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Exploring The Trail Blazers Free Agency Strategy

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Some things will work for Portland...some things that people clamor for just won’t.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers head into the NBA Free Agency period on the heels of a surprising draft, with trade rumors dogging them, and with a tricky combination of reasonable need without any reasonable cap space. Portland’s strategy is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hi Dave;

The following results in a question.

One skill Coach Stotts requires for starting Small Forwards is that they have ball-handling skills sufficient to help relieve defensive pressure on Dame and CJ. Andre Turner, the incumbent SF, has only his 6'7" height, experience, and his 'handles' to recommend him. Other than those, he has fallen way short of meeting the team's needs.

I believe that 1) Turner and Leonard (at least) are gone from this team, 2) that Gerald Henderson filled Turner's role far better than Turner, that 3) winning ranks ahead of player development, and that 4) Paul Allen may reluctantly use waivers to help pull back from luxury tax Hades.

QUESTION: Is there a feasible way, including use of waivers, that the unloading of Leonard and Turner can (going way around the barn) ultimately result in re-obtaining Henderson?

Thank you & keep up the good work;

Taylor in FL

Interesting. Let’s take your assertions in order.

1. The Blazers will almost certainly try to refine, if not re-design, the roster... particularly a supporting cast which Damian Lillard himself reportedly wants to improve. Tabbing specific names is difficult. Moving one player may make another more important to retain. Market value makes a difference. It’s not as easy as just picking out your least favorite players and giving them the heave ho.

I’m higher on Evan Turner than many Blazers fans simply because I’m cool with what Turner is and isn’t. He doesn’t fit Portland seamlessly, but that’s not his fault. He ended up having more of an impact as the season developed than he did initially.

Meyers Leonard needs a fresh start somewhere. Sometimes expectations and history combine to make a toxic stew. Meyers is dipping his biscuit into it right now. It doesn’t look like he’ll be anything close to a star in the league at this point but I still believe he can forge a long career with his combination of height and skill.

The most damning thing I can say about either player is that right now there’s no strong case for keeping or trading them outside of salary considerations. This is less of a neutral assessment than an admission that the roster is a little bit lost right now and nobody outside of the stars has the power to find their way on their own, regardless of environment. This is true of any of ten players could be moved. Turner and Leonard draw more ire than usual from Portland fans but it’s not like they’re sticking out as sore thumbs. Moe Harkless, Noah Vonleh... any trade outside of the top three players could be justified in an instant. I don’t take it as a sure thing that any particular player will remain or go.

2. Gerald Henderson did well in Portland. He’s a better three-point shooter and more efficient scorer than Turner. His ball-handling and passing aren’t as good. I’m not sure that the small forward job description needs to including dribbling and play-making to take pressure off of Dame and CJ at this point, at least not as much as it did last year. The starting guards are so darn good that they take pressure off of each other.

You could make the argument that Henderson’s game would blend better than Turner’s. He’s 29, so the Blazers would be losing age. His contract is more palatable, though: a single year team option at $9 million. The Blazers have several players in that salary range available for trade. If the Philadelphia 76ers don’t pick up Henderson’s option, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. At that point Portland probably couldn’t get him; they don’t have the signing space.

3. “Winning ranks above player development” is generally true. It’s modified by the fact that for Portland, player development would be the easiest way to improve the win total. Want to explain Portland’s mediocre 41-41 record last season? Riddle me this: Who stepped up? Jusuf Nurkic is one obvious answer. After that, it was, as the great Yukon Cornelius would say, “Mush!” But assuming the current players aren’t going to develop then yes, the Blazers either need to get people who can contribute consistently or start playing the few emerging players 49 minutes per game each. They cannot afford to waste seasons if they hope that Lillard and McCollum will take them to glory.

4. The use of the waiver process is commonly misunderstood. It’s difficult to save money that way.

When a player is waived, he becomes, in effect, an instant free agent whose services cost the amount of his current contract. He’s available to any of the other 29 teams who wish to claim him and have space for him under the cap. This remains true for 48 hours. If a team claims that player off waivers, they assume his salary. The team that released him erases that contract from their books. This is the scenario most people envision when they talk about waiving a player.

The problem is, few players are actually claimed off of waivers. The reason is simple: after the 48 hour waiver period, the player still becomes a free agent except his new team no longer has to pay the full amount of his contract. Instead they can offer him the veteran’s minimum, getting the same player for a fraction of the price. In this case the original team has to pay him the remaining amount owed on his original contract.

In other words, the player is guaranteed to make all the money he signed for no matter what. The only thing at stake in waivers is who pays it to him: just his new team or a combination of his new team and the old one.

Example: Player X is signed for $10 million a year over the next three years. Team A waives him.

If Team B picks him up off the waiver wire within 48 hours, Team B will pay all $10 million and Team A will owe him nothing.

If Team B waits until he clears waivers, Team B can then sign him for the veteran’s minimum...say $1 million per year. In this case Team B pays $1 million and Team A still owes the remaining $9 million. That $9 million stays on Team A’s cap even though the player now plays for Team B.

You can see that it’s incredibly advantageous for Team B to sign the player after he’s cleared waivers, not before. The only time a team will want to claim a player off of waivers directly is if they’re afraid he won’t sign with them once he’s cleared. (After he’s cleared waivers, he could sign with any team for that veteran’s minimum.) But then you’d have to ask whether they really want an uncooperative player anyway. This is why most waived players go unclaimed.

When thinking about the Blazers waiving an expensive player, it’s critical to ask whether another team is so eager to get them that they’d absorb the entire contract or whether other teams will be more likely to let them clear waivers then try to sign them at 5-10% of that amount. At this point, anyone who’d rush to pay a Portland role-player for $15 million when they could get him for $1 million instead would be clinically insane. It’s likely the Blazers would lose their waived player but still end up paying almost their entire salary, every bit of it counting against their cap and the tax.

The Stretch Provision: NBA rules do allow a team to waive a player then spread his salary obligation out over a longer period of time than the original contract runs. The Blazers did this a couple years ago with Anderson Varejao. It’s a handy way to keep cap space alive. But even if Portland stretches out salaries of waived players, they’ll have no usable cap space to protect. Absent radical changes, they’re still going to end up over the luxury tax threshold...either now or once Nurkic re-signs. That’d probably put the kibosh on waiving and stretching. The only thing more painful than paying the remains of an empty contract for a player you’ve waived is paying that amount times three because you’re in the luxury tax. “Hey! We shelled out $45 million in salary and penalties this year for a guy who’s playing in Minnesota!” won’t just get you fired, it’ll get you tossed out a window like that snotty executive from Robocop.

Summing up:

  • The Blazers will likely trade someone, or at least attempt to, but we’re not sure who that will be.
  • Gerald Henderson might help Portland but unless the Blazers can work out a direct trade with the Sixers he’ll be hard to get.
  • The Blazers do need to make moves to get better now, or at least in the not-distant future.
  • Forget waiving players to create salary space. It won’t work. If anybody were to get waived it’d be someone making $1-2 million per year, not someone making $10-20 million.

Thanks, Taylor! And keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com. They’re flying in now, so look for another one tomorrow!

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