Can the Trail Blazers Preserve Their Cap Space?

One of the common refrains surrounding Hibbertmania this week is, "If Plan A doesn't work, Plan B should be preserving Portland's cap space and trying again in 2013-14." We've heard Neil Olshey claim it as a viable strategy. It's been echoed by several readers here. I've alluded to the possibility in several VideoCasts, particularly when considering the Nicolas Batum situation from a financial standpoint. How practical of an option is it really, though? What would the Blazers need to do in order to carry over significant cap space next summer?

One of the tricky things when talking about cap space is the multiple options involved. After all, we're not talking abstract numbers. What you do with the space matters. Every team in the league has a wall-sized flow chart of possible decisions which could raise or lower their cap number. We can't cover every contingency here, but we'll try to detail broad choices. All information comes from the always-excellent Storyteller'scontracts.com. Numbers are rounded.

Absent trades, and including this year's two first-round picks, the Blazers are committed to roughly $26.5 million in contracts next season. This includes only four players though: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard, and Meyers Leonard. That's the base. If the Blazers retained only those four players plus another first-round pick into July of 2013, assuming the pick was mid-lottery level and adding in mandatory roster minimums, they'd be on the books for roughly $32.5 million. Assuming a cap around $58 million, this would leave the Blazers somewhere around $25.5 million in cap space...slightly more than they started this off-season with. (Keep in mind that this summer's total is eaten into by cap holds and young players already retained.)

Notice what this entails, however. In order to reach this level of cap largess the Blazers would need to retain NO PLAYERS whose salary impacted the 2013-14 season. No Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams. No rights to Joel Freeland or Victor Claver. No Nicolas Batum. No players signed or traded for this season whose contracts ran beyond June.

Once you start adding players back in the number will shrink. Let's do so in three broad categories.

If you assume the Blazers pick up options on their young trio of Smith, Babbitt, and Williams you have to add $6.7 million to the mix. Add in your 2013 pick and roster minimums and your cap commitment is now $37.8 million, leaving you $20.2 million free.

Joel Freeland and Victor Claver take up space even if they're unsigned. That totals $2 million. If you retain their rights you're up to $39.3 million committed, $18.7 million available.

(For the mathematicians among us, notice that each salary added also removes a minimum salary roster charge, so the numbers aren't changing by the exact difference in salary.)

Finally, you have Nicolas Batum. If the Blazers let him go this summer and do not replace him they could carry over the the balance we've just stated. If they match a $9 million offer on him, though, their cap room goes way down. Now their cap burden is $47.8 million, leaving them roughly $10.2 million to play with.

OK...$10.2 million is not bad. It's far short of being able to offer a Hibbert-level deal but you can get a good free agent with that or make an unbalanced trade or two.

However, look at the roster the Blazers have to field in 2012-13 to reach even that number:

PG: Damian Lillard, Nolan Smith

SG: Wesley Matthews, Elliot Williams

SF: Nicolas Batum, Luke Babbitt

PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, Shawne Williams

C: Meyers Leonard, Kurt Thomas

They cannot bring over Freeland or Claver. They need to sign two more players in 2012-13 just to make a roster of 12. None of those players can have contracts that run more than a year. That means you're either looking at some bottom of the barrel minimum-contract signings or you're trading for players with expiring contracts. The latter will be difficult without losing talent. The former won't help this lineup much.

You like the starters in this lineup from point guard to power forward but notice how thin and unproven the bench is and how few big men you're fielding. Over an 82-game schedule you're going to run into trouble. Really you're all but throwing the 2012-13 to get to your cap space in July of next year. It's hard to imagine the Blazers actually doing this.

The only other alternative I see to preserve cap space is letting Batum go this summer. That at least buys you $9 million next year. But now you're condemning the 2012-13 season to hell instead of purgatory.

In short, while it's possible for the Blazers to keep cap space alive in 2013, the prospect is neither easy nor pleasant. It's certainly not a matter to be treated cavalierly, as in, "Well if this doesn't work we'll just do that." Absent roster-shifting trades, the "that" means twisting rotation and contracts like so many pretzels and ending up with low returns on a long season.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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