With marquee free agents named LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony shopping their services around the league -- and teams throwing out the red carpet upon their arrival -- this offseason has been unusually quiet to start out.
These two All-NBA talents are the cream of this year's free agency crop. They're guys that everyone wants (and in some cases, needs) to compete at a championship level. The reality is, most every other domino not named "LeBron" or "Carmelo" hinges on the decisions these two players make. Once they decide what to do, everything should swiftly fall into place.
Taking that into account, plus considering the high number of teams swimming in available cap space yet with so little action, one known NBA fact continues to be magnified with each passing day:
The league is run by superstars.
Here in Blazerland, the discussion lately has been around Portland's decision to use its mid-level exception on Chris Kaman, but the importance of superstars still hangs over these parts for a couple of reasons.
First, the Blazers must continue to woo LaMarcus Aldridge prior to his impending unrestricted free agency next summer. Second, Damian Lillard will be eligible for a massive rookie extension next summer, a decision that is close enough now that it should be on our collective radar screen.
Looking ahead to Lillard's contract talks is a little like projecting how Hillary Clinton will fare in the 2016 presidential election, some two years before voting will even begin. But when you look at the type of contract Lillard could (and likely will) command, it's important to keep in mind the size of the window that the Trail Blazers have during this stretch.
As part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), players can be eligible to make up to 25% of their team's salary cap after their rookie contract is complete. However, certain players can make even more: deemed the "Derrick Rose Rule," players that meet any of these specific benchmarks can make 30% of the team's total salary cap:
- Being named the league's Most Valuable Player
- Voted as an All-Star starter twice
- Voted to an All-NBA team twice.
This is often referred to as a "super max" contract.
For example, the estimated salary cap for next year will likely be in the range of $63 million. That means that a player who hits the Derrick Rose level could currently earn $3 million more per year than a max player that doesn't reach any of the above certifications. This $3 million number will grow even higher, assuming the salary cap increases between now and then (which is a pretty safe assumption).
Only a few players have successfully inked this "super max" contract, including Derrick Rose (duh), Blake Griffin and Paul George (who hit the All-NBA mark this offseason for the second time). Lillard is already halfway to the Derrick Rose Rule target after being named to the All-NBA Third Team this offseason.
Knowing Aldridge will get an even higher salary either this summer or next (the Blazers have reportedly already offered him the max), Lillard's future contract will squeeze an already tight cap.
That may mean this offseason is a little more important than we realize.
There are a couple timeline points that come along with this. First off, as mentioned above, this is a conversation that's being had some two years before a Lillard contract extension would go on the books. Lillard could sign an extension next summer but the deal wouldn't go into effect until the 2016-17 season.
Secondly, Neil Olshey has designed this roster around the full capability of pressing the reset button next offseason (Nicolas Batum has the only true guaranteed contract for next summer). Yet when you're thinking about a scenario in which Aldridge agrees to a max deal either this year or next, a few years down the road could mean that LMA and Lillard are taking around 60% of team's available cap room, if not more, by themselves.
Needless to say, the Blazers need to make a sizable move before that happens, otherwise they might get stuck. And if it doesn't quite make sense, ask Indiana about that scenario -- the answer won't be so positive.
While the Blazers can't compete with the location and overall sexiness of the organization that LA or Chicago might offer, Lillard's current contract is a total bargain: it could be the seventh-highest on the team after Kaman's addition via the MLE. That discounting is something that can't be wasted.
Outside of the contract mumbo jumbo, the point here is this: Damian Lillard is a budding superstar, if not there already. In the eyes of league aficionados he's a Top 15 player, and per the CBA he's halfway to contractually being considered a superstar. He's the type of player that, if Portland let go, teams would be rolling out the red carpet to convince to sign, much like they're doing with ‘Melo and LeBron. And if the league is run by superstars, he's the guy the Blazers can't afford to lose.
Additionally, the Blazers can't afford to miss out on the opportunity of having a superstar-level player on an entirely reasonable contract. What this ultimately allows is more flexibility for the team to build around Lillard (and potentially Aldridge) before the team is locked in to those two guys.
So is status quo with Lillard continuing for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. Should that deter the way the Blazers think about their future? Absolutely not.
Taking a risk this summer was surely already on the minds of Blazers supporters. Only this time, a little extra context could explain why it's such a big deal.