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On the Portland Trail Blazers, the Looming Salary Cap and the Curious Case of Moe Harkless

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A year ago, the Trail Blazers were rebuilding. Now, they're fully built. What does this mean for the future - and for Moe Harkless?

Will we see these two together again?
Will we see these two together again?
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It's amazing to think of just how far the Trail Blazers have come, considering where they were 12 months ago.

This time, I'm not talking about the results on the floor. Yes, the Blazers went from a team Vegas said would win just 27 games to a team that shocked the world and won 44, but that's not what interests me most today. What I refer to is now how far the Blazers came in terms of their team-building concept and, perhaps most revealingly, their salary cap sheet.

Think back to where the Blazers were at this time in 2015. They had just lost LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of them. They were rebuilding a team practically from scratch. They had ungodly sums of money to spend and no one to spend it on. Even after going out in free agency and adding two mid-sized contracts in Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis, they still had an absurd amount of cap space left - somewhere in the ballpark of $19 million. They never did use that space, though not for lack of trying. They took a swing at Enes Kanter in restricted free agency; they missed. They ended up holding onto their space, using it at midseason to absorb Anderson Varejao and snag a draft pick, and then riding it out with an underpaid roster through the end of this season. This was a fine strategy. The Blazers were in a good spot. They were young, they were cheap and they had seemingly endless potential to add new pieces this summer.

Look where we are now.

In the last month, the Blazers have taken all that potential and turned it into cold, hard certainty. Split among Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli and draft pick Jake Layman, Neil Olshey has committed approximately $203 million in total salary between now and 2020. That money is gone; it's never coming back. You can love those five players or hate them, but either way you can't deny - they represent a major commitment. They're here. The Blazers are no longer rebuilding. They are built.

Just think of how much things have changed since a year ago. Last year's Blazers earned about $51 million total; they could theoretically have added more talent, but they just couldn't find it. Now, the Blazers are swimming in talent, and they can't find room in the ledger to fit it all. Their payroll is now over $100 million; it's very nearly doubled from last season. They've gone from one big problem to the opposite one.

This is what makes the Blazers' current situation with Maurice Harkless so interesting. A year ago, they were struggling to fill their roster with competent basketball players; when Orlando came along offering a chance to take Harkless for basically nothing, Olshey jumped on it. (His top 55-protected draft pick in 2020 will not be missed.) Now, though, Harkless appears to be the odd man out of a Blazers roster that's already loaded. With Turner expected to play heavy minutes at small forward, and Ezeli surely pushing other Blazer bigs like Leonard and Davis to the four at least a little bit, Harkless becomes somewhat expendable despite his versatility as a combo forward. Portland has plenty of depth at both the three and four.

For this reason, it makes sense that Harkless' agent Happy Walters has told CSN Northwest the team is "not any closer" to re-signing his client. Why would they be? Even if Harkless has been a great fit in Portland so far (and I'd argue he has!), there's no reason the Blazers would feel any urgency to splurge for a luxury piece like him. Harkless has been a solid Blazer, but he's not essential. On next year's team, he's not a lot more than bench depth.

We should note at this point that, as far as the NBA salary cap rules are concerned, there's nothing wrong with the Blazers re-signing Moe Harkless. The team has his Bird rights and can go as far over the cap as they want to keep him, basically. Just as I argued last week with Leonard, pretty much the only thing you're risking is Paul Allen's money. The problem, though, arises when you start to consider signing Harkless to a multi-year deal. Sign him just for now, and you're fine; he's just depth. Sign him for the long haul, and things could get dicey. You've got to start thinking about the team's cap outlook in future seasons.

Those are the dollar amounts, in millions, that the Blazers owe their players over the next half-decade. It's pretty staggering stuff when you view it all together. All told, you're looking at about four-tenths of a billion dollars. There are some minor technicalities to keep in mind - for example, this chart doesn't include Luis Montero, who isn't guaranteed for next season. It does include the full amount pledged to Festus Ezeli, although Portland has the option to pay him just $1 million for the 2017-18 season if they cut him next summer. In any event, this is a pretty good estimate of the team's obligations for the foreseeable future.

The big number that sticks out, if you ask me, is that "101.6" figure under 2018. It's a notable figure because if you believe the latest reporting from ESPN's Brian Windhorst, it's almost exactly equal to the $102 million estimate for the 2017-18 salary cap. Yes, you read that correctly - the Blazers have gone in the blink of an eye from "more cap space than they know what to do with" to capped out for this year and next.

What's even crazier is that that $101.6 million figure includes a blank space next to the name C.J. McCollum. CJ is a cornerstone guy for the Blazers, but he's still on his rookie deal, and that deal expires next summer. Olshey might get to work this fall negotiating an extension; he might wait until July 2017 to figure things out. Eric Griffith has already written a fantastic explanation of the CJ situation that you should totally read if you haven't already, so I won't waste much time repeating it. But the point is that one way or another, the Blazers are likely to have their shooting guard back next season, and because CJ is really good and will probably command a max contract, he's looking at 25 percent of the cap, or a cool $25.5 million annually.

Yikes.

The Blazers are looking at a long, long future of being over the cap. If they max McCollum next season - and it's hard to imagine they don't - they're looking at a $125 million-plus payroll. And that's not even considering the future of Mason Plumlee, another nice player that the Blazers would ideally like to keep around.

What makes this such a bummer is that 2017 is promising a massively star-studded free agent class. It's unlikely that Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant leaves Golden State next summer, but there are big-name guys like Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap who may actually change teams. Unless something crazy happens between now and next July, the Blazers can say goodbye to their hopes of landing a new star. Just think about the cap gymnastics the Blazers would have to do to retain McCollum and get another guy. You're talking about cutting Ezeli, renouncing Plumlee, trading Turner in a straight-up salary dump ... oh geez, all that and you're still only down to $75 million. That's barely one max slot; forget about two. You wanna dump Allen Crabbe for nothing, too? This is getting a little ridiculous.

I can't stress this enough - it's crazy that we're here. A year ago, the Blazers couldn't give their money away. A month ago, they had limitless possibilities and fans were buzzing about Hassan Whiteside, Chandler Parsons and the like. Now, the buzz is over. In its place are the Evan Turners and the Festus Ezelis of the world.

The reality is simple: This is your team now, Portland. This is it. These are the guys you're rolling with not just now, but for the next two years at least. Probably more than that. With an extension for McCollum (and perhaps one for Plumlee too, we'll see), the above $83 million figure you see for 2018-19 moves into nine figures. You're basically looking at a Blazers team that's capped out for the rest of the decade. Barring a bizarre trade with a team that can absorb extra salary (Crabbe to Philly for Nerlens Noel? I have my doubts), this team's payroll isn't likely to shrink for a long, long time.

It's been asked what the Blazers' path forward is from here. This is a good question. There's no one certain answer - the team definitely has possible curveballs to throw, most notably a McCollum trade, though I find that scenario unlikely - but the simplest explanation is probably correct here. The most likely path now simply involves developing talent, fostering chemistry and trying to take this current group of players as far as it can go.

As for Harkless? I like him. I want the Blazers to keep him. But I think it's only realistic for the team to offer him one year - keeping both Harkless and McCollum on the roster past 2017 means you're just begging for a $130 million-plus payroll and an absurd luxury tax bill. From Harkless' perspective, accepting a one-year offer is a questionable move. There are plenty of other teams out there with the cap space to give him a more serious offer - Philadelphia, Denver, Brooklyn and Phoenix come to mind. If I'm Happy Walters, I'm calling those organizations now and probing about their interest.

This is the Blazers' world now. They used to be a small-market team with a small-market payroll; they're now a freewheeling spending machine. They spent and they spent and they spent, and at this point they can probably spend no more. What they bought is what they get. This is your team. Love it or leave it.