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Tom Penn: Blazers Are A "Dark Horse Team In Free Agency"

Tom Penn is seated, far right, with Blazers Owner Paul Allen, former GM Kevin Pritchard, and advisor Bert Kolde.
Tom Penn is seated, far right, with Blazers Owner Paul Allen, former GM Kevin Pritchard, and advisor Bert Kolde.

Welcome to 2010 NBA Free Agency.  If you're feeling a little less than thrilled with the idea of pursuing bit players like Wesley MatthewsAnthony Morrow or Jordan Farmar, former Portland Trail Blazers vice president of basketball operations and current ESPN Salary Cap analyst Tom Penn is here to provide some hope.

Not sure how I missed this earlier, but Penn was a guest on's Hang Time Podcast with Sekou Smith and Vince Thomas immediately before last week's draft. This was also taped, it should be noted, before Penn's close friend Kevin Pritchard was officially fired as Portland's General Manager.

Penn was asked all sorts of questions about trades, free agency, the salary cap, the Larry Bird exception and more.  When the show got to the topic sign-and-trades, Penn listed the Portland Trail Blazers, along with the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets, as veteran teams capable of making something big happen.  Penn said...

The way a veteran team like Dallas can make a dramatic move, or a team like Houston, or a team like Portland, the way they can get in the mix here as what I call a "dark horse team" in free agency. These dark horse teams can do sign and trades.  

They way it would work is that one of these glamour free agents is going to go to his former team and say, "I'm ready to leave. I'm sorry it hasn't worked out for us. And I'm going to go. And I'm going to go to, let's say New York or New Jersey or Chicago, I'm going to go to one of those teams for nothing. But I'd prefer to Dallas and join Mark Cuban or to go to Portland for Mr. Allen or to go to Houston for Mr. Alexander. And I want to do that and they have what you need: a combination of expiring contracts and young talent so you can rebuild your team."

So if you take the Houston example, they can put together Shane Battier and Jared Jeffries who have one year contracts, $7 million each. That's $14 million. Then they could throw in the most improved player in the league, Aaron Brooks, and maybe a couple of first round picks, including the Knicks first round pick in a couple of years that the Knicks have given up.  You get a pretty nice little package there that at least doesn't leave the team losing the glamour guy totally naked out there.

It will be interesting to see if the players and their agents attempt to broker that type of deal to get to an established team rather to go somewhere that is going to start over.

Penn also noted that teams that have cap space will be stiff competition for teams that have assets (expiring contracts, young talent, draft picks) because a sign and trade to a team under the cap can net a potentially huge trade exception.  Asked how likely he thought sign and trades would be this summer, Penn said... 

I think we're looking at potentially a mega simultaneous sign-and-trade. Because even if the teams that are losing players get nothing back but a giant trade exception, it's worth it, because it gives them the flexibility to build their team.

A trade exception here's how it works.  You resign your own guy, your glamour guy, who has told you he's going to leave and you're going to get nothing in return, so you choose to sign him and immediately trade him to the team he wants to go to. If that team is under the cap they can just take him in and give you a draft pack back maybe or they can give you nothing back other than a giant trade exception. So if one of these guys signs for $16.6 million the team that gives him up is going to get a trade exception for $16.7 million and that's a slot they can use for one calendar year to try to rebuild their team.

Don't get me wrong, the trade exception cannot shoot rebound or guard anybody but what it can do is be a place that you can go find somebody you can put in that space who can do those things. It's better than nothing. It gives Atlanta, if this happens with them, the chance to replace Joe Johnson with some combination of players in the next calendar year.

I think you're going to see a ton of that type of activity. I think there could be enough momentum for those type of deals where maybe 3 or 4 teams do those all together and then sort out the veteran players that change hands amongst that group.  

Similar to what happened during the last lockout, there was a one month period of time where we were able to freely negotiate deals. I happened to be a part of that one in Memphis where we ended up getting a simultaneous deal with 2 teams, then a 3rd one, then a 4th one and I think we had 6 teams at the end of it. It was the biggest trade in NBA history and it's because we all benefited from it at the end.

As the podcast wrapped up Penn was asked about how long it took him to learn the cap and its intricacies.  He said...

I've been in the league 10 years. This will be my 11th season. Frankly, about year 6 is where I really felt that all of these things were clicking and humming. And what's hard with this is that you don't do these things but once a year. You don't have the free agent pursuit [every day] ... you wait a year to do it again. A lot of teams don't have cap room but once every 7 years. In my decade in the league I've only had significant cap room once. So you have to really roll your sleeves up and go to work on the nuances and the details because it doesn't come around that often.

It's not totally clear which year Penn is referring to, but I would assume he means last summer when the Blazers had some stops-and-starts before using their cap space to sign Andre Miller.  If that's the case, Penn's statement about how infrequently teams find themselves in that situation and the need for extra studying in those cases might provide some insight into what was a hectic time last summer.

Penn's parting shot on the podcast was pretty funny (and dark) given recent history.  

"Hey, look, [capology] is not that complicated. This is the old lawyer's trick. You just make it sound a lot worse than it is and then you have job security." 

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter