Last offseason, the Lakers and the Clippers battled for Kawhi Leonard in free agency. They may not have met on the court in the Western Conference finals as most predicted, but that doesn't mean the two sides are done battling one another. In 2020, the two have their hearts set on the same free agent point guard: Rajon Rondo. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Clippers are interested in poaching Rondo away from the Lakers, who also want him back.
Rondo has a $2.7 million player option for next season -- a 120 percent raise on his 2019-20 minimum salary -- but is obviously expected to decline it after a stellar postseason. Stein indicates that Rondo wants to test the market, suggesting that his primary goal is cashing in. So, who can pay Rondo more? Well, it's complicated. Technically, if the cap comes in at last year's $109 million total, both should be able to offer somewhere between $9M-10M. How and why they'll be able to do so, or not do so, depends on a variety of other factors.
Let's start with the Lakers. As Rondo has played two seasons in Los Angeles, he has Early Bird Rights with the Lakers. That means the Lakers can pay him either 175 percent of his 2019-20 salary, or, more pertinently, 105 percent of the league's average salary. That was $9.3 million last season, so 105 percent of it would be around $9.8 million. There are caveats, though. Deals signed with Early Bird Rights must last at least two seasons. The Lakers have so far avoided giving out deals that last into the 2021 offseason, when they could possibly create cap space to pursue another star. Perhaps a non-guaranteed second season could solve that, but if the Lakers prioritize immediate improvement over 2021 ambitions, that creates another difficulty.
The Lakers have two primary methods of improvement through free agency: the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and sign-and-trades. That is their best chance of acquiring a starting-caliber player, but doing so would trigger a hard cap. Last season, that hard cap was around $139 million. If the Lakers are bound by that hard cap, there is almost no chance that they would have the money to pay Rondo what he's looking for. If the Lakers choose to keep Rondo instead, they would likely only be able to use the smaller, $5.7 million taxpayer mid-level exception on outside free agents. Not bad, but not as impactful as they'd like. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Which path the Lakers choose depends on how much improvement they think they'll need to win in 2021 as well as how important chasing another star is to them beyond that.
Hanging over any Lakers decision is their hail mary pitch to shed some salary. The Lakers have applied for a Career-Ending Injury exemption on the dead money owed to Luol Deng, whom they waived with the stretch provision before the 2018-19 season. They are unlikely to be granted that exemption. If they are, though, it would clear around $5 million off of their books, making it easier to potentially keep Rondo without impacting their other plans.
The Clippers can't offer Rondo quite as much as the Lakers can. The most they can offer is the league's average salary through the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, so $9.3 million. Like the Lakers, they also have to be mindful of a hard cap. Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell are both free agents. It's a bit simplistic, but the Clippers will probably be forced to go one of two routes. If they let one of those players go, they can use both the full MLE and the smaller $3.6 million bi-annual exception. If they keep both, they are probably limited to the taxpayer mid-level exception.
Where exactly their offers will fall depends on the other moves both the Lakers and Clippers line up. There are scenarios in which one side offers significantly more than the other. There are scenarios in which both are offering him as much as they can, and ones in which they both have to lowball him a bit. We just won't know until their other plans become a bit clearer.
What we can safely say is that the Clippers are a genuine threat to steal Rondo away from the Lakers. He has relationships with both Clippers coach Ty Lue and top basketball executive Lawrence Frank from their time together in Boston. He wouldn't have to relocate. He presumably wants to continue winning, and the Clippers offer that path. LeBron James and Anthony Davis both love playing with Rondo and will surely fight to bring him back, but if money is the priority, there is a decent chance Rondo is a Clipper next season.