Acquiring Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round draft pick from the Denver Nuggets in a trade for Mason Plumlee has given the Portland Trail Blazers immediate luxury tax relief.
Plumlee is scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer and could potentially fetch offers in excess of $15 million per year. Before the trade, the Blazers already had $130 million in guaranteed salary next season—putting them about $7 million into the estimated luxury tax. Adding Plumlee’s presumptive new contract to the already guaranteed salary would have put the Blazers at least $22 million over the tax line and added at least $40 million to their tax payment.
Instead, the Blazers will now be on the hook for only $3.4 million to Nurkic and $1.7-$2.1 million for the additional first-round pick (exact salary dependent upon Memphis’ final draft position).
Nurkic will be eligible to become a restricted free agent in July, 2018, so the Blazers have essentially delayed making a final decision on how to handle their starting center’s extension for a year if Nurkic succeeds in Portland. If Nurkic fails and the Blazers let him walk next year, they will have turned a player they could not afford to keep (Plumlee) into a player on a cheap rookie deal (Grizzlies first round pick).
Nurkic’s salary this season is also lower than Plumlee’s, meaning the Blazers will stay barely below the luxury tax in 2017 and avoid the stiff repeater penalty in 2018. Overall, this trade is a salary cap win in the immediate future.
That said, it does not change that for a team with a sub-.500 record, the Blazers are still in dire straights from a payroll perspective. Unless more changes are made, they will still be deep into the luxury tax next season, which significantly limits their ability to make transactions that could improve the team.
Unfortunately, it will be an uphill battle to make enough additional changes to get back to a reasonable cap situation. The Blazers are reportedly hesitant to trade Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and unable to trade Evan Turner or Meyers Leonard unless they sweeten a deal with a draft pick. Outside of Allen Crabbe, and possibly Maurice Harkless, the Blazers will have difficulty shedding significant salary without sacrificing other assets.
All of this is to say that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey likely overplayed the “Tristan Thompson Corollary” to the salary cap rules (i.e. once you’re certain to be over the cap spend as much as possible to increase trade flexibility) last summer. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Blazers signed Jeremy Lin ($11.5 million) or Gerald Henderson ($9 million) instead of Evan Turner ($16.4 million). Contracts similar to those would have been imminently tradeable and, realistically, having Henderson, Lin, or a similar player instead of Turner would not have affected the team’s win total significantly. In this scenario, Olshey would have at least two options to acquire more assets and significantly reduce the team’s tax payment: 1) Trade Crabbe, 2) Trade Lin/Henderson/Other player, or 3) Trade both.* Instead, he now has one realistic option: Trade Crabbe.
Overall, a slightly less aggressive 2016 free agency period would have resulted in more flexibility right now. That reality means, from strictly a salary perspective, the Plumlee/Nurkic deal is a nice Band-Aid but several more moves are needed to give the Blazers true flexibility in the future.
* There’s actually a fourth option if we want to go totally down the rabbit hole: Hold off on extending CJ, while also trading Crabbe and player-signed-instead-of-Turner for picks/rookie contracts. Under that scenario, the Blazers suddenly have more than $10 million in cap space this summer. And that’s ignoring Meyers Leonard’s contract entirely. But this scenario is a “Bill Simmons on the trade machine” level of hypothetical.
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA | GoBlazers87@gmail.com