Note: This post has been bumped to the top. Scroll down or click the following links to read Portland Trail Blazers GM Rich Cho's year-end thoughts.
Yesterday's season-wrapping chat between Ben and I revealed we are in concord regarding the single biggest issue facing the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2011 off-season. No surprise, it's the re-signing of Greg Oden. Everybody knows the situation: 82 games in four seasons, mammoth body and talent, huge footprint on the court but also a huge question mark...likely to be followed by as huge of a contract as he can muster. What do the Blazers do?
- Cut bait and let him go, refusing to make the one-year (approximately $9 million) qualifying offer allowed by the current CBA, making him a free agent on whatever open market develops after this summer's negotiations between players and owners.
- Make him that qualifying offer, a deal which he'd almost certainly accept given his current status. In essence the Blazers would be paying him that $9 million to play one more season, after which he'd become an unrestricted free agent in 2012, provided the terms of the CBA covering rookie-scale contracts remain the same.
- Try to entice him to sign a new, longer-term contract as a restricted free agent instead of accepting that qualifying offer, not knowing if he'll even be able to play but binding the team to him for another "X" number of years.
The advantages of Option 1 are no money committed and no more waiting on Oden. The disadvantage is flushing your recent #1 overall pick in the draft down the toilet, admitting you made a colossal, generation-changing mistake and risking compounding it if he ever plays well for someone else.
The advantage of Option 2 is clear from Oden's point of view: free money for a year and a chance to make even more next summer instead of having to beg for a contract coming off of injury. It's a no-lose proposition for him. From the Blazers' point of view they get another season to test drive their center but then have little or no control of the situation after that. It's close to a no-win for them. If he can't play or plays poorly they've wasted the $9 million and, as my friend Storyteller says, possibly paid for the privilege of rehabbing him for another team. If he can play well they may be auditioning him for every other team around the league and their high-priced offers which Portland may not be able to match. This is especially true if the salary cap gets harder as a result of the new CBA. Who knows what Portland will be allowed to offer in 2012? Therefore this middle ground yields no satisfying outcome in itself. If he stinks you should have done Option 1. If he plays well you should have done Option 3.
The disadvantage of Option 3 is money committed. The Blazers would have to make an offer high enough to entice Oden away from two free agent markets: this summer's and next summer's. They'd need to cover the qualifying offer money from next season and then extend the contract with enough pay that Oden and his agent won't be tempted to roll the dice. That means $9 million per year is the starting point and you add enticement from there. Meanwhile Portland will be rolling those same dice hoping that the kid can produce.
Nothing about this situation is a lock. There's no perfect answer. For several reasons, though, Option 3 makes the most sense for the Blazers.
- When you have a chance to sniff at a championship, you go for it. Franchises can struggle for decades without seeing that door open even a crack. The Blazers still have a toenail in there and Oden is the key to getting them through. Even a disjointed, not-quite-acclimated Oden solves so many problems for this team that it's easy to imagine Round 2 of the playoffs being a lock. As Ben mentioned in our previous talk, in the New West there's not going to be nearly as much difference between the second round and the conference championship as we're used to seeing. The odds may be long of Oden coming back with enough health and verve to make that difference but long odds beat no odds every time. You don't let the opportunity go by and settle for a predictable string of good showings which net you nothing in the long run.
- Messing with unrestricted free agency is a bad idea when you want the guy in question. It's out of your control. All it takes is one Crazy GM out there to blow a guy's salary way out of proportion. No matter what Oden's history, a seven-footer who takes up that much space and has that much raw power is more likely to make a GM go crazy than your normal player. You may end up spending more than you wanted but at least you still control how much you spend.
- A longer-term contract may seem expensive but may not end up costing the Blazers that much. Whatever the cap ends up being Portland is going to be over it even without Greg in the fold. They're not going to be trading flexibility or the ability to sign another player with the money they'd be saving by not signing him. $9-10 million per year isn't overpriced for a moderately good starting center in today's league, let alone a potentially dominating one. If Oden never plays again, well, other teams have albatrosses in that salary range for less reason. Brandon Roy's contract has the potential to be more damaging. You're in for several pennies with that situation, might as well be in for a pound for a chance to redeem the team.
Were I a member of Blazers management I would curse the heavens that I was stuck in this situation. Then I would draw up the flow charts and probably come to the conclusion that eliminating the most uncertainty possible, gaining the most control possible, and opening the door for the maximum possible benefit are the way to go here even if that means taking a gamble and risking some money. Any other response puts too much power in other people's hands and/or gives up on the highest possible aspirations this team can espouse. Unless Paul Allen closes the wallet and says, "No way" I go ahead and try to convince Greg to agree, in principle, to a longer-term deal.
Now here's the rub: If the Blazers had made their move before last October 31st they could have inked him to a deal on the spot. Since they didn't, their only chance at getting Oden long term is making the Qualifying Offer and getting him to reject it instead of accept it, promising that once he hits restricted free agency they will make him a deal that he'll be willing to sign. The problem? Even they won't know what that deal will be, as it will depend on the new CBA. In other words the sales job is, "We know that you could sign our offer, take $9 million guaranteed this year, and then do whatever you want next summer but Greg, baby, listen to this. We're going to make you a different offer. What's that? What terms, you ask? We don't know. But this'll be an offer of some sort. Greg, wait! Don't sign that $9 million contract yet! It's going to be, you know, an offer! That we can promise you. What if we can only give you $7 million per year, you ask? Put down that pen! Yes, we know that once rejected that $9 million won't come back and you'll be stuck playing for what we can pay you or that another team offers at the nadir of your career. But baby, this will be a long-term thing you're stuck with! Greg, baby? Greg? Hello?" Becoming a restricted free agent makes no sense for Oden this year when he could get paid the same to wait another year and become an unrestricted free agent, hopefully with a track record of playing behind him but no worse off if he doesn't.
Since the only way to retain Oden at all is through the Qualifying Offer (accepted for the single year or rejected and into free agency) and since his best path is clearly to sign that Q.O. for a year and go unrestricted next summer and since the Blazers can't even guarantee what they'll offer him on that longer-term deal until the new CBA is set, I don't see much hope for a happy ending here for the team. If I'm Greg's agent I'm screaming at him to take that one year offer and run. I do that unless I'm pretty sure that they guy is shot and won't make even $20 million for the whole rest of his career, so Portland's long-term deal, though nebulous, would be a steal if it adds up to more than $9 million. Obviously that's the one situation in which Portland wouldn't want to make the offer.
This may be what Oden meant when quoted the other day saying his career path isn't the team's choice to make, but his. The team is going to want one thing, Oden another, and the power lies in his hands completely whether he signs for one year or signs long-term. Nothing Portland can do can force him into the second path if the first is his goal...which it will almost certainly be. They can't even promise him that they can give him enough money to change his mind, making it worth his while.
Portland is almost certainly going to make Greg Oden a qualifying offer. It's the only way to keep him for sure. They should probably tell him they don't want him to sign it, that they want to give him more later. He's going to tell them he wants to sign it and see what the market will give him later, considering them among many options. That's a battle he's going to win. The good news is that he'll be in Portland for another season. The bad news is that after that he has no tangible reason to do so save money and it'll cost Portland a fortune to keep him whether he deserves it or not.