Who's Next?

Mail is coming in fast and furious with the start of the season.  Some folks want to know whether the 2-0 start is sustainable.  Some want perspective on the technical foul situation.  I'd like to see another week before weighing in definitively on either issue.  For those who can't wait, the answer to the first is, "Yes, with the asterisk that the Blazers need to get more consistent in their good trends to beat good teams that won't be satisfied with barely scratching out a lead in the third to get overtaken in the fourth.  It won't look the same if Portland's down 16 with 12 minutes to play."  The answer to the second is that the techs will eventually help but they need to modify and codify the criteria and perhaps the penalty because there's too much interpretive power for officials right now.  More on those later.

Other than that, the most consistent question asked via e-mail has to do with a semi-cryptic statement I threw in at the end of my analysis of the Jerryd Bayless trade.  Basically I said that the Blazers had entered a new era and we could expect to see more familiar names moved because of fit or finances.  In response plenty of people are inquiring which players are next up on the trading block.

This isn't rocket surgery, folks.  The Bayless trade revealed some of the principles on which these decisions are going to be made under this regime, at least in the immediate future:

1.  There are no sacred cows.  "Asset" is defined by expected contribution in the future, not value or cost in the past.  Bayless was a lottery pick who had shown flashes of brilliance.  He was one of the statement players for the team, certainly in the shadow of Roy, Aldridge, and Batum, but still prominent.  He wasn't a guy you'd normally give up on after two years, at least not without some second guessing about how that pick was used.  It didn't matter.  He was traded.  Sacred cows may return after the team has cycled to Cho-era players but right now nobody gets grandfathered in automatically.  When the Blazers decided a future first-rounder would provide more benefit than their young lottery pick they pulled the trigger.

2.  The days of theoretical depth are gone.  There's no question Bayless added depth on paper.  In fact the point guard lineup looks thin in his absence.  With the development of Portland's other guards, though, Jerryd wasn't going to be able to produce on the court unless other people sat withering.   What a player can supposedly do given ideal circumstances isn't as important as what they're likely to do given the team's actual circumstances.  See also:  Trading Martell Webster.

3.  Financial integrity factors into the equation.  Fans don't like to hear this.  It's not a bad thing, though.  Teams that don't budget tend to make the most expensive choices instead of the right ones.  Money spent loosely on a "kinda want him" player can't be spent later on an "absolutely need him" player.  Organizations benefit from the critical thought required to tell the difference between the two.

Let's connect the dots.

Everyone on the team outside of Wesley Matthews could be vulnerable under the first criterion, so that's no help other than a reminder not to exclude anyone off-hand.  One player comes under strong scrutiny under the second and third criteria, though.  That would be Joel Przybilla.  

Before we go any further, let me say I love Joel's game and appreciate his contributions to the team as one of its longest-tenured and best beloved players.  Joel has saved Portland's bacon on numerous occasions.  Whenever I mention names people always accuse me of hating or undervaluing players.  Neither applies here.  I love the guy and have been amazed at his growth as a Blazer. None of that erases the changing balance between Przybilla's contributions and costs this season...a balance that will tip solidly towards moving him.

Przybilla is going to be a valued Blazer for the first half of the year.  Portland needs him badly in Greg Oden's absence.  If Oden returns to play any serviceable minutes, however, Przybilla becomes the third center in the lineup.  Marcus Camby may play some power forward but he won't switch over exclusively, nor will Greg be so overwhelmingly effective that Camby isn't needed on the roster at all and Przybilla alone would suffice as the back-up.  Cemented in that third spot, Joel shifts from the practical depth chart onto the theoretical one.  Whatever his skills he'll not be able to employ them to the fullest.

That development alone might not be enough to mandate a trade, but Portland's financial situation adds plenty of kick.  A look at Storyteller's Contract Site shows Portland's current payroll at $74 million, give or take.  That's about $4 million over the luxury tax threshold.  If the team wants to get out of the tax penalty they need to shed that much salary.  Here is the list of players drawing $4 million or more this year:

Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Przybilla, Andre Miller, Greg Oden, Wesley Matthews

Everyone below this salary level makes $1.6 million or less, meaning three players would need to be dumped in order to clear the tax line.  That's impossible.  Of the $4 million+ players, five are starters and two are key bench players.  Przybilla sticks out as the only possible third-stringer in the bunch and the only guy not playing a crucial role when everyone is healthy.  In short, moving him is the only possible way for Portland to get out of the tax penalty.

Again, we have no argument about Joel leaving before mid-season.  The Blazers will happily pay the first half of his $7.4 million salary for the benefit they're going to get.  $3.7 million is a small price for that kind of insurance.  After that, though, the price goes way up.  You start with the other $3.7 million of his salary.  Then you have to add in the luxury tax penalty, approximately $4 million more.  Now you're paying $7.7 million for a half-season of work from a third option.  Then you have to eye the benefit for getting under the tax limit.  Every team below the threshold will receive a payment that's likely worth $4-5 million (on the upper end by my rough calculations) at the end of the season.  Now that $3.7 million in salary has become $7.7 million paid out plus you forfeit an extra $5 million coming back to you.  That is a big wad of dough for a guy playing 10 minutes per game tops...a $12.7 million difference on the ledger.  Would you give up $12.7 million for a half season from Joel Przybilla if you had Camby and Oden healthy, especially if one of your goals is to watch the bottom line?

The fiscally-responsible Blazers are going to look at this, look at whether they expect Joel to re-sign with the team or contribute big minutes in the future, and they're probably going to come to the conclusion that a deal makes sense.  Coach McMillan isn't going to like this.  Coaches want every legitimate player possible, especially when the player in question is Joel.  But from a management perspective it's a near no-brainer.

Around the trade deadline you're going to see the Blazers calling up the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom are paying in the mid $40-million range for their rosters...well under the cap.  I'm not sure Portland will be able to get either team to take Pryzbilla in exchange for a second-rounder straight up.  If either team wanted to re-sign him that might happen.  He'd be a fine fit either place.  But what would happen if the Blazers threw in $3 million cash?  That means the receiving team gets Joel almost for free for the rest of the year.  If they want to re-sign him they can.  If not he comes right off the books.  The cash outlay still makes sense for Portland because they don't pay his salary, they don't pay the extra $4 million for being over the tax line, and they still get the $4-5 million back at the end of the season, covering their cost and leaving a little left over.

That's why, provided nothing else changes, I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts you're going to see Joel moved, or at least offered, when the new year turns.

After Joel the next most likely trade possibility is our old friend Andre Miller.  Unlike Przybilla, Miller is and will remain a key piece as long as he's in a Blazer uniform, so he's hardly an automatic move.  For that same reason he can't be dumped to get out of luxury tax territory like Joel can.  But he still begs the "Are we getting the most out of him and vice-versa?" question and that makes him vulnerable.  If a team with a strong-but-expensive point guard decided to rebuild and wanted out of that point guard's contract, Miller and Przybilla make about $14.5 million of cap ballast to throw into the deal.  That kind of move almost never happens.  Expiring contracts are seldom as valuable as they seem.  But if the magic opportunity arose the team would look hard, tax or no tax.   Nevertheless, Miller is a distant second to Joel in the trade line.  Something special would have to happen for Andre to get moved.  If nothing unusual does happen (and Greg Oden plays this year), Joel will be.

These are not the only two trade possibilities, simply the most likely.  Remember the first criterion, though.  Nobody is safe.  The only thing I'm sure of in this new era is that moves will happen.  It's just a matter of who, when, and why.

You may find other permutations made possible under these criteria.  If so, do share.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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