The Portland Trail Blazers' Cap Situation Heading into Summer, 2009

Yesterday Ben wrote a great piece on lopsided/asymmetrical trades, made possible by one team (in this case the Blazers) being under the salary cap and thus being able to absorb more salary than they send out.  This practically begs us to check up on Portland's salary cap situation this summer.  How lopsided can those trades be?  A few things have evolved since the last time we talked about this subject, including most of a season's worth of player evaluation.  This gives us at least a foothold for analysis of Portland's probable outlook, which we'll discuss at the end of the piece.

A quick look at Storyteller's recently-updated salary site shows us that Portland has the following players under guaranteed contract this summer:

 

Darius Miles

$9.00 million

Joel Przybilla

$6.86 million

LaMarcus Aldridge

$5.84 million

Greg Oden

$5.36 million

Martell Webster

$4.32 million

Brandon Roy

$3.91 million

Jerryd Bayless

$2.14 million

Sergio Rodriguez

$1.58 million

Rudy Fernandez

$1.17 million

Nicolas Batum

$1.12 million

#24 Pick

$0.93 million

Petteri Koponen

$0.82 million

Joel Freeland

$0.82 million

 

TOTAL:  approx. $43.9 million

ESTIMATED SALARY CAP:  $57.3 million

ESTIMATED DIFFERENCE:  $13.4 million

This would be the greatest conceivable amount of cap space the Blazers could wield this summer, barring a trade.  And that's a bunch.  Want to trade Sergio Rodriguez for Chris Paul?  You can do that.  Want to offer Ramon Sessions the max allowable?  You can do that and have plenty left over.  Want to package Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, and Martell Webster to Chicago for Kirk Hinrich AND Luol Deng?  You can do that.  It's Fast Kevin's world of deals out there for the asking.

But don't overheat your exhaust pipes there, Roger Ramjet.

This is the NBA and salary cap talk in the NBA means wrinkles.  And the Blazers have enough to keep Oil of Olay in business for a couple weeks at least.  They include...

THE TWO OPTION PLAYERS

The Blazers have options on two players:

Steve Blake                  $4.00 million

Travis Outlaw               $3.60 million

Each is in the last year of their contract.  The Blazers must make a decision whether to exercise those options by the end of June.  If Portland does exercise these options then those salary figures count directly against the cap.  If Portland does not exercise these options then the cap space remains free.  Up to $7.6 of the potential $13.4 million in cap space could be spent retaining these two players.

THE POTENTIAL FREE AGENT

The Blazers actually have four potential free agents this summer but I'm not going to spend much time agonizing Raef LaFrentz, Michael Ruffin, or Shavlik Randolph.  There's a small chance the Blazers could re-sign one of them to make a deal work somewhere but let's worry about that when it happens.  More likely they'll simply be renounced.

The important thing to know is that until they're renounced free agents count against the cap of the team they last played for, just in case that team wants to re-sign them using its incumbent cap prerogatives.  And Portland has a semi-intriguing restricted free agent in Channing Frye.  One of four things is going to happen with him.

1.  They're going to renounce him just like the other three free agents, meaning that he'll not count against the cap at all.

2.  They're going to offer a one-year qualifying offer to him which he'll immediately accept, meaning he'll add $4.26 million to Portland's cap burden.

3.  They're going to offer a qualifying offer to him which he won't accept right away, preferring to test the restricted free agent waters.  In that case he'll count $9.49 million against the cap until he signs a contract somewhere, either for the original offer or some other offer that another team makes and Portland has the right to match.  After a new contract is signed the actual amount of the contract will count against Portland's cap if Portland re-signs him.

4.  They're going to agree to a different, multi-year contract and he'll count against the cap for its amount.

Depending on what the Blazers and Channing decide, he could have anywhere from zero impact to $9.5 million of impact on the cap.

POTENTIAL DRAFT-DAY TRADES

Many have speculated that the Blazers will move up in the draft by trading the 24th pick, using the Michael Ruffin trade exception to acquire a pick that somebody wants to dump, or simply buying another pick outright.  Each move has associated cap costs.

The #5 pick of the Washington Wizards has been bandied about as the highest pick the Blazers could acquire.  That pick would add $2.72 million to Portland's salary cap this summer.  This graduates downward by pick.  Chicago's #16 selection would cost the Blazers $1.33 million in cap space.

Obviously the cap would be modified downward by any assets from the list above that the Blazers traded away in return, but if they buy a pick or use the trade exception those figures will simply be added to the current total.

THE TOTALS

So...barring pre-draft trades here's your options menu of salary cap totals.

--Retain only the players under guaranteed contract or hold:  $43.9 million, $13.4 million in cap space.

--Retain only guaranteed players plus Steve Blake:  $47.9 million, $9.4 million in space

--Retain only guaranteed players plus Travis Outlaw:  $47.5 million, $9.8 million in space

--Retain guaranteed players plus both Blake and Outlaw:  $51.5 million, $5.8 million in space.

--Retain Channing Frye with a deal signed:  Add $4.3 million to cap and take away that much space.

--Retain Channing Frye without a deal signed:  Add $9.5 million to cap and take away that much space.

As you can see, that runs the gamut between the max amount and zero, depending on the Blazers' decisions.

ANALYSIS

The Blazers obviously have some interesting choices before them in the next few weeks.  Let's look at the immediate ones first.

Do you exercise your options on Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw?

Looking from the current roster standpoint you have to exercise the option on Steve Blake.  He's your starting point guard.  He costs a paltry $4 million.  You don't have any replacement ready in the wings.  It's a serious no-brainer.

On the other hand he's a big chunk of cap space, almost a third of your projected wiggle-room for the summer.  If you knew you were going to make an unbeatable offer to another free agent point guard and/or you had a rock-solid trade ready with that cap space, you could take the risk of releasing him.  The problem with either of those scenarios is that the release must pre-date the signing or trade.  If things fall through in the intervening time you're up the creek.

Because of this I'd say there's a 90% chance we'll see Blake's option picked up.  If we don't you know something major is up.

Travis Outlaw doesn't leave the same sized roster hole as Blake does but he's younger, has more potential, and is worth more in trade.  The question here is, "In a worst-case scenario (i.e. you don't care about his talent and are just extending him to trade him) do you think Travis is worth more than $3.6 million in trade value?"  In almost every conceivable case the answer is going to be yes.  Therefore there's virtually no chance you'll see the Blazers release Travis outright to save $3.6 million in flexibility.  Because of this for all intents and purposes you can consider Portland's open cap space no greater than $9.8 million.

What Do You Do With Channing Frye?

The Channing case has far more permutations than those of Blake or Outlaw.  For one thing the options to deal with him are more complex than exercising a one-year extension or not.  Channing and his agent have some say in how the proceedings go.  You can't force him to sign a contract early, which would be the key to the Blazers retaining him painlessly.  Both parties have to agree in order for anything to happen.  We can see at least part of Portland's agenda.  Channing's may or may not fit.

From Portland's end re-signing Channing may not be a top priority.  He doesn't have the indispensible roster role of Steve Blake.  He doesn't have the guaranteed trade value outweighing his salary that Travis has.  Plenty of teams would be interested in Channing.  Some might not think he was worth $4.3 million.  Others might think he was worth that but would balk at him only being on a one-year deal, renegotiating (presumably for more money) next year.  Those to whom an expiring contract would be attractive would probably want more than just $4.3 million coming off the cap.  On a one-year deal Channing is kind of in a no-man's land when it comes to trading:  not quite productive enough, not quite cheap enough, not quite guaranteed enough, not quite enough cap relief.  He could still be dealt for any of these reasons to the right team, but it's not a lock anywhere.

Certain problems resolve but others increase if you sign him to a multi-year deal.  Other teams could get him at a good rate but they'd have to want him for sure.  That limits your trading options to a few partners, though it may increase the interest of those teams.

From Channing's perspective signing a contract quickly with the Blazers may not be a top priority.  I'm sure he enjoys the atmosphere here but he's in rotation hell.  He's unsure of his future role.  He may not have any.  If he accepts a one-year qualifying offer then he has a single season to prove his worth before becoming an unrestricted free agent.  If he can't get playing time this year his track record going into next year's free agency will be poor and the offers likely low.  He may prefer to at least look at offers other teams could make to him as a restricted free agent, which Portland would have the right to match.  That would keep him from signing an offer from the Blazers early.

In neither case does it seem likely that the two sides negotiate a deal early on.  That means Portland is likely to go into the summer with Channing's situation unresolved.

As long as Channing is not signed he counts against the cap for $9.5 million, either substantially reducing or completely eliminating Portland's cap space for the summer, depending on who else they retain.  One solution is for the Blazers to release him outright, not issuing any qualifying offer and not retaining any rights to him.  In that case he has no hold on Portland's cap anymore.  Another solution is for Portland to extend the qualifying offer to hedge bets (they could retain him later on if there were no better options) knowing they could rescind the offer at any time before late-July without prejudice and at any time after that with Channing's agreement.  Either one of these seems a likely solution.  We may hear before the end of the month that the Blazers and Channing are parting ways.  We may hear that Portland has extended an offer.  This doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to keep him.

If neither of these happen--if we see a deal done soon--I'd bet it means that a trade is in the works directly involving Channing.  The Blazers either know or are betting that some other team wants him and values him at least $4.2 million worth.  In any case, that $4.2 million would be targeted at that team and sacrificed in cap flexibility.

What Do You Do About the Draft?

This depends on what kind of deals you think you can make and how valuable cap space/flexibility is to you when making those deals.  If the Blazers are in a position where they need every million they can get in cap room then they need to trade out of this draft or at least avoid moving higher.  You'd get about a million by getting out of the draft.  You'd get up to $1.6 million more by renouncing your rights to your overseas prospects (Koponen and Freeland).   You only do these things if you know that last $2.5 million in space is critical, but they can be done.

If the Blazers have some wiggle room then they can move up quite a few spaces without blowing too much extra dough.  If, for instance, your goal was to offer Ramon Sessions $8 million per year you can actually get pretty far up in the draft while still retaining Outlaw and Blake and still make that happen, as long as they trade the #24 pick to do so.

Acquiring higher picks without trading away #24, which is the scenario you'd have to use if you posit other teams dumping picks to avoid salary, gets more problematic.  Assuming you retain Blake and Outlaw then every million dollars extra salary you take on is one-sixth of your remaining space.  You want to get into the middle lottery?  You're talking a third of your flexibility gone.  That's not impossible, but it's a big chunk.

Do You Retain Your Exceptions?

Most people are familiar with the mid-level and bi-annual salary cap exceptions, allowing teams over the cap to sign extra players.  What you might not know is that both exceptions count as holds against the cap if you are under the cap limit.  The Blazers will probably be under the cap but these cap holds (over $10 million) would take away much, if not all, of the team's flexibility.  The exception they got in the Michael Ruffin trade also counts as $3 million against the cap.  All of these exceptions can be renounced, however. 

If the Blazers are going to retain enough of their current players and/or acquire enough draft picks to push them near the cap limit they may want to retain some or all of these exceptions.  If not they'll have to renounce them in order to use their full available cap space.

The one loophole would be the Ruffin trade exception.  As explained in the draft section it's the one exception that can be used before the new year kicks in come July.  But anything you get with that exception cuts your cap space by a corresponding amount.

What WILL the Blazers Do?

It's hard to pin down concrete answers without seeing their priority sheet, but if I had to guess I'd say the following would happen:

1.  The Blazers will exercise options on Blake and Outlaw, trimming their available cap space to $5.8 million.

2.  The Blazers will make a hedge-bet, one-year qualifying offer to Channing Frye understanding that he's not likely to sign it and that they're going to rescind it and renounce him if a better offer comes along.  They'll not have a dime of cap space until he signs or they do rescind it but the offer gives them a chance to explore options until July.  They can't really use the cap space before then anyway.  If they find a trading partner who wants Channing in the deal (say someone who's interested in him but wouldn't have the money to sign him on the open market) they still have that option available.  Likely they'll end up releasing him anyway.

3.  Unless their franchise player is available on the cheap the Blazers will not move up in the draft nor end up acquiring extra picks.  They'll take the 24th selection if they see any prospects they like, otherwise they'll try to move it for a second-rounder without the guaranteed contract. 

4.  The Blazers will renounce their exceptions for the year but, much as with Channing, not until after they've seen the lay of the land.

5.  The Blazers will work like mad to combine Outlaw, Blake, Bayless, Fernandez, Rodriguez, and/or Webster in some kind of package that gets them within $5 million of a salary of an available player they really covet. (Or a couple million plus throwing Frye in to sweeten the deal.)

Plan B would be renouncing Blake and Frye and making a free-agent offer to a guy like Ramon Sessions.

Either way, we should know more in a couple weeks when we hear who the Blazers will retain and whether they'll make an offer to Channing Frye.

A side note:  You can see clearly why Blazer management went into a near-apoplectic fit when Darius Miles went back on the salary cap.  Imagine these numbers with $9 million added to the ledger in the Blazers' favor.  Now all of a sudden you can retain everybody (maybe not Channing), acquire an extra draft pick, and still throw around $10+ million in the free agent market or in asymmetrical trades.  That's some serious lost leverage for Pritchard and company.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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