Portland Trail Blazers: Salary Cap Space and Summer Moves

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

What tricks do the Portland Trail Blazers have up their sleeves in the Summer of 2014 to create cap space and roster room for talent?

Cap space questions permeate the Mailbag today...always a fun and educational topic.

Dave,

When talking about improving the bench, there seems to be an assumption that we are stuck with all our existing bench contracts. Instead of going the MLE route, couldn't Neil just trade away any "assets" that we don't want any more for 2nd round picks and waive the rest? I could see clearing Joel Freeland, Victor Claver, Dorrell Wright, Mo Williams, Meyers Leonard and Crabbe straight from the books. We end up with 1 or 2 second round picks for anybody that picks up on the fire-sale. The rest we put on waivers and pay their contracts off. This clears us $11 million or so in cap space which can gives Neil a lot more flexibility and we still have the 2.75 cap-space MLE.

With that much space we can pursue Spencer Hawes or Jordan Hill, Shaun Livingston or Darren Collison and still have room to grab a canny vet or two. It also gives Neil space to nudge into trades and grab discards from teams trying to get cap space.

It would require an expenditure probably of around $3-6 million depending on who we have to buy-out, and it would require eating crow on a lot of our prior draft picks, saying "we'd rather have the cap-room than you." But, we could keep our team and get to a 10 person rotation (assuming we keep Barton and Robinson) that we're happy with.

Dan

Half your plan works, provided other GM's will cooperate.

Waived players still count against a team's cap. You can't just cut guys, pay them, then get their salaries off your books. It would circumvent the cap, eliminating its purpose. Otherwise the Knicks would be writing checks left and right this summer to rescue their cap space from the clutches of Raymond Felton and Amare Stoudemire. You also wouldn't have needed the famous Amnesty Clause that accompanied the new bargaining agreement a few years ago. It duplicated the effects of your suggestion but was limited to one contract, one time only per team.

Neil Olshey could trade as many assets for second-rounders as he cares to. But even that isn't as easy as it sounds. Last summer's deals may have seemed like a steal from Portland's perspective but getting a player for a few minor picks doesn't tell the whole story. The Blazers also sacrificed $9.5 million of their own cap space to take on Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson. If they didn't have that cap space those deals wouldn't have worked. They would have been required to send back as much salary as they took in, meaning Houston and New Orleans would have refused the deal.

Your solution puts the Blazers in the same spot the Rockets and Pelicans were in last season. Their pool of suitors for bench players would be limited to teams with sufficient cap space to absorb the salaries without sending contracts back in return. It would be further limited by a team's willingness to spend that cap space on Portland's bench cast-offs. That's a pretty small group of potential trade partners.

The players you're mentioning all have small contracts, further complicating the issue. Remember that right now the Blazers have around $7 million in cap exceptions to sign players. Those exceptions will be in force until the team drops more than $7 million below the cap line. In order for a salary dump to make sense, it needs to bring the payroll down by more than that amount, otherwise why wouldn't they just use the exceptions instead of dumping players?

Right now the Blazers are on the books for $64 million in salary next year. If Mo Williams opts out the Blazers can simply decline to make him a new offer. For the sake of the salary-dump scenario, let's assume that happens. Mo's departure would still leave Portland committed to $61 million in salary next year. Let's say the cap goes up to $62 million, as some are projecting. Even after jettisoning Mo, the Blazers would still be only $1 million below the cap line. They'd need to dump $6 million more just to get even with the amount they could spend via their exceptions...more than that if they wanted to actually gain room.

The players you mentioned besides Williams--Freeland, Claver, Wright, Leonard, and Crabbe--total $10.7 million in salary. That's more than the $6 million needed to gain extra space from a salary dump. But you'd have to find takers for all of them to make it work without receiving a stitch of salary in return. Even if you could do that (which is nearly impossible) you would have dumped 6 players total (Williams and those five) to net a grand total of $5 million more in potential cap space.

Then you have to consider that mandatory cap holds for roster spots--another arcane CBA rule--would take $2.5 million of your $5 million in savings, leaving you a grand total of $2.5 million ahead of where you started. Granted, you could spend that money more flexibly than you could using cap exceptions, but at the end of the day you've made multiple moves and dumped half your roster to gain less than $3 million in actual cap space to use. Not only is the prospect unfeasible, the numbers at the end of it all don't justify the effort.

Dear Dave,

I keep reading about how the Blazers have no cap-room for next year, but we have two exceptions and only $56.8 mm committed. But, on the other hand, look at next year's commitments of some of the other teams in the west:

Clippers: $73.6 mm
Golden State: $65.1mm
OKC: $67.9mm
Houston: $72.0mm
Denver: $64.7mm
Minnesota: $66.4mm
Sac: $66.5mm

In addition, some of these teams will add millions for their first round picks. I keep reading about these other teams adding players, but I don't see how, without trade blowing out starters. So, how are the Blazers in a worse position than the teams ahead of them (except, of course SA)?

Thanks,

Rich
Jerusalem, Israel

Those numbers aren't quite correct, for one thing. The Blazers will owe $64 million in salary next year, give or take $3 million on Mo's contract. But the spirit of your question is just as important as the technicalities.

To the extent that teams have advantages over the Blazers, they come in several varieties:

Draft Picks

The cupboard is bare for Portland. They have no 1st Round pick this year. They have no 2nd Round picks until 2018 and Sacramento has the right to swap positions on the 2018 pick. Teams are allowed to sign their draft picks even if they're capped up or in luxury tax territory. This is one of the main ways of building/renewing a roster even if you can't afford free agents.

Depth

Teams at or over the cap line are usually farther along in the construction process than teams with smaller budgets. The Blazers have tasted success thanks to their good starting lineup, but they're also sporting 5 players they can truly rely on. That's it. Where other cap-restricted teams might be looking to add 1 or 2 players and have a few proven players on their roster to trade in return, the Blazers could stand 2-4 new guys and can't part with anybody who produces regularly for them. This isn't a give-and-take prospect. The Blazers need to take without giving. That's a tough ask. This is why the MLE seems so critical to Portland right now. It's the only way of acquiring a new player without having to pay anything more than the extra money to sign him.

Contract Structure

Most teams sport a range of young guys and veterans with the corresponding spectrum of contracts. This facilitates trades, helping salaries match under the CBA restrictions. The Blazers carry two flavors: starters they can't/won't part with and young bench players on low contracts. You'd think small contracts would make deals easier. They don't when they come en masse.

Let's say the Clippers want to make a deal for a $10-12 million player. They've got J.J. Redick making $6.5 million, Jamal Crawford at $5.5 million, Jared Dudley at $4.3, Matt Barnes at $3.3, and Darren Collison at $2 million. They can mix and match any two of those players and come up with a package.

Portland's bench tops out with Thomas Robinson at $3.5 million and drops from there. They're looking at trading 3, maybe 4, players to make the same deal. 3-for-1 deals and higher are hard to do, if nothing else because the other team probably doesn't have that many roster spots open. They could always cut one of their incoming acquisitions but it's hard to feel like you got the most value out of a deal when you're doing that.

Cap Space

Some teams have it, Portland doesn't. This eliminates the possibility of salary-absorbing deals like the Blazers pulled last summer and restricts trades besides, bringing the aforementioned salary matching into play.

Portland's not screwed in any of these categories by any means. (Except maybe draft picks...no help there without a trade.) They can still get deals done. But you can see where teams who are drafting and who have expendable, desirable pieces with varied contracts to offer have an advantage over the Blazers this summer. Teams under the cap do as well.

Portland had advantages last summer and capitalized on them with Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, and Dorell Wright. They'll have to find a different way to pull the rabbit out of the hat this year. Either that or they'll have to hope that the moves of the past two summers will be enough to carry them through as the team matures.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to the address below!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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