Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Cap Rules, Centers, Playoffs vs. Tank, and More!

Harry How

Dave answers reader questions about Portland's cap situation this summer, possible center acquisitions, the playoffs vs lottery debate, various aspects of coaching, and more.

Time for another edition of the Mailbag, this one all about upcoming off-season moves. We'll start with a general cap question and move to specifics.

Dave,

Can you explain in regular people terms how the new CBA rules apply to the blazers this coming off season? MLE? RMLE? I get confused by the numbers and acronyms.

Tim

Oh...I probably could. But I decided it would be more fun to bring in a guest expert. Jeff "Storyteller" Kramer is one of the foremost experts on salary cap matters you're likely to find. He was gracious enough to take a stab at this for us. Here's Jeff:

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When it comes to issues regarding the salary cap, the Collective Bargaining Agreement is both very simple and very complex. It's very simple in the sense that there is only one basic rule for teams to follow - a team cannot make a player transaction (ie, trade for a player or sign a player) if doing so would put their team salary figure above the salary cap amount for that season. However, it's very complex because there are a dozen different exceptions to that one rule. Those exceptions have long names that often get shortened to acronyms (for example, the Mid-Level Exception becomes the "MLE") or to phrases (for example, the Qualifying Veteran Free Agent Exception is better known as "Bird Rights"). All of this to say that I understand how salary/CBA issues can be very confusing. So here's my best shot at trying to simplify the issue for the Blazers:

This summer, there will be 2 types of teams - those that make player transactions using cap space and those that make player transactions using exceptions. Most teams will probably be above the salary cap figure and have to use exceptions to acquire new players. But it would appear that Portland could be under the cap when the new salary cap season starts on July 1st.

Right now, the Trail Blazers are scheduled to pay $47.4 million in 2013-14 to 11 players - Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Lillard, Freeland, Leonard, Claver, Barton, Jeffries, Pavlovic and Price. However, the last 3 players in that list have non-guaranteed contracts for 2013-14, meaning that Portland could waive them and their contracts wouldn't count against the cap. If they released all 3, their financial commitment to the other 8 guaranteed players would be $43.2 million. Plus, they might or might not have their own 1st round pick in the 2013 draft. If they end up not having to send it to the Charlotte Bobcats, that drafted player will count somewhere between $1.6 and $4.4 million against the cap (depending on which pick it turns out to be).

So, if we assume that next season's salary cap will be about $60 million (I use this figure because of this tweet from noted CBA expert Larry Coon), Portland could have a lot of cap room. What might prevent this from happening? Well, they could make a trade during the next month that adds significant salary for the 2013-14 season. Or they could decide to hold onto the free agent rights of J.J. Hickson, instead of renouncing him. Or they could make another decision between now and July that cuts into their potential cap room. But in all likelihood, the Trail Blazers will have a significant amount of cap room that they can use to fill their roster this summer.

If the team does end up with cap room (and I think they will), the following rules will apply to the Blazers:
1) They could use their cap room to sign one or more free agents. They still have to adhere to the rules about maximum salary allowable for players, but they could theoretically use all of their cap room in this way.
2) They could use their cap room to make one or more trades. Portland's only limit would be the amount of cap room they held. So if, for example, they had $15 million in cap room, they could trade a future draft pick for a player making $15 million or less. Or they could trade a player making $5 million for 2 players whose salary was a combined $20 million or less.
3) As long as they had cap room, they would not be able to use any exceptions.
4) Once their cap room was used up, they would be given what is known as the "Room Exception", which would allow them to go over the cap to sign a player for no more than $2.652 million in the first year of his contract, or a combination of players whose first year salary combined was no larger than $2.652 million.
5) Once their cap room was used up, they could also go over the cap to sign a free agent for a minimum salary amount. Minimum salary varies from player to player, based on the number of years experience that they have in the NBA. For a rookie in 2013-14, the minimum salary will be $490,180 but for a player with 10 years experience or more, the minimum salary will be $1,399,507.

My best guess is that Portland will have about $13.5 million in cap space - that's assuming they end up with the #12 pick. Getting a different pick (or losing it to Charlotte) would mean a slight adjustment in the final number.

That's the simplest explanation I can offer while still trying to paint a relatively complete picture of the financial landscape that Portland will probably find themselves in this summer.

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Thanks, Jeff!

Summing up: The mostly likely scenario for Portland this summer will be playing with $13.5 million in cap space to offer a player or players, plus $2.65 million more to offer a different player or players, plus a draft pick and the ability to sign players to minimum contracts.

Jeff's website, by the way, is Storyteller's Contracts. His well-organized, accurate data has made me look smarter than I really am on multiple occasions.

Dave,

Dwight Howard. Can/should the Blazers get him? Could Neil Olshey pull another Chris Paul signing and get Portland its marquee center?

Raven

In the abstract, on a pure talent basis, yes...you take that shot if you have it. Some worry about his back issues but the chance to get a defender, rebounder, 20 ppg scorer, and future hall-of-famer is more than worth the risk.

This is a pipe dream for a couple of reasons, though. First, how do you get him to come here? If you cloned Neil Olshey four times over, did it again in bass form for a subwoofing Neil Olshey, and played his pitch repeatedly in 5.1 Surround Sound he still couldn't talk smoothly enough to sell Howard on the Blazers over any number of other teams. "Gee Dwight, we need you and we'll make you the starter" only applies to, well...every team in the league, right? Fans want to talk about championship chances and the potential for upward mobility being attractive, but stars looking for a rising team tend to go to teams that are...I don't know...actually rising. The best the Blazers can offer is, "We'll sure be rising if we get you!" Again, this applies to every team in the league. And how many of those are closer to a title than Portland is now?

Plus a quick look at Storyteller's salary page (see what I did there?) tells me that Howard is making $19.5 million this season. If you want him so badly and see such a golden future with him, do you think he'll be taking a pay cut to sign with you? Not likely. In order to fit $19 million onto the books the Blazers would have to trade away Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum for nothing. That'd make sense from a talent standpoint but now look at the state of your team. You have Howard, Aldridge, Lillard, and one wing. You still have no bench to speak of. You have no money to sign anybody to much more than a minimum contract and won't have anything more than the MLE to offer for years and years. The Blazers would probably still do that but how's your selling point of a strong team around him looking to Howard now? You better get Olshey's pitch in 7.1 surround. And that Big 3-plus-1 better be ready to play a bazillion minutes. By the way, anybody remember those injury problems? Bazillion Minutes + Injury Problems = No Bueno.

So...Howard? Not gonna happen.

Dave,

Sacramento has got to be getting tired of the antics of DeMarcus Cousins. Would he be a good get for Portland? How would he fit with LaMarcus on the court? How about off the court? Have the Blazers got enough ammo to swing that kind of deal?

Andy

This is not as clear cut of a match as Howard would be. The kid's got talent. The kid's got attitude. Neither one of them is the prime concern. You'd wonder how he'd fit into a trust-based offense when the first word out of his mouth offensively is "Gimme!" and the second and third are "Gimme again!" You also wonder how well he'd perform on defense if his every wish wasn't fulfilled. You'd also be desperately depending on him to perform, as you have no back-up plan. As the Kings are finding out, that's a bad situation to get stuck in with temperamental, immature players.

Whatever you think of his relationship with the Kings, next year they're going to be the Sonics. "We just traded away the team's most promising talent and we're really, really, really going to suck now" is a poor introduction for a brand new team in town. Unless the package is eye-popping or the new owners are inordinately basketball-savvy and far-sighted, I don't see the team dealing him yet.

Speaking of packages, could the Blazers put together a sufficient amount of talent to pry him loose, even taking on a bad contract in exchange? I doubt it. Not without gutting the team and thus moving laterally.

But if the stars aligned then yes, I think the Blazers would have to take a chance here too for one simple reason: Storyteller's site tells me that this is the only way the Blazers could possibly get a good (and potentially more than good) starting center for under $5 million. In fact this is likely the only way the Blazers could get that combination of production and potential for under $12 million. Fill my starting center position and leave me $8.5 million in cap space to play with? I don't care how many incidents the guy has had. Sign me up!

Hey Dave,

Since the Starting Center position is still a need for us I wanted to get your opinion on a potential trade for Al Horford. Atlanta has injuries and i think we could be a potential trade partner with them. Do you think Atlanta is willing to part with Horford if a good trade came their way or is Horford untouchable? Say Matthews and JJ as the main package and others thrown in to make things work? I think we could make a decent offer to the Hawks if they were willing to consider trading him. We would get our for sure starting Center and then we could try and find a SG as we go. What do you think?

Andrew

Yes. You get this guy. $12 million fits under your cap allotment. He's a great defender, OK rebounder, he'd fit like a glove.

Now...how are you going to get him? He's the only guy guaranteed to make money with the Hawks after this season, as Storyteller's site points out. He's also their only All-Star. They don't need cap relief. They don't have an over-abundance of talent. I don't see any combination of players that doesn't include Aldridge that would pull him away.

I talk more about Portland's off-season plans in a separate post right next to this one, so be sure and check that out.

Finishing up here...

Dave,

If you had a say in the off-season, as well as what the team does the second half of the season (push for the playoffs or tank for a high pick), what type of magic would you make happen?

Tim

It'll be better for this team to make the playoffs than the lottery. But the whole point of making the playoffs is that they'd have struggled to overcome the schedule and the opposition, earned the right, discovered what it takes. Actual post-season results would be secondary. Waving a magic wand to usher the Blazers into the playoffs wouldn't make any of those important things happen. Unless they're going to win a title (in which case, wave away) it's best to be happy either way. They probably won't make the playoffs this year and that lottery pick will be a nice consolation prize.

Dave,

My question for the mailbag is this: What is the deal with the minutes this year for our starters? I mean Lillard is I think 6th in the league in over all minute averages. Batum is not far behind him either. Is this sustainable for the rest of the year? Makes me think that there is going to come a point where our starters are just going to fizzle out

Andrew

Well, yes, that will probably happen. It's probably been happening. But what is Coach Stotts supposed to do? The bench is terribly young and historically bad. You can't go out there and not try to win games. You can't possibly sell sacrifice and teamwork to your starters if you don't appear to be aiming for victory. You have to play them the minutes required until one of two things happen: they cry uncle themselves or wins don't matter.

The solution here is pretty simple, though. Get Coach Stotts a better bench and you'll be more pleased with how many minutes he's playing the starters.

Dave,

Why did the Blazers keep Kaleb Canales as a defensive coach? My God man, it's awful! I like the guy but he doesn't seem to know what he's doing.

Rod

sighhhhh...

At the beginning of the season we spelled this out in black and white. "Folks," we said, "The Blazers are going to have defensive issues this year. Damian Lillard is not a natural defender, not practiced in any kind of defense--let alone at the NBA level--and is not going to be good on that end. J.J. Hickson is a so-so defender under normal circumstances but will have trouble at CENTER against HUGE GUYS. With gaping leaks at either end the defensive ship is going to sink no matter how sturdy the middle is."

Some people got this, I think. Others replied with, "How do we know Lillard isn't a good defender?" or, "No point guards defend well so this won't hurt much!" or, "The Blazers will use quickness to defend instead of bulk." or, "Those middle three defenders are so strong they'll make up for the other two."

Meanwhile if I had a quarter for every time opponents have run Lillard and Hickson into defending a pick and roll this season I'd be able to play Donkey Kong until my arms fell off.

Ahem...

Folks, the Blazers are going to have defensive issues this year. Damian Lillard is not a natural defender, not practiced in any kind of defense--let alone at the NBA level--and is not going to be good on that end. J.J. Hickson is a so-so defender under normal circumstances but will have trouble at CENTER against HUGE GUYS. With gaping leaks at either end the defensive ship is going to sink no matter how sturdy the middle is. And...

There's little, if any, defensive help coming off the bench either. And...

This is not Kaleb Canales' fault.

You could stick Red Auerbach's cigar, Pat Riley's suit, and Phil Jackson's soul patch onto Tom Thibodeau and he would still not be able to coach this incarnation of the Blazers to consistently good defensive performances. This is why the Blazers need a fairly big, fairly defensive-minded center if they're planning on keeping their rookie of the year point guard for the long haul. A little more awareness from Lillard himself would help too, but that's neither expected nor coming this season.

Right now Kaleb Canales and the coaching staff are trying to make defensive pie out of flour, eggs, shortening, rotten spinach, and fresh bird poop. No matter how you mix up those ingredients it ain't gonna taste right. Want the chefs to look more accomplished? Get them better ingredients.

Now...believe it or not the MAIN question to be addressed in this Mailbag was which players I think the Blazers can get in the off-season. But Neil Olshey already stole half my thunder this week, LaMarcus Aldridge is stealing the other half today, and we're already closing in on 3000 words. We do have a break in the schedule next week as well. Assuming the Blazers don't make any trades in the interim, I will get to that question then.

As always, feel free to send in questions to blazersub@gmail.com and PLEASE remember to include "Mailbag" in the subject line.

Also I got word that a brand new NBA-related podcast group has started called Teardrop Runners. (Fantastic name, by the way!) We get requests to mention such things all the time. Normally we prefer that you get enough good material under your belt that we'll notice you organically and then mention you. However the guy running this podcast is "Manzell Beezy". Blazer's Edge historians should note that this is the same Manzell who came up with the automated forms for our Jersey Contest. Before him I was tallying results by hand on paper and adding them up after every game, then typing them. Once we got past 80 participants or so that became impossible. Just when I was going to quit, Manzell stepped up with his system. You would not have a Jersey Contest today were it not for him. So here's our public thanks in the form of a link to his podcast page. If you've read this far you know you have an insatiable appetite for hoops talk. Go check it out.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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