The Trail Blazers are only one year removed from a massive spending spree that saw President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey make serious long-term investments in a handful of players. After a somewhat disappointing season in 2016-17, Portland is facing some serious payroll questions moving forward, putting Olshey in a situation where he has very little flexibility when it comes to supplementing the Blazers’ current roster.
Olshey handed out handsome pay raises to Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, CJ McCollum, and Evan Turner, putting the Blazers in a precarious position after a 41-41 regular season. Danny Leroux of The Crossover dissected the options that Portland has at its disposal to avoid a massive luxury tax bill in the near future.
Leroux first outlines the uphill battle that Olshey is facing in regards to the Blazers’ salary cap situation:
Portland is looking at a $40 million luxury tax bill even if they stretch Festus Ezeli’s $1 million partial guarantee and let Tim Quarterman go. Using the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (about $5.2 million) would run it back up to almost $60 million. At those high rates, unloading any salary means significant savings but Portland’s problem is that most of their money is tied up in either franchise cornerstones like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum or deeply unsavory multi-year contracts like Turner and Leonard.
Even with “unsavory” contracts on the books, Portland has other assets to help move salary according to Leroux.
They have sweeteners like Ed Davis and three picks in the second half of the first round, but sacrificing assets to clear salary would weaken the team for the sole purpose of saving their owner money. That pattern happens frequently in the NBA but all of Portland’s bad money came on their books a year ago so it is possible they will largely grin and bear it, at least for one season.
Olshey’s stockpile of three first round picks (15, 20, 26) in the upcoming NBA Draft will also give him an opportunity to balance Portland’s roster.
Thanks to deadline deals in both 2015 and 2016, Portland has two extra late first-round picks this year. Those combined with their own choice (No. 15) gives them an interesting collection of assets. Olshey could try to combine picks or add in a player or two to get a better choice, use some or all of them to unload some of their bad contracts or simply try to add quality young players who would be on team-friendly rookie scale contracts for four seasons. The most likely outcome is a mix of these approaches, depending on what offers are on the table.
If Olshey is unable to make space this offseason it isn’t the end of the line for Portland, as Paul Allen’s financial situation will (literally) buy the Blazers time. This pressure could increase after the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, however, as Jusuf Nurkic’s contract uncertainty will raise the stakes if he produces at a high level over the course of an entire season.
The Blazers had an impressive regular season record of 14-6 with Nurkic in the starting lineup, but a contract extension for the Bosnian big man isn’t a sure thing this summer.
Nurkic is eligible for an extension this summer, which could be challenging for both sides. Portland does not need to worry about replacing his cap hold with salary since they have no flexibility for 2018–19 anyway. But the Blazers should still ask for a meaningful concession in terms of salary if Nurkic wants the immediate security of a long-term deal. His fractured right leg and inconsistent time in Denver should also give Portland reason to wait and see how the 2017–18 season goes before committing to him via a massive new contract.
Unlike last year, this offseason will likely be judged by how the Blazers balance their payroll. The direction that Olshey is heading should become clear after the draft in June.