After paying exorbitantly for a 41-41 season and a first-round playoff sweep, the Portland Trail Blazers will likely look to wheel and deal their way through this off-season. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. If you have a Mailbag question you’d like us to consider, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are [the Blazers’] most tradeable contracts? With so much being made of financial downsizing I’m wondering who we might move? What kind of return might the tradeable players bring? Or do you see nobody likely?
Technically Portland’s most “tradeable” contract belongs to Jusuf Nurkic. He’s still on a rookie deal and his recent production far outpaces his paycheck. But let’s assume that the spirit of your question eliminates Nurkic, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum from consideration. The Blazers still have a few options.
Ed Davis has the most appealing combination of ability and contract size. He’ll be owed $6.4 million on an expiring deal next year. Injuries took him down in 2016-17 but before that he performed admirably for the Blazers, posting good rebounding and defensive numbers while hitting the (limited) shot opportunities that came his way. Plenty of teams might appreciate a solid, 6’10” reserve who costs only 6% of the salary cap. If Portland is inclined to move him, they should be able to find him a home.
Maurice Harkless at $9.7 million and Al-Farouq Aminu at $7.3 million come next. Aminu plays better defense than Davis and is also a fine rebounder. His offense fell off the back of a truck, rolled into a ditch, and spontaneously combusted this year but at that price, he could be a “missing piece” type for a contender. Harkless shows more promise in his overall game, plus his ability to get to the hoop is far superior to Aminu’s. But he could also end up a “Jack of all trades, master of none” player and he’s much more expensive: his contract runs for three more years ($31 million total) while Aminu’s ends in two ($14.3 million). I’m not sure the market for either player will be hot, but either could draw attention.
After that Portland runs into an issue of too little production for too much money. Meyers Leonard’s $9.9 million deal doesn’t look obscene considering he’s a 7-footer who can shoot threes, but his performance nosedived this season. The problem moving Leonard isn’t how much he’s making per year, but for how long. Another team might take a flyer on him at $10 million salary level, but they’ll be paying him through 2020, a $31.8 million total. Chances are they’re going to want more for that money than 5 points and 3 rebounds a game with negative defensive numbers. Even in the new NBA, an eight-figure salary is hard to justify when you’re not outproducing Joe Wolf at the same age.
Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner are putting up reasonable numbers but their contracts are much more demanding. Crabbe will make $19 million next season, $56 million over the next three years. That’s about what Paul George makes right now. Obviously George will be due a raise soon, but no GM can afford to ignore the discrepancy in production between the two at similar pay levels. Turner isn’t far behind at $17.1 million, $53.6 million over the next three.
Lots of Blazers fans suggest jettisoning Crabbe or Turner to gain luxury tax relief. Losing either player for absolutely nothing would indeed bring Portland under the tax line...barely. Finding a trade partner to take on either without sending back any salary may be a challenge. Maybe the Brooklyn Nets still covet Crabbe?
Either way, that kind of deal wouldn’t give the Blazers functional cap space...they’d simply avoid paying tax penalties for another year before Nurkic gets an extension and sends their salary structure into the stratosphere. Crawling below the tax threshold is a worthy goal, both financially and from the standpoint of making later acquisitions, but trading your 6th or 7th man for a second-round pick doesn’t make the team any better.
Obviously the Blazers also carry sub-$4 million contracts in Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, and Jake Layman. They could throw these into any deal to obtain additional relief. Assuming they keep all three draft picks, Portland would need to dump $36 million just to reach the salary cap line and over $41 million to obtain any usable cap space beyond the value of a mid-level exception. For perspective, the latter number would mean trading away Crabbe, Turner, and Davis for nothing. Or Turner, Leonard, Harkless, and Aminu. Or Harkless, Aminu, Davis, Vonleh, Napier, Layman, and one of the draft picks. You get the idea.
In all these cases, cap relief is the main benefit to Portland. If they take on returning contracts they remain in tax territory. They might consider absorbing expiring deals with an eye toward alleviating the problem next summer; at least the tax constraints would be shorter-term, but those players wouldn’t be forecast to make a lasting difference. It’s more likely that the Blazers would need to send out picks to convince other teams to make salary-imbalanced deals than it would be for teams to send Portland picks for the privilege of paying $50+ million to Crabbe or Turner. Crabbe’s distance shooting and potential might make him more valuable than the current optics decree. That’s probably Portland’s best hope. Any way you slice it, forecasting huge returns from trading any of these players would be optimistic.
Keep sending those Mailbag questions to email@example.com. The off-season will be full of them!