Since the Golden State Warriors officially ended the Portland Trail Blazers 2015-2016 season on Wednesday night, all eyes will now turn from the court to the front office. As Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey continues rebuilding his team's roster this summer, we'll need to know what tools and parameters he's working with. With that in mind, here's a FAQ guide to free agency and the draft for the Summer of 2016.
How much cap space will the Blazers have?
The NBA estimates that the salary cap for the 2016-2017 season will be approximately $92 million. The exact cap won't be known until the league conducts its annual audit in July, but $92 million is close enough to do some basic estimates.
As of now, the Blazers have about $85 million tied up in salary and potential salary for next season, giving Olshey $6-$7 million in cap space to sign a free agent. Here are the details:
Wait...what?! I thought the Blazers were swimming in cap space! What happened to making a run at LeKev Duralsan Horfside?
The $7 million figure assumes that every single player on the team returns. That almost certainly won't be the case. Several of the Blazers are going to be free agents this summer and in lieu of an actual salary obligation the league places a temporary "cap hold" on the team's payroll until the free agent either leaves or re-signs. In the table above, the dollar amounts in red represent cap holds and not actual salary obligation.
The Blazers will be able to clear additional cap space by renouncing the cap holds on players, which will free up salary space equivalent to the dollar amount of the cap hold. For instance, if the Blazers decide to renounce Gerald Henderson they will reduce their cap hit by $9 million, giving them about $16 million to use on free agents.
The downside to renouncing free agents is that the Blazers lose the ability to go over the cap to re-sign the renounced player (see below for full details), meaning they will be unable to retain that player if the cleared space is used to sign someone else. In short, once a player is renounced, you can pretty much count on him not being on the team next season.
Circling back to the Blazers cap situation, if they renounce all of their free agents, they could have as much as $44 million in cap space to use to sign new players.
But I don't want to lose all those players. Who, specifically, needs to go in order to sign a maximum salary free agent?
Players are eligible to receive a maximum salary which is determined by how long they've been in the league. The result is a tiered system of max contracts defined as follows (note these estimates were made with the previous estimated cap of $90 million so may be slightly inaccurate, but are close enough to convey rough guesses, plus or minus a Montero):
The table also includes the amount of money the Blazers need to clear to make a maximum offer to players who fit those years of service.
Looking back at the table from the first question, the Blazers will almost certainly renounce Chris Kaman, raising their cap space to $13 million. From there, they will need to clear at least an additional $8 million to offer the cheapest tier of maximum contract and as much as $16.5 million to to sign a player at the highest max contract tier. This article is not intended to speculate on player moves, but you can make guesses about which players (if any) are most likely to be renounced in the comments section below.
The take away regarding potential cap space is this: The Blazers still have the cap space to sign a max player, but they are going to have to sacrifice one or more of the current players to do it, in addition to Kaman. If they want to upgrade at more than one position via free agency they will have to renounce multiple players from the current team. They certainly have a lot of flexibility as far as who to choose to let go, but they cannot acquire marquee, or even secondary players without making some sacrifices. Last summer the projections were for the Blazers to have more space, but some of that money has been eaten up acquiring draft picks, among other things.
Can the Blazers exceed the salary cap to sign a player?
The Blazers cannot exceed the salary cap to sign a player from a different team. If they hope to lure Horford, for example, they will need to be far enough under the cap to fit his entire contract.
The Blazers CAN retain their own free agents even if they are over the cap because of the "Larry Bird Exception" and "Early-Bird Exception" which give teams an advantage by allowing them to exceed to the cap to in re-sign their own players (note: this is a simplified explanation of free agent exceptions. For full details consult Larry Coon's CBA FAQ).
It's also important to know that several of the Blazers are restricted free agents (RFAs). This means that Portland has the option to match any contract offered to that player by another team and automatically retain that player. It's a right of first refusal, essentially. Unrestricted free agents (UFAs) can sign with any team they want - the Blazers will have the option to match the contract, but the player is not obligated to stay in Portland. (Again, the full process is more complicated than described here - see Larry Coon's CBA FAQ for complete details.)
RFAs (Blazers will have option to match any offer from another team and automatically retain this player):
UFAs (Player can choose to leave team, even if Blazers match the offer):
What about draft picks?
The Blazers have no picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. Their first round pick was traded to Denver as part of the Arron Afflalo deal in February, 2015.
Could the Blazers make a trade for a lottery pick on draft day?
The Blazers could make a trade for a pick on draft day, but they are unlikely to acquire a lottery pick. We saw last year that Olshey was unable to acquire a mid-lottery pick for Nicolas Batum, and picks this season will be even more valuable. Since Portland has no tradeable players as valuable as Batum, the Blazers would likely need to trade several players to move into the lottery - unless Olshey is targeting a specific prospect, that seems unlikely.
The Blazers could use their cap space to facilitate trades with other teams, and take on draft picks in return (Olshey has done this previously with Anderson Varejao and other players). However, players are not allowed to be traded if their contract is expiring this summer, so Olshey would probably need to take on more salary for next year to to get a pick. He may or may not see this as worthwhile depending on where the pick falls and how much he values the cap space.
It's also worth noting that the Blazers cannot trade any of their six pending free agents (listed above), further restricting their draft day trade options.
What else should I know?
There are rumors that Lillard has a "Derrick Rose Bonus" built into his contract. If he makes an all-NBA team he will get a 2.5 percent bonus next season, costing the Blazers an additional $2.3 million in cap space. As awkward as this sounds, Lillard making the all-NBA team will have a measurable negative effect on the team's cap space.
Brandon's question is based around the fact that the NBA salary cap is increasing from $70 million this season to $92 million next season - a 31.4 percent increase is unprecedented in league history. Since the vast majority of players were signed under the restrictions of a $70 million cap, many teams will have a lot of cap space this summer. Specifically, without making any trades, 25 of 30 teams will have room to sign a maximum salary free agent if they choose to. Several of the teams that don't have max space, could also conceivably join the party by trading contracted players for top-55 protected second round picks (e.g. how the Blazers got Harkless).
The upshot is that while the Blazers cap space isn't meaningless, you can't sign ANYBODY without space, but this is as close as we will every get to seeing an MLB style, no-salary cap free-for-all in the NBA. The Blazers will be competing with nearly every other team in the league to sign players this summer, increasing the difficulty of luring free agents to Portland.
Another question from Brandon:
Brandon's talking about the fact that teams can go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players, but not to sign players coming from other teams. This means that if you sign the new players first and your own players second, you can sign more players than you'd otherwise be able to. This is the strategy the Spurs employed last year, asking many of their own players to wait while they signed players from other teams (like LaMarcus Aldridge), then re-signing their own players after.
During the first week of July, there's a period of time where teams can talk and negotiate with players, but can't re-sign them yet. This is the time when GMs could hypothetically ask their players to wait before re-signing so they can try to sign players from other teams. Once the new player is added, they can then officially sign their own returning players. GMs can also pick and choose which current players to renounce to make room for the new player, if needed.
But there's another way it can go down. In short: the Blazers don't have to ask Crabbe to wait to re-sign, so long as they negotiate successfully during the moratorium period in early July. On the first day the moratorium ends, they can officially sign the new players first, then complete the paperwork on Crabbe's new deal later in the day, even if a verbal agreement was reach with Crabbe first.
If you have any additional questions please leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer!
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTorando | GoBlazers87@gmail.com