Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag covers a couple of questions about free agency. If you're burning with a question about the Portland Trail Blazers, send it to email@example.com!
I can't stand [people] who claim the Blazers can't draw a free agent. They've never had the money to! Can't you explain this to people so they'll shut up already?
Ha! I edited down your question pretty far to make sure it was safe to print on site. You're a bit...passionate about this subject!
So look, your explanation is marginally correct but doesn't suffice. Your statement is accurate: the Blazers haven't been sitting $20 million under the salary cap for a decade straight trying to attract free agents. Reality Check: NOBODY sits that far under the cap chasing free agents for a decade. Teams that end up signing prime-time players clear cap space at the right time to make their move. That's no accident; it's intentional. If they aren't sure they have a good shot at the free agent in question, at least they know they'll get an interview. When mutual interest reaches the tipping point, the team dumps enough players to open up the space necessary to sign their man.
Make no mistake, ANY team is able to do this. I call it the "There's Always Room For LeBron" corollary. Back in 2010 the Blazers were carrying $60 million in cap obligations against a $58 million cap. Had LeBron James' agent phoned up Blazers HQ and said, "My guy wants to play for you," they would not have replied, "Sorry...all capped up!" Instead they'd start dumping as many Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, and Greg Oden contracts for second-round picks as necessary to clear that space. They'd have thrown in their own first-rounders from here to kingdom come in order to make it happen. Want Rudy Fernandez too? Done. Wesley Matthews? OK! The front office would have gone into overdrive. Paul Allen's dictum of not exceeding the salary cap or luxury tax would have been suspended for as long as King James wanted to remain in a Blazers uniform. They would have made it happen.
The reason the Blazers didn't land James--and haven't landed his stratospheric peers either--has less to do with available cap space at any given moment and more to do with them not being able to get an interview with such players in the first place. The Blazers had just come off a 50-win season in 2009-10. That's a decent tally but nowhere near good enough to lure LeBron. What good would it be to clear cap space that nobody is going to use...or at least nobody better than the players you're already spending the money on? You keep your own guys, go for more modest targets, and call it a sensible plan.
As you can see, dealing with prime free agents creates a chicken-and-egg situation. Technically cap space precedes signing a free agent. Practically the promise of the free agent provides motivation to create cap space. The Blazers haven't opened many cartons of eggs over the years, but they've also not had the ability to lure chickens. Both have contributed to the lack of free-agent signings, but luring chickens is by far the harder of the two problems to solve.
What about your Blazers history? Don't you remember us flirting with Roy Hibbert and signing Wes Matthews? What about Enes Kanter last year? That's not a lack of free agents!
Those three situations diverged somewhat. The Blazers never officially signed Hibbert to an offer sheet. They did sign Matthews to one and Utah didn't match. Kanter also put his name on the bottom line but Oklahoma City matched Portland's offer.
The commonality between Hibbert, Matthews, and Kanter? They were all restricted free agents. That changes the game.
Restricted free agents have incentive to sign with teams that will offer them the most money, remaining far more brand agnostic than unrestricted free agents. RFA's are young, have never qualified for a big contract, and their best hope of earning big bucks is to put their signature on a multi-million dollar offer from someone...anyone.
In Hibbert's case even the promise of Portland tendering an offer was enough to get the Pacers to pay him. In the case of Matthews and Kanter, who knows what their original teams would have offered had the Blazers not set the market? If you've got cap space, you're going to garner interest from RFA's and their agents. That doesn't mean they'll end up on your team or even that they prefer to. Many of them surmise that their current franchise will match the offer.
Restricted free agency is not a good barometer for gauging success in the unrestricted market. The same quality that makes a team attractive to RFA's--tons of cap space, presumably because the team isn't at the apex of the league yet--can make them unattractive to UFA's. Getting interest from RFA's doesn't mean you're desirable as much as it means you have cash in hand to spend.
With some trepidation I make the following comparison, trying like mad to avoid sexist implications:
Luring a premium unrestricted free agent is like a guy creating a profile on match.com to attract a date. It can happen, but supply-demand doesn't run your way. You had better stand out from the crowd big time or you're not going to get a look...not because women are any more shallow than guys, but because a woman perusing male profiles is rare and thus in high demand. With thousands of choices, the chances of her going for you without a clear distinguishing trait is small. If you place an ad as a guy and get dozens of quality responses, something about you is special.
Attracting a restricted free agent is more like a guy responding to women's dating profiles. It's not simple and you'd better have your act together, but the odds of success are higher because you already know she's interested. That's why she created the profile in the first place. The hardest part--getting her to notice you--is half completed. Chances may not be good, but they're higher.
The Blazers have definitely been in the second category, not in the first. They've been able to get responses from restricted free agents from time to time. Premium unrestricted free agents have been out of their league.
Unfortunately Portland can't afford to dally with restricted free agents this summer. In order to make an offer for somebody else's RFA, the Blazers would need to clear the cap space to do so. With cap holds in place, they're only $6 million or so below the projected cap threshold right now. If they wanted to make a $15 million offer, they'd need to dump $9 million in salary...renouncing one of their players in hand to make a run at a player they'd have no guarantee of actually signing, as the other team could match their offer. They'd probably end up cutting an existing player to get nothing. That's not a smart game.
If anything, restricted free agency is likely to be unkind to the Blazers this summer. Their own RFA's are going to attract attention from other teams. Matching a reasonable offer to Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, or Maurice Harkless would cost Portland all their naturally-occurring space and more. If one of those guys gets hot on the market in July, the Blazers will be hard-pressed to retain them while still making other moves. It's not entirely unreasonable to guess that keeping two of the three would take up not only this summer's cap space, but most of next summer's as well...all but evicting Portland from the high-end free agency chase.
It seems clear that if the Blazers do plan to purse a significant free agent, that free agent will be unrestricted and they'll need a great sales pitch plus the willingness to cut current players in order to make it happen. It might be possible for Portland to attract high-level guys, but they'll need to jump crazy hoops to get there.
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