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Larry Sanders to the Trail Blazers: A Dream Dashed

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The perfect center is sitting out there unsigned and the Blazers can’t get him.

Milwaukee Bucks v Orlando Magic Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question involves a certain long-awaited free-agent center. It comes to us via Twitter, which is a super-totally-valid way to get your Portland Trail Blazers related questions answered. Easier, even, because you’re already short enough (140 characters) and I can just embed the whole thing! So here you go.

Scott is referencing a series of articles I wrote last year, pining over the possibility of getting a returning Larry Sanders on the cheap. When paired with a permissive defensive backcourt, his shot-blocking ability would replace the departing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as the Greatest Show on Earth. (How weird is the 21st Century, by the way? No circus??? And, as Eastern Mystics say, “First there is a Twinkie, then there is no Twinkie, then there is.”) If any team has a need for Sanders, if any team should be willing to take a risk on Sanders, if any team plays in a state whose policies and social leanings could mollify and legitimize Sanders, that team is the Trail Blazers.

BUT...

The Blazers were in a wholly different situation when I wrote that series of articles than they are in now. Back then they were a young, upwardly-mobile, kum-ba-yah-chanting fairy tale team. Now they’re a young, stuck in mud, silently-jabbing-needles-in-each-other’s-eyes mess. The attraction difference is like seeing the Las Vegas Strip from the air (“Oooh! Pretty!”) and seeing it up real close. (“Wait? This is all made of styrofoam?”)

Even more importantly, last year the Blazers had cap space potential to burn. This year they’re staring down a National Debt of impending Luxury Tax bills. Even if they wanted to sign Sanders, there’s no money.

Portland could find a couple ways around this. A team can take on any number of minimum contracts, regardless of salary cap status. The minimum salary for Sanders sits around $1.3 million. Unless they traded away a player (as opposed to just waiving somebody to make room for him) that’d put Portland over the tax line, but the financial penalty wouldn’t be too stiff...for now. If Sanders wasn’t willing to sign for the minimum, Portland could always offer him their “Taxpayer’s Exception” slot of $3.5 million.

Even assuming the more optimistic number, Sanders would be playing in Portland for a salary lower than any team with a remaining mid-level exception could offer him, let alone a team with actual cap space. If you can make the case why a player with any options at all would want to join a Blazers squad that had to go on a serious upswing this week to reach 20-27—for the grand sum of a half-season, pro-rated $3.5 million contract, no less—I’m all ears. Seriously, with the actual payoff amount of any deal cut in half, the difference between offers shrinks. Sanders would have to choose Portland over almost every other team out there. Not the way Festus Ezeli “chose” Portland either...legitimately taking less money and spurning much better teams.

The Blazers might be able to sweeten their offer the way Scott suggested: by clearing enough space to make a more substantial bid, maybe multi-year. Sanders would be foolish to sign a two-year contract for $3.5 million. Unless he can’t play at all (which never happens to centers who sign free agent contracts, right?) he could easily equal or exceed that amount next year. But if Portland could offer him, say, $8 million per year over two seasons they might outbid everyone else.

Let’s see...in order to get far enough under the cap to extend that offer the Blazers would have to trade away... ummm... TWENTY SIX POINT SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS IN SALARY for nothing but draft picks.

If Allen Crabbe or Evan Turner were included in those deals, that sum is attainable. Crabbe and Meyers Leonard would do it. So would Turner, Moe Harkless, and Ed Davis. Other permutations are possible. (Don’t even ask how many players the Blazers would have to trade away if one of those guards wasn’t included, though. It’s like 44.5 Jake Laymans.) But now from Portland’s perspective you’re looking at dumping multiple assets—mediocre, to be sure, but still assets—for a player you’re not sure can actually play.

The other little hitch would be finding trade partners to accept those players and their salaries. No single team could absorb them whole, but the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76’ers, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz could all take partial deals. The commonality between all those teams is that they vaguely suck right now. Chances are they’re hoping their cap space turns into something more valuable than a fairly expensive Evan Turner. But if Neil Olshey could find two General Managers to say, “You know what our really questionable roster needs? MORE QUESTIONABLE PLAYERS!” he might be able to pull it off.

After Scott chimed in a follow-up question came.

Somewhat unintentionally, Chris has hit the nail on the head. If the Blazers were planning to make a bid for Sanders—or any other free agent—Ezeli would be the logical player to jettison. Assuming he’s not going to play this year, they could have removed him easily via the Disabled Player Exception. This allows a team to replace a non-functional player with another player making 50% of his current salary or that same $3.5 million we just talked about, whichever is less. In Portland’s case, that would have provided the $3.5 million they needed to take a cheap swing at Sanders. Except they didn’t apply for this exception. The deadline was January 15th. Given that, we can pretty much assume that this kind of move is not in their plans. Either that, or they like making things harder on themselves.

We’ll assume the former. Sorry, guys. No Larry Sanders.

Thanks for the questions, though! And thanks to all of you sending in questions via email at blazersub@gmail.com too. Keep them coming and we’ll try to get to all of them at some point.

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—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard