Reggie Jackson is earning himself millions of dollars every time he steps on a court this postseason. Kawhi Leonard has now missed seven playoff games ... and Jackson has scored 19 or more points in each of them. He is the postseason leader in made 3-point shots and ranks seven in total points. The Los Angeles Clippers have outscored their playoff opponents by 125 points with Jackson on the floor and have been outscored themselves by 21 when he's gone to the bench. It would not be an exaggeration to say that their season would be over was it not for Reggie Jackson. He's been that good.
You might even say that he's been too good. No, the Clippers do not want him to suddenly regress back into an aging reserve, but they do presumably want to bring him back next season. That's where the problem emerges. The longer Jackson plays this well, the less likely it is that the Clippers will be able to retain him. That isn't a matter of frugality for the Clippers. They would love to re-sign Jackson to a hefty new deal this offseason. But as it stands right now, there is a reasonable chance that they won't legally be able to offer him enough money to stay.
The dilemma can be traced back to the manner in which Jackson joined the Clippers. Midway through the 2019-20 season, Jackson was bought out by the Detroit Pistons. That wiped away the Bird Rights he had accumulated in Detroit, effectively forcing him to start that clock over again from scratch. As a midseason free agent, few teams had remaining cap space or exceptions, so he signed with the Clippers for the veteran's minimum.
He struggled from there, averaging only 9.5 points per game in relatively inconsistent minutes. His shooting had already begun to improve, but his physical limitations due to a combination of size and injury history made him fairly ineffective defensively. The Clippers allowed almost eight more points per 100 possessions in the postseason with him on the floor last season than when he sat.
Those struggles limited his leverage on the open market. The Clippers were already limited in what they could offer him. After one year with a team, a player gains Non-Bird rights, and teams can offer them a 20 percent raise on their previous salary to stick around without touching their cap exceptions. A 20 percent raise on the minimum isn't much, but Jackson's underwhelming stint in Los Angeles didn't get him any bigger offers. In fact, the Clippers didn't even give him that 20 percent raise. By using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Serge Ibaka, they hard-capped themselves at the apron (roughly $138.9 million). They had to save every penny they could just to stay below that line, so they gave Jackson a true veteran's minimum contract that, for cap purposes, counted for only $1.6 million.
But staying with the Clippers for a second season did offer a major theoretical benefit to Jackson that leaving for more money elsewhere wouldn't have: It granted him Early Bird Rights in the summer of 2021. Early Bird Rights kick in two seasons after a player signs with a team, and it grants that team far more flexibility in retaining that player as a free agent. Rather than a 20 percent raise, it allows the team to offer that player either 175 percent of its previous salary or 105 percent of the league's estimated average salary, whichever number is higher.
The average salary is the number that the league uses for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Last season, it was just below $9.3 million. It will be slightly higher this offseason as the cap rises, and when you factor in the extra five percent, Jackson's Early Bird max will likely start at above $10 million. Not bad for a player who had just signed for the minimum, right? Two weeks ago, this seemed like an ideal compromise. The Clippers would have gladly given Jackson a deal in this range to stay in Los Angeles. But then Jackson just kept making shot after shot after shot. In a matter of months, he went from a minimum player to a mid-level player to a cap space player. The free-agent market is unpredictable, but Jackson's performance this postseason warrants a salary far beyond $10 million.
And that's where things get complicated for the Clippers. If another team offers Jackson more than that mid-level figure, they have absolutely no recourse. There is nothing they can do to offer him more. The only other possibility would be to create enough cap space to sign him that way, but there's no feasible way for the Clippers to do so. Even if Leonard opted out and left, they would still be right around next season's projected $112.4 million cap. The Clippers likely can't recoup assets through an expensive sign-and-trade for Jackson either. While sign-and-trades for Early Bird free agents are technically legal, it's a moot point because the Clippers don't have the rights to sign him for anything more than slightly above the mid-level even if they deal him afterward. They can't cooperate on getting him paid an exorbitant sum by a non-space team. If Jackson leaves, he's leaving outright.
There is a benefit to their functional inability to sign-and-trade Jackson, though. It means teams without cap space can't entice him with promises of riches the Clippers can't provide. If they are going to get outbid here, it's going to be by a team with a significant amount of cap space. There are plenty of them this offseason ... but fewer realistic suitors for Jackson than you might think.
Spotrac projects eight teams will have more than the mid-level's worth of practical cap space next offseason. Oklahoma City is rebuilding. Memphis, Charlotte and San Antonio all have several younger guards that need minutes and shots. The Raptors could pursue Jackson, but they have Kyle Lowry's Bird Rights, so retaining him would be easier if they are planning to splurge on a guard this offseason. That leaves the Knicks, Heat and Mavericks.
While Jackson offers hypothetical benefits to any of those teams, remember, this is a buyer's market when it comes to point guards. Lowry, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dennis Schroder, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic and Patty Mills could all become available. If those teams splurge on other guards, Jackson might be out of luck in the space market unless any other teams surprisingly find their way below the cap.
There are teams that can do so, but most of them are rebuilding. Jackson's old team, the Pistons, isn't going to use cap space to bring him back. Neither would the Rockets or Cavaliers. Chicago might want to add a guard this offseason, but they'd likely emphasize defense next to Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. New Orleans and Detroit have both spent multiple recent first-round picks on guards. Orlando re-signed Markelle Fultz last offseason. There just isn't an obvious fit in the "can create space" crowd.
This is what the Clippers are likely banking on. Even if Jackson is worth more than the mid-level, it won't matter if no other team actually offers him a bigger deal. If that winds up being the case, the Clippers could then re-sign Jackson on an artificially limited contract. That might not matter much to him. Plenty of players leave money on the table for a variety of reasons. Right now, Jackson gets to play for a contender in the NBA's most desirable market alongside a close friend in Paul George. If he is hellbent on maximizing his earnings, though, there is one move he could make to combat these limitations. If he re-signs with the Clippers for one year this offseason, he would gain full Bird Rights in 2022. That would allow him to re-sign then for anything up to his max.
That would be an enormous risk on two levels. First, Jackson will almost certainly be able to secure a multiyear deal for himself this offseason at mid-level money. If he regresses at all next season, that might not be the case in 2022. He's already 31 years old and has a lengthy history of injuries. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Second, and perhaps more importantly: Early Bird contracts must last at least two years. This rule exists to prevent players from doing precisely what Jackson would want to do here in getting himself full Bird Rights a year later. That doesn't mean he can't get those full Bird Rights in 2022 by re-signing for one year, but it does mean he can't make the money he would on an Early Bird contract to do so. He would have to instead sign with the Clippers for either the minimum or their taxpayer mid-level exception. Both scenarios would cost him a significant amount of money for the 2021-22 season.
From that perspective, the Clippers remain Jackson's likeliest landing spot in free agency this offseason on a deal starting at that Early Bird max figure. But remember, this is a player that made the minimum this season. A month or two ago, he looked like he was headed for a similar deal this offseason. Jackson has been so incredible this postseason that his value is seemingly rising on a game-to-game basis. If he helps carry the Clippers to the Finals or a championship, that value is only going to continue to rise, and those cap space teams are going to get more and more interested. The Clippers would certainly accept that outcome, but it would be a bittersweet one. Right now, Jackson is playing himself out of the Clippers' price range.