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Why You Will See Blazers Traded This Year

As I’ve read the comments in various posts a recurring theme has come up, which can be summarized thusly:


“We have some good, young, talented players with potential we’re not completely sure of yet.  The team seems to be headed in the right direction though.  Let’s take one more year to figure out what we’ve got.  Let these guys gel together and see what happens.”


It’s a good thought, and if you’re just thinking chemistry and potential it makes a ton of sense.  Unfortunately a couple of NBA practicalities are going to make that approach nearly impossible to take.  I touched on the reason why about midway through the Leandro Barbosa post below, but I want to give this subject its own post so it’s clear.


The big bugaboo when it comes to keeping many of our young players is the salary cap.  The summer of 2009 is going to be critical to Portland if they have any hopes of utilizing the salary cap flexibility they’ve worked to create.  Next summer brings the perfect confluence:  the Blazers have several contracts in flux and their young superstars are all still under rookie salary scale and don’t cost much.  2009-10 is the only time those two things will be true and thus the only time that window will be open.


If you don’t know why the window is so short, the answer is simple:  Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge.  2009-10 will be their fourth year in the league.  Normal procedure is for a fourth-year player to receive a qualifying offer, perhaps becoming a restricted free agent at the end of the season.  (More about that in a minute.)  This isn’t going to happen with players the caliber of Roy and Aldridge.  The Blazers will want to lock them up early.  The young stars’ agents will want the same.  That means one or both getting huge, long contracts which obliterate the normal qualifying offer amount…along similar lines as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony last off-season.  Those two contracts are going to chomp up the Blazers’ salary cap.  As if that weren’t enough, Greg Oden will come due one year later.  After that, provided things go well, you can pretty much kiss cap space goodbye for the next decade.  The opportunity afforded Portland in the summer of 2009-10 is unprecedented in franchise history and will not come around again soon. 


For those who doubt the efficacy of cap space, remember that signing potential free agents is only one of its uses.  It also opens up whole new universes on the trade front.  With significant cap space you have the ability to trade away and take back players you never dreamed of when you were over the cap.  You also become an attractive third trading partner for other teams that want to execute Base Year Compensation deals and need somewhere to send a player for free.  It’s not unheard of for GM’s who are under the cap to get phone calls saying (literally), “Please take my player for nothing!”  You don’t get All-Stars that way, of course, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to get a solid veteran or James Jones-type player without giving up any assets but the salary slot.


Either via trade or free agent signing, preserving cap flexibility next summer represents the best chance by far for the Blazers to add targeted, veteran pieces to complete their lineup if that is their desire.  That’s the bottom line.


How does that affect player movement this year?  The key lies in understanding…


two numbers,

four contracts,

and one salary cap rule.


The two numbers are $30 million and $56 million. 


$30 million is a rough approximation, give or take a million or two, of the salaries the Blazers will be committed to next summer, provided they retain this year's #13 pick and don’t make any trades.  That number represents the contracts of Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Lamarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Brandon Roy, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and the #13 pick.  You can add a little bit for a 2009 draft pick or if you think Koponen will make the team, for instance, but basically that’s solid.


$56 million is a conservative guess at the likely salary cap figure that year, again give or take a couple million.  (We’re free to do that because, as you’re going to see in a minute, it’s not going to matter.)


Obviously the $26 million difference between those two numbers appears to leave the Blazers in great shape.  Just as obviously there are names missing from that list of contracts above.  James Jones’ contract expires just before summer and for these purposes I’m assuming he won’t be re-signed.  The remaining four contracts at issue are Steve Blake, Martell Webster, Channing Frye, and Jarrett Jack.


Steve Blake is different than the other three.  His contract is worth $4.9 million in 2009-10 but it is a team option.  The decision with him is pretty simple.  If we want him back we pay him the money and it’s added to our cap, thus making $35 million committed.  If not we release him and retain the cap space.


The other three are not so simple.  Martell, Channing, and Jarrett will have just completed their fourth year in the league.  This brings up a situation which I described fully in last Friday’s post and I will summarize here.  Basically four things can happen with them:


1.  The Blazers can renounce those players, say goodbye to them at the end of the 2009 season, and take no cap hit at all.


2.  The Blazers can sign them to a new contract if the two parties can come to terms.  In that case their new salary counts against the cap.


3+4.  The Blazers can make a qualifying offer for one more year of the player’s services.  The player then has a choice: 


--They can accept the qualifying offer, play out the one extra season (2009-10), and then become an unrestricted free agent, able to go wherever they wish on the open market. 


--They can reject the qualifying offer and spend the summer of 2009 trying to negotiate the best deal they can around the league.  The Blazers would have the right to match any offer they got and thus retain the player.  The Blazers could also refuse to match the offer and let the player go.  This is that Restricted Free Agency thing you hear so much about.


An important thing to remember here is that unless they choose to renounce the player outright (Option 1 above) the Blazers cannot control which of these options comes to pass.  They are the player’s choice.  The Blazers cannot force a player to negotiate a new deal (Option 2).  They cannot force a player to take a qualifying offer instead of spending the summer as a Restricted Free Agent (Options 3 + 4).  The only choice directly in the team’s control is to cut or not cut.


This is where that salary cap rule comes in.  To preserve the sanctity of the cap the league doesn’t want teams to go out and sign a bunch of regular free agents and then come back and sign its own Restricted Free Agents to huge contracts, possibly exceeding the cap limit in the process.  To prevent this they’ve instituted a rule.  A team’s Restricted Free Agents place a hold on cap space equal to 300% of their past year’s salary.  This is just like the hold that goes on your credit card at a hotel.  It doesn’t have anything to do with what you will spend.  It’s inflated to account for everything you might spend.  As long as your Restricted Free Agent remains unsigned, cap space equal to 300% of his past year’s salary is tied up.  You cannot spend it on free agents or use it in trade.


This is where the rubber hits the road.  If the Blazers let those three players get into next summer unsigned, if those players and their agents decide it’s in their best interests to become Restricted Free Agents (again a choice outside of Portland’s control), those players’ cap space footprint balloons.  Here are the specific numbers:


Martell Webster--  Current Salary $3.8 million  Cap Space Hold $11.4 million

Channing Frye--  Current Salary $3.2 million  Cap Space Hold $9.6 million

Jarrett Jack--  Current Salary $2.0 million  Cap Space Hold $6.0 million


Total Cap Space Hold = $27 million

Best-Case Scenario Cap Space Available Summer 2009 = $26 million


Even in the best-case scenario for cap flexibility--not re-signing James Jones and not exercising Steve Blake’s option year--the holds take up ALL of our cap space.  Nothing is left.  Of course this would only last until these players were signed by us or another team, then the excess hold would disappear.  But teams are often reluctant to sign offer sheets for Restricted Free Agents for fear they will just be matched.  That makes the process s…l…o…w.  Also keep in mind that rival teams will not be eager to free up Portland’s cap space by rushing to resolve its contracts in limbo. It could easily take all summer to finalize a deal.  We’d miss the prime of the free agent signing period for sure, plus whatever trade opportunities came up during that time.  Our already-short window would be cut even shorter.  Clearly it’s not in the Blazers’ best interests to let things get to this point.


Keep in mind our original question:  Why can’t we just take a year to evaluate, let these guys gel, and then see what we have?  This pretty much answers it.  For these three players, at least, the freedom to evaluate and guess about potential is passing quickly. We’re out of time.  The Blazers are going to have to make some decisions about them very soon:  cut, offer to re-sign, or trade?


I am not privy to the team’s war councils, of course, but I’d say cutting any of these players is an unlikely option.  All are assets, all have value, and you don’t want to abandon that without compensation.


It’s also unlikely that all three players would accept one-year qualifying offers.  This would certainly alleviate Portland’s 2009 cap issues but it’s generally unsatisfactory.  From the team’s point of view if the guy is a key piece you don’t want him becoming an unrestricted free agent after 2010 and risk losing him.  From the player’s and agent’s point of view you want to have a longer-term contract for security.  The exception to this would be if you thought you were going to have a breakout season, but realistically will any of these guys have the opportunity to do that in Portland?  Perhaps one of the three would take this option, but all three?  Doubt it.  Besides--and don’t forget this--letting it get to the qualifying offer stage exposes the Blazers fully to the risk of them rejecting those offers, becoming Restricted Free Agents, and swamping our cap in the summer.  If Portland isn’t sure the players are going to accept the qualifying offers it cannot make them…at least not with all three.


Whether any or all of the three will be offered--or would accept--new contracts before the qualifying offers become an issue depends on the Blazers’ evaluation of them and their evaluation of their prospects here.  How much do you trust them?  How much do they want to play here?  How much money do they want?  All three are in similar positions.  They’re young.  They have enough talent to know they have a possible career in this league but none of them has been consistent yet.  Each one is playing behind people--either in the rotation or in terms of shots--that the team appears to bank on more.  What will it take to get these guys to sign under those conditions?  Will the Blazers be willing to pay enough?  Will these guys want to wear Portland’s uniform enough?  Do we know enough about them and how they fit in our plans to make a long-term decision now?  Granted none of these questions are as up-in-the-air as they appear from our outside point of view.  Nevertheless they are still up in the air.  In the end it also seems unlikely that the Blazers would sign all three to long-term contracts or that all three would accept.


Put this all together and you understand why you’re going to see one or more of these guys traded this year.  One of them might get a new contract, but not all three.  One of them might accept a one-year qualifying offer, but not all three.  One of them may become a Restricted Free Agent, but not all three.  And if you’re thinking, “Why not one of each?” it’s equally doubtful that the Blazers will look at all three and say, “These guys are so intrinsic to our plans and we trust their fidelity so much that we have to take the risk of retaining all of them by these various means.”  There may not be anything negative about the players.  Instead the Blazers may just see an opportunity to get some solid, experienced help and solid, bankable contracts rather than having to take the gamble of answering questions like the ones posed here.  It’s certain that they’ll be valuing security over risk when it comes to protecting their cap situation next summer and that will chart the course as much as anything. 


Whenever a trade is mentioned people start worrying about the cap space ramifications, as if every contract we take on that doesn’t expire next summer costs us space.  It’s actually the contrary.  Using last week’s rumors as an example, trading Martell Webster and the #13 pick for a veteran who will make $5.3 million in 2008-09 would be a complete wash salary-wise.  The two amounts are equal.  But come the summer of 2009-10 that veteran we traded for would still be making around $5.3 million, maybe with a small raise, and that’s all the cap space he would take.  An unsigned Martell and the #13 pick will take up $13 million until Martell puts his signature on a piece of paper.  It would be far better for us during our most critical cap flexibility juncture to have a long-running contract the amount of Martell Webster’s than to have Martell’s short-term contract uncertainty hanging over our heads.


Whether it’s in Thursday’s draft, during pre-season, or in the middle of the season itself you’re going to see some Blazers moved before the trading deadline next February. These will almost certainly include some of the young guys that people want to see more of like Martell, Channing, and Jarrett.  The course isn’t decided by chemistry, loyalty, or potential alone.  It’s also determined by the rules of the game you’re playing.  In this case the rules pretty much dictate some of these players, or maybe all of them, will be moved.  It’s still anybody’s guess which ones, where, and for whom.


--Dave (