Over the last few years, Blazer fans have come to learn how magical cap space can be. With enough of it, you can lure maximum level free agents. With it you can put pressure on teams trying to sign their own restricted FA's. You can made lopsided trades. You can absorb salaries from teams desperate to shed contracts. And, perhaps best of all, it's the freedom for fans to dream big.
The Blazers have had significant cap space in 2009, 2012, and 2013. So we've had those rights to dream for 3 of the last 5 seasons. Now we know we don't have it going into this offseason. But looking ahead, there's a new opportunity coming soon. Both fans and sports writers, on the local and national levels, have noticed. 2015. The year all the magic can happen once again. And from the looks of it, the Blazers can open a big door with that kind of cap space.
The only contracts that will be guaranteed are Batum's and Crabbe's. Lillard's 4th year contract is likely to be picked up as well. That totals $17.4M in contracts. And with the Salary Cap estimated THIS season to go up to $63.2M, plus go up again next season, that means the Blazers could have as much as $45.8M in cap space to sign free agents with. That's enough for two max contracts!
Unfortunately, it's all fiction.
Wait, T, what do you mean it's all fiction? We've been hearing since 2013 that Olshey engineered all these moves to preserve 2015 cap space. That's not entirely true. Cap space in 2015 was always a contingency plan, nothing more. If a 33 win team remained a 33 win team for the next two seasons (which was an open question going into free agency 2013), then he needed to have a nuclear option with which to have a clean restart. Now the core four of Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge had potential. And perhaps some tweaking would be enough to get the franchise going in the right direction. But there were no assurances.
Especially when it came to Aldridge. In his 2012-13 exit interviews with the brass, I'm sure Aldridge did voice his frustrations. And if those frustrations weren't met, then Aldridge would have been looking at 2015 as his exit point. If that happened, the Blazers were ready. It wasn't optimal by any means, but the contingency WAS in place.
But then the 2013-14 season happened. Robin Lopez was a revelation next to Aldridge. And Aldridge has never been happier. Aldridge openly talks about wanting to stay with this team, wanting to break all Drexler's records, and that he is very, very happy. That wasn't the case before. Now it is. And with those words, any worry of Aldridge walking because he's disgruntled with the Blazers has disappeared. And with that, the contingency plan has now become unnecessary. As evidenced by the Blazers offering Aldridge a max contract this offseason. Whether Aldridge takes it or not doesn't change the fact that his body language and demeanor have shifted dramatically. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to see Aldridge turn down this years in order to get more years guaranteed.
But back to cap space. Because we mentioned that we could have room to sign two max free agents. Aldridge is only one. So how can 2015 cap space be fiction? It is fiction, because nobody accounted for cap holds.
Let's take the best case cap scenario. Aldridge signs a max contract. Batum, Lillard, and Crabbe still have their contracts. We'll assume that Aldridge signs the extension this summer, as that shaves $0.2M off his cap number. So that's $17.2M + $17.4M = $34.6M. We also have a 2015 draft pick. Let's assume we end up roughly in the same place as last season and land the 24th pick. That adds $1.1M. You also have to account for minimum salary cap holds for each player under the minimum number of players you are required to have on the roster. The minimum number of players on the roster is 13. That means we need 8 roughly half-million dollar cap holds. We can subtract one, because that can be offered to each free agent. So in theory, we could have $23.5M in cap space.
That's great news right? That proves that we can really do something next offseason!
But do you realize what we're giving up to do that? That's Robin Lopez, renounced. Wesley Matthews, renounced. Thomas Robinson, renounced. Will Barton, renounced. CJ McCollum, renounced. Meyers Leonard, renounced. Joel Freeland, renounced. Dorell Wright renounced. Victor Claver, renounced. That also means no MLE this year or next. No BAE this year or next. No resigning Mo Williams. That makes 2014-15 a completely wasted year. Because we've signed nobody, developed nobody we plan on keeping. And have taken a step backwards in talent in 2014, losing our best bench player.
We assumed above that Aldridge signed the contract. That isn't the most likely outcome. More likely is that he waits until next summer. Do you think he'd sign knowing Matthews and Lopez, two of the players who have made this year special for him are just let go? Depends on who is coming in. So what's the 2015 free agent class look like? Well it's Aldridge, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, and Kyrie Irving. Paul Millsap is easily the next most enticing player on the list, and that's not saying much. Love is going to resign with who he's traded to, if he gets traded (which I'd say is likely at this point). And Irving will get a max extension from Cleveland, period. I definitely wouldn't put money on those two even sniffing availability.
That leaves Marc Gasol. Which is who a lot of people are really looking at. But the odds of signing Gasol are really pretty low. He has no reason to jump ship on the Grizzlies. They took the Thunder to seven games. They are always in the mix of things. And Memphis can offer him far more money than anyone. Why jump ship? And why then also jump to Portland, who just gutted their roster of all its mid level players? Would it be really cool for Portland if that happened? Absolutely. But you don't bet the entire 2014-15 season on it, and risk alienating Aldridge, who is now much happier than he was.
How much cap space we have is entirely dependent on what we're willing to do this offseason. Do we try to improve the team? Or do we wait for that magical cap space? If Paul Millsap is the next best player available in free agency, then I'd say it's a no brainer to retain Matthews and Lopez. Their 2015 cap hold is 150 percent of their current salary. That makes their cap hold $20M. They wont get that much, but that's how much is reserved until they are signed. Which pretty much erases everything. Might as well keep the rest of them too, and have an MLE next year.
However, for the sake of argument, let's say we agree early with them both for $7M/yr each. That's a reasonable rate for both of them. $23.5M - $14M + $1M in released cap holds = $10.5M. That's not bad, right? Sure, except the only player you have on your bench is the 2015 draft pick at 24.And if you want to keep other promising players, that $10.5M goes fast. Say Robinson pans out, subtract $4.6M (plus $0.5 for the cap hold). $6.4M left, and that's not that much more than the MLE.
So in order to try and get cap space, you have to gut the team, even of the prospects. If you want to keep just our rotation starters and one bench player, it's not worth going after cap space at all. The only dream is Marc Gasol, and that is a long shot that involves a giant sacrifice upfront, and risking our best player.
A far better solution is to use this year's MLE, bank on a few young players developing, and spending the money instead of saving it. Taking on salary in order to improve the talent level of this team is a positive, not a negative. And I would be willing to bet that even Olshey has moved on from the 2015 cap space contingency. Because, best case scenario under that contingency would look like:
- Lillard/Min Salary
- Crabbe/2015 24th pick
- Batum/Min Salary
- Aldridge/Min Salary
- Marc Gasol/Room Exception
There are no assets left. Nothing to move. Nothing to trade. Like Houston, Miami, New York, Lakers, they got some great players in, but couldn't surround them with squat. Granted, some of those teams worked out pretty well. Some of them crashed and burned spectacularly. But then again, it's another risk. To have this plan work out is to take risk after risk after risk. Roll hard ten after hard ten after hard ten, to borrow an analogy. It can be done. But don't bet on it.
A far more stable plan is to build on who we have. To keep acquiring talented players. Because talented players have value as well. And are more easily tradable than what we've got now. Resign Mo Williams. Sign a talented player with the MLE. Make a trade from our deep bench to take on more salary along with more talent. It's been so long since we've had those, we have forgotten their value. I'm just as guilty of that as anyone else. And I expect that's what we're going to see this offseason. Smaller deals that increase our talent base, and give us players we can trade when the time comes. After all, it looks a whole lot easier to facilitate trades and improvement when you've got this going instead:
- Lillard/Williams/2015 Draft pick
- Batum/2015 MLE/2014 BAE
- Lopez/2014 MLE/Leonard