only allowed to offer him a small raise in salary once he became a free agent. Another team, the Washington Wizards, were not bound by such restrictions and signed him to a deal so large the Warriors could not legally match it as they were above the salary cap. And thus, the Gilbert Arenas rule was born.
How does this relate to Jordan Clarkson? Because he was a second-round pick, and likely the most significant to ever be bound by the Arenas rule. Why is he subject to that rule? Because he is a restricted free agent who has only been in the NBA for two seasons, meaning the Lakers only have his early Bird Rights as opposed to his full Bird Rights. Players can only be re-signed with early Bird Rights to contracts worth 175% of their previous year’s salary in the first season of the new deal. Teams not bound by Bird Rights (the rest of the league) can offer no more than the Mid-Level Exception, but assuming the player is restricted, the player’s original team has matching rights.
This rule was created to protect teams like Golden State when they lost Arenas for nothing. As the Warriors were above the salary cap, they could not match an offer to Arenas because his offer from the Wizards was greater than the mid-level exception and his Bird Rights did not extend that far. Obviously the Lakers are not above the salary cap, but the rule itself still prevents Clarkson from being paid more than the mid-level exception in the first year of his new contract.
Here’s where things get interesting, that rule applies only to the first two years of the contract. The third and fourth year of a potential deal have no financial restrictions. In the third season, his salary could conceivably rise all the way up to the max. So we could see Clarkson sign a four-year deal somewhere around $60 million, but nearly all of the money would be paid out in the final two years.
Now as Clarkson is extremely valuable and the overall value of the contract would be worthwhile no matter what, the Lakers will match any offer and retain him. However, there is a wrinkle other teams could use to make the deal less attractive to Los Angeles. Opposing teams are able to average the salary cap hit of the total contract over the entire four years, so if Clarkson got $40 million, they could average it out to $10 million per year on their cap sheet if they wished. But the Lakers would have no such option, they’d have to live with his max cap number on the books for those last two seasons. This is how the Rockets stole Jeremy Lin from the Knicks and Omer Asik from the Bulls.
Again, they’d accept it, but it’s going to be an interesting subplot to watch play out over the summer. Who’s going try to poison pill the Lakers out of Clarkson? Will Clarkson seek a shorter-term two-year deal to reach unrestricted free agency faster? We know Clarkson is going to return. The overall dollars on his contract are just going to be too small for the Lakers not to match any offer he gets thanks to the Arenas provision. But the specifics could get very interesting.
Likely Contract: Four Years, $58 Million