As of right now, the Portland Trail Blazers have elected to carry guard Brandon Roy into training camp. Barring a catastrophe, the team will pass on its opportunity to waive him via the Amnesty Clause, instead expecting and hoping that he will be on the regular season roster, perhaps even as a starter. Dating back to October, when reports first crystallized that the Amnesty Clause could be used over multiple years, this is the decision I anticipated, although this story has already been so unpredictable and the behavior and comments of the principals have been so erratic that it's difficult to imagine that Roy feels much comfort at this point. That should change as reality sets in (and the deadline passes) over the next few weeks. For the sake of everyone involved, cross your fingers and hope there is no training camp catastrophe.
Why did the Blazers opt to retain Roy? What factors influenced this decision? Let's break it down.
1. Winning Now
Blazers owner Paul Allen wants to win now. He's thrown three talented executives -- Tom Penn, Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho -- from his moving vehicle over the last 18 months or so. Had a playoff series victory been delivered in any of the last three seasons, things almost certainly would have played out differently. While Allen's basketball knowledge is drastically overrated by those who work for him, likely out of job-preserving necessity, it doesn't take a computer genius to realize that a rotation that relies on Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams to play meaningful backcourt minutes and trots out veteran center Marcus Camby on back-to-back-to-backs is not exactly an ideal formula for postseason success. If you waive Roy, you compromise your ability to win now even if you open up a Pandora's box regarding how you continue to see All-Star play from LaMarcus Aldridge and how you get meaningful development from Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Allen almost certainly does not have the patience to toss away a season at this point, especially if there is no readily available alternative for short-term postseason success.
2. Lack Of Available Alternatives
The Blazers are in the luxury tax and waiving Roy would not get them below the salary cap, so adding talent is mostly a damned if you do, damned if you don't predicament, at least until the trade deadline. Flexibility is severely limited now and Portland's available trade assets aren't that great so true roster help might not emerge until next summer at the earliest.
Restoring the MLE was one of the major immediate cap benefits of waiving Roy but if it doesn't net you a difference-maker who you feel great about, the benefit looks a lot better on paper than it does on the court. Blazers Acting GM Chad Buchanan essentially admitted as much on Monday: this is a terrible free agent class and the type of player the Blazers would be able to land with their Mid-Level Exception isn't likely to be a game-changer. He also, in the team's opinion, isn't likely to be significantly better than a Mini Mid-Level Exception player or even a Veteran Minimum player. My guess is that a player like Jamal Crawford is asking way too much and a guy like Carl Landry is getting too much interest for the Blazers to feel confident they can land him. The roster math breaks down like this...
Brandon Roy + Mini MLE player or Veteran Minimum player > MLE player + Veteran Minimum player
3. Individual Motives
I laid it out in essay form here. The way that this Amnesty decision was getting made was by owner Paul Allen deciding that he wanted the immediate financial benefits. If you look at the other major decision-makers, they all have good reason(s) to keep Roy.
Coach Nate McMillan: He uses the word "young" like it's a slur and has shown a preference for proven players time and again when he's had the choice. He is totally familiar Roy, has given him as much authority as almost any player in the league at various times, and has experience managing his minutes through injuries. Roy is a known commodity with the potential for high upside. That's better in a coach's eyes than an unknown free agent target who will likely be a mid-line NBA player.
Acting GM Chad Buchanan: He talks about how he has to separate the personal from the business a lot. It's more difficult to do that with Roy than with anyone else on the roster by a country mile. He carries himself like a superstar, his athletic accomplishments have not been matched by anyone else in the building, he's delivered more smiles and memories per capita than anyone in the state, he's an incredibly effective and persuasive speaker, and he's the type of player who attracts supporters like a magnet. Roy, even now, promises hope, especially to those closest to him. Nate McMillan referred to him as an All-Star and the likely starter on Monday, despite 18 months of play to the contrary, and Buchanan and Blazers president Larry Miller had no problem raising expectations for Roy, which came off as a surprise given the medical history involved.
Let's not forget that Buchanan and the rest of the executives are making decisions with a gun resting squarely on their temples. If your job depended on it, would you be willing to advocate your boss pay $63 million to get nothing from your most popular employee so that you could spend even more of his money on Craig's List to bring in an unknown replacement, knowing that you have another job opening you need to address either way? If your job depended on it, wouldn't you fall back first on what you know best?
President Larry Miller: Similar situation to Buchanan, although this is the man who promised to place a dollar in Allen's hand to represent the fact that he turned a profit. Guess what? Requesting a $63 million check to scuttle the team's household name and sink the season's playoff hopes is not the same as putting a dollar in someone's hand.
Miller is serious when he talks about loyalty to Roy and center Greg Oden. That's the man he wants to be. If Allen didn't exist, or if Allen's personality was less whimsical, the identity of the Blazers brass would be a sort of old-fashioned loyalty where word is bond and Miller makes everything right. That said, Miller would call a press conference on Tuesday to waive Roy and not think twice if Allen changed his mind overnight. Points being: He has a vested financial and basketball interest in Roy's return and he has public relations credibility at stake. Given his druthers, Roy would be back; the only thing to trump that would be the boss's wish, which always trumps everything.
Owner Paul Allen: As I wrote last week, this broke down to a simple choice. Pay a lot for nothing or pay a lot a lot for whatever Roy can give you in 2011-2012. The multi-year amnesty does not commit Allen to Roy for anything after this season. Even better, Allen effectively gets to enjoy a psuedo-team option on every year that's left on Roy's deal from a cap and tax perspective. The major cost in giving Roy his test year is the luxury tax bill. If it doesn't work out, a full-scale, blow-up style rebuild is much easier to pursue next summer than it is right now given the other contract situations on the books. Allen bites the luxury tax bullet now in the hope that Roy can fill out a spot in Portland's thin rotation and deliver some more magic in the playoffs.
The bill for the test year -- somewhere between $8 million and $16 million or so, depending on the moves that come -- isn't crippling, especially now that Allen and his fellow owners have re-worked the financial framework of the NBA in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. With a billion-plus worth of concessions in hand, be prepared for a spending spree around the league when free agency comes on Friday.
Business / Fans: President Larry Miller mentioned the "fan factor" last week and that's lip service at least to some degree. But those at the top levels of the business side consider the Blazers to be an egalitarian member of the Portland community, making community service, environmentally friendly practices and social networking top priorities. These decision-makers want desperately to be the "good guys" and they take it personally when negative reports about Allen or the Vulcans surface. It's fair to say that there's an element that feels unappreciated for the many, many good charitable works the team does. Coldly waiving Roy with no clear "next step" would take a real chunk out of that identity.
I was at the team's offices the morning after Pritchard was fired and, as you might imagine, it wasn't a particularly pretty sight given Pritchard's internal popularity and the team's positive momentum at that time. The scene the night before, draft night, was similar, although it was shared looks of total shock and bewilderment rather than sadness, because the events hadn't yet sunk in and denial was still in play. Losing Pritchard was a nightmare for the team's decision-makers and employees. Losing Cho was different -- "We barely knew the guy and he was so quiet and impersonal" -- but parting with Roy would have been another nightmare, coming on the heels of an ugly lockout. The decision-makers understand intuitively how many fans would react to Roy's departure because they know how they would feel if Roy was cast out in difficult circumstances.
(The fact that he sells tickets and jerseys in volume helps too.)
4. Preventing Backslide
If I had to put one phrase on the organization's philosophy over the last few years -- since the water started getting hot for former GM Kevin Pritchard -- it would be "preventing backslide." Trading for Marcus Camby prevented a backslide that would have resulted from the Greg Oden injury. Inking Camby to a big-dollar extension did the same. Trading for Gerald Wallace prevented multiple assets from going unused and added a near-star piece that didn't fit perfectly but ensured that the team would make the playoffs. Trading Andre Miller for Raymond Felton prevented the backslide associated with Miller's age. Extending the qualifying offer to Greg Oden prevented a major public relations backslide and kept hope alive without actually taking a step towards it (yet). The same goes for a test year for Brandon Roy.
This becomes another way of looking at item No. 1 on this list. The Blazers are almost certainly better this year with Roy than without him. Even if he likely won't be enough to push them over the top towards meaningful progress, keeping him fits the pattern of making moves designed to stave off a trip to the lottery. It's incredibly difficult to "Rise With Us" or "Uprise" if you're dumping the most well-known player for zilch. The post-Rise future is coming, eventually, but the organization has been running from it for a few years now.
5. Power of Procrastination
I touched on this one back in October without going into much detail. This goes for the NBA as much as it goes for everyday life. Waiving Roy is going to be a painful goodbye, whenever it happens. A natural human response is to delay that pain for as long as possible, especially if there are extenuating circumstances subject to change (health, roster makeup, etc.). We often tell ourselves that we procrastinate in tough situations for the betterment of the other party. In reality, we benefit from waiting too. There's always that hope that the situation will change either to remove the difficulty of the decision (Roy gets injured, he simply can't play) or make the decision unnecessary (Roy returns to All-Star form, he shows he can be a starter). There's also the ever-present psychological bogeyman -- "What if I make the decision now and it comes back to bite me immediately?" -- that reinforces the desire to procrastinate. Waiting a year allows Roy to prove it -- or not prove it -- on the court. Perhaps more importantly, it keeps a number of hands blood-free, so to speak.
It would have taken either a bold recommendation from a management staff member or a firm decision on behalf of ownership to overcome the momentum from all of those factors. As of today, neither has emerged. Be sure to check back tomorrow.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter