Portland Trail Blazers: Free Agents and the MLE

Maddie Meyer

How important are the Portland Trail Blazers' moves this summer and who might be available for the MLE?

Summer moves seem to be the hot topic so far this month, so here are a couple more Mailbag questions covering that topic.

Dave,

Everybody's been talking about trades and free agents since the season ended.  How important are they to the team's future?  How would you grade the importance of the summer moves on a scale of 1-10?  What will happen if we don't find a great free agent or make the perfect trade?

Jennifer

If you consider only matters in their control (not injuries, for instance), the summer of 2013 was the most critical juncture for the Blazers since 2007. They had to change the course of the franchise, making moves to get better quickly. Another 35-win season would have spelled an end to this incarnation of the team, all but mandating a reboot in 2015.

As we know, Portland's changes paid off well this season. They've stepped back from the edge of the cliff. They haven't left the neighborhood entirely, but they've bought themselves room for measured consideration. The pressure isn't as intense. Provided they can work out agreements with current players, they have the luxury of planning growth over the next 2-3 years, not just the next 2-3 months.

Extending that time window doesn't decrease the overall pressure, however. It's distributed across more moves over a longer period of time, but it's still there. Last summer the main issue was time. This summer it's resources. Assuming they don't want to monkey with their core too much, the Blazers are looking at a few cap exceptions plus a presumably-low 2015 draft pick as the only avenues of acquisition. Opportunities will be infrequent and carefully targeted. Portland still can't afford to blow them.

If the Blazers had $16 million in cap space plus a couple of good draft picks over the next two summers, what they did with a given $5.3 million might comprise 15-20% of their total growth opportunity. Under the current conditions their Mid-Level Exception gets closer to 35-40%, not because the player they'll get will be revolutionary, but because they don't have that many chances. They don't need an All-Star out of that signing but they do have to get a solid, upper-rotation bench player. They'll need to strike with their next one as well. If they can manage that, they could be looking at a decent 10-man rotation heading into 2015-16.

If Portland doesn't get their MLE's right, they could struggle to fill the roster again, banking on young guys and reclamation projects. That's fine for now but they don't want to be there when the 2016 playoffs come around.

This summer's moves probably won't be as striking as in years past, but they're still pretty important. I'd probably rate them as a 4 or 5 on the overall scale of moves throughout history but more like a 6 or 7 in terms of determining Portland's immediate future.

The caveats:

1. Until the Blazers have LaMarcus Aldridge under contract we still don't know which way his decision will go when his contract expires. The relationship seems rosy now, but regression could change that story. The more Aldridge can be swayed by Portland's success, or lack thereof, the more important this summer's decisions become.

2. We also don't know what the Blazers will do with their expiring contracts in 2015. All of the above assumes that they'll retain their core players. If they trade those players or let their contracts expire in order to rebuild through free agency, this summer's moves become far less important.\

Dave,

What are your thoughts on the best use of their Mid Level Exception. What player would help the Blazers?

Jason from Yakima

The mid-level market has been one of the most interesting aspects of free agency in recent years.

Once upon a time free agency worked fairly simply. Teams would save up for big-name free agents. Only a few of those actually hit the market. All the teams who didn't get those big names would scramble for second-tier guys to shore up their teams, overpaying a little if necessary so they didn't look stupid. Mid-level teams ended up with the scraps off of that table. Teams offering less than an MLE dredged the bottom of the barrel.

Those days are gone now. Capologists, CBA changes, and granular stats have conspired to make "overpaying" among the dirtiest words in the NBA lexicon. No GM wants to get stuck trying to dump an $8 million player when everybody else in his comp range is making $5 million.

Nowadays you're seeing three tiers among desirable players: superstars making $15 million and above, a few highly-desirable role players or potential future stars hanging around the $8-12 million range, and everybody else. $5 million goes a lot farther than it used to. The MLE won't get you a player you're super-excited about, but every year players who shoot for that second salary tier fail to make it and find that the drop to MLE level can be sudden and steep. Not enough players fall to satisfy every team with a need, but if you're one of the top 6 candidates holding that mid-level exception you've got a chance.

You never know which players will fall until it actually happens, though. Debating whether a particular player will be available for the MLE or not has become a rite of summer around the internet. General Managers have a better view than the public. My guess is that you'll see the Blazers targeting a player or two early in the free agency process, showing their acceptance and appreciation to players whom other teams might reject (at least at a higher salary). If a player does slip to MLE level, the Blazers have been after him the whole while. Since no other team will offer more, the decision becomes less about money than fit. Who's a better fit than the team that's been after you from the very beginning?

Not all of these players will drop (or in some cases, rise) to full MLE level, but the Blazers could at least keep half an eye on them:

Trevor Ariza, who had a great year for Washington but could get lost in the shuffle if the Wizards use their cap space to chase a star. He can defend and shoot the three...a perfect fit for Portland's system. He'll probably be in higher demand than the Blazers can meet, but you never know.

Spencer Hawes, much-discussed at the trading deadline around here. He makes more than the MLE now and centers are always in demand, but he was lost in Philly last year and even more lost after he moved to Cleveland.

Rodney Stuckey, whose career has dipped since his early days in Detroit. He's not a three-point threat or a defender but he can play both guard positions off the bench. Stuckey's your man if you want a guy you can throw the ball to and say, "Score!" It's likely the Blazers would figure they already have a cheaper version of Stuckey in Mo Williams. But Rodney is a little younger and more apt to take it to the hole.

Andray Blatche has the body and the skills but he's a knucklehead. I've always been of the opinion that every team can absorb one loose cannon...that it might even be a good thing. I'm not sure Blatche is that good thing, but man would he bring a wrinkle or two to Portland's frontcourt. He's been making peanuts because of Washington's amnesty clause. Who knows where his salary will go now that he's back in the actual economy.

Danny Granger has tons of miles on him and has been injured. I don't believe he'll ever return to his old form but if the Blazers did, they could do worse for a bench scorer.

Jordan Hill would provide great rebounding. He's an efficient scorer too. Plus he'd be one of the only guys on this list who might be happy to have a full MLE salary instead of disappointed. Put an asterisk by his name.

Mike Miller is a veteran shooter who will probably be worth more than the MLE to somebody, but if Memphis breaks apart and nobody is picking him up...man. Can you imagine him on a team that opened up as many triple opportunities as the Blazers do?

Emeka Okafor has been injured and seems to be an afterthought at this point. If he were healthy he could bolster Robin Lopez's defense. Plus he could do most of the things Lopez does in the offense. The Blazers would make him look good. Then again, if he were healthy he might be worth more than $5 million still.

Loving the questions every day! Keep them coming to the address below.

Want more Blazers talk? Check out the internationally-famous Phil Naessens Show, where apparently I've become a regular weekly item. Phil says we're breaking records left and right. I'm pretty sure that's because all the ladies in Greece and Italy and across the Mediterranean can't get enough of my sultry voice. Or, you know, maybe they just like the Blazers.

Naw. It's the sultry thing.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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