Over the last two weeks the Portland Trail Blazers have lost four of their five starters from last season via free agency or trade. Particularly frustrating for Blazers' fans is the fact that General Manager Neil Olshey managed to acquire exactly two players for those four former starters: Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh.
Many fans have been left wondering if there was any way Olshey could have parlayed his former starters into more tangible assets. Specifically, why didn't Olshey attempt a sign and trade involving Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, or LaMarcus Aldridge?
To answer that question, it's important to first understand the conditions under which sign and trades usually occur:
1. The player wants to go to the new team. For example, Portland could not have worked out a sign and trade with the Rockets and then forced Aldridge to agree to it. Aldridge has full control over which team he chooses.
2. The new team does not have enough cap space to acquire the player outright, or wishes to retain cap space for some other reason. They use the sign and trade to clear the space needed for the player's contract.
3. The new team has to have an asset the former team wants and be willing to send that asset to the former team, rather than some other team.
Now, let's consider Aldridge's signing with the Spurs, in light of the outlined conditions:
First, did Aldridge want to go to the Spurs? Yes.
Second, did San Antonio need to clear cap space to sign Aldridge? Yes.
Did San Antonio have an asset that Portland wanted? Probably not. San Antonio ended up dumping Tiago Splitter's salary to clear the cap space to sign Aldridge. Splitter is a 29 year old role player with little upside and two years remaining on his contract. The Blazers have filled their roster with young players who have upside and will not win games immediately. With Kaman already filling a mentor role for big men, Splitter would have either taken minutes from younger bigs, or sat on the bench while eating up $8,000,000+ in salary. The Blazers probably felt that cap space and playing time for Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard were more valuable than Splitter and would not have been interested in a sign and trade.
San Antonio also had reason to reject any sign and trade proposals, even if it helped them clear cap space. If the Spurs had agreed to a sign and trade, then they would be prevented from exceeding $84 million in salary for any reason. From the Spurs' perspective, it made more sense to trade players for nothing, or let restricted free agents walk, than to offer Portland something in return for Aldridge. Full details can be read here.
On the other hand, if Aldridge had chosen Phoenix, then a sign and trade would have been more likely. After signing Tyson Chandler, Phoenix needed to shed several million dollars to nab Aldridge and a sign and trade with Phoenix was even suggested by media members on Twitter prior to Aldridge's final decision. Phoenix would have offered Markieff Morris while Portland likely would have countered by asking for Alex Len or even Eric Bledsoe. Portland, however, could not have been too greedy with their proposals - any deal that would have substantially weakened Phoenix's rotation would likely have caused Aldridge to balk at signing with the now dimmed Suns.
Originally, I wrote this article before Aldridge agreed to sign with San Antonio. At that time, the primary argument against a sign and trade was that Aldridge would almost certainly not agree to the terms. Players in a sign and trade must sign at least three year contracts, are limited to four years on that contract, and are only eligible for 4.5% raises. Players staying with their original team can sign for as little as one year, or as many as five years, and get larger annual raises. These restrictions were put in place by the last collective bargaining agreement to stop players from forcing sign and trades in order to maximize their salaries. The classic example is the Lebron James sign and trade from Cleveland to Miami.
Before his decision, it seemed exceedingly unlikely that Aldridge would agree to a sign and trade because the restrictions on the deal would prevent him from signing a one year or two year contract; in turn that would prevent him from taking advantage of the sky-rocketing salary cap after next season. Surprisingly, he agreed to a four year deal. Blazer's Edge and numerous other publications have noted that he likely left tens of millions of dollars on the table on the table by signing the four year contract now.
Portland's other top free agents, Matthews and Lopez, were also unlikely sign and trade candidates. Dallas sits at the salary cap limit after signing Matthews so they may have been interested in a sign and trade, but all they have to offer are veteran role players predominantly on multi-year contracts, Raymond Felton, or their first round draft pick Justin Anderson. Portland would not want the veterans, the Portland fans would revolt if Felton returned, and Dallas is not going to surrender their first round pick to save $1.2 million in cap space, making a sign and trade very unlikely.
The Knicks, on the other hand, are still below the cap even after signing Lopez and Arron Afflalo and had no need to pursue a sign and trade.
As of July 1, Olshey also had to deal with Lopez and Matthews receiving large raises, which would trigger the Base Year Compensation (BYC) clause in the CBA if the Blazers exceeded the cap to sign and trade either of them. The BYC is a complicated holdover from a previous CBA but, in short, it would limit the amount of salary the Blazers could receive for Matthews or Lopez while still requiring the other team to take either players' full cap hit.
The Blazers have remained below the cap so the BYC is not a concern, but on July 1 Olshey may not have known what Portland's cap status would be when the free agent moratorium ends tomorrow. This may have made it difficult to negotiate with trade partners prior to striking out with Greg Monroe.
Portland also still holds Bird rights to Joel Freeland, Alonzo Gee, and Dorrell Wright. Those three players are all technically eligible for sign and trades, but it is unlikely that Portland would get any assets of value for fringe rotation players. Freeland has already expressed some doubt about his NBA future.