The Portland Trail Blazers and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey unexpectedly traded Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets Tuesday for Andrew Nicholson, announcing a dramatic shift in direction after matching the Nets’ $75-million offer sheet to Crabbe in restricted free agency just a year ago. The Blazers reportedly waived Nicholson, more or less rendering this trade a “dump” of Crabbe—and his salary.
On-Court Consequences of Trading Crabbe
It’s no secret Crabbe performed below expectations last season. He contributed little offensively outside of his 44 percent 3-point shooting, and was, generally, a disappointment on defense. Despite perpetual turnover at the small forward spot for the Blazers, Crabbe failed to earn the starting role.
Our 2016-17 season review for the four-year guard wasn’t exactly glowing:
Crabbe's lack of defensive effort and/or ability forced Stotts' hand, allowing AC to guard the weakest opposing wing for long periods of time. Meanwhile, on offense, he would have been happily at home with Martell Webster/Nic Batum's Nate McMillan-era role of “go stand in the corner.” He very rarely did anything other than shoot open shots or dribble in a straight line toward the hoop. Passing? ha. Rebounding? lol.
KGW’s Jared Cowley dove into the advanced stats this week and came away with a similar conclusion:
Advanced analytics peg him as a minus contributor when he's on the court. On offense, Crabbe is a reluctant shooter and a poor ball-handler who struggles to create shots for himself. He doesn't rebound well for a guard and rates as one of the worst defensive shooting guards in the NBA.
According to real-plus minus, the Blazers were 2.65 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the court. His net rating was negative-2.8, according to NBA.com. His player efficiency rating was 11.6, far below the rating of an average NBA player (15.0).
Despite these criticisms, it’s important to note that Crabbe’s one bankable skill—outside shooting—is in short supply for the Blazers. Besides stalwarts Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland will have to rely more heavily on erratic or downright poor outside shooters like Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Meyers Leonard going forward.
If Olshey can’t find another rotation-worthy 3-point shooter, Crabbe’s departure will force the Blazers to lean even more substantially on Lillard and McCollum’s playmaking. Those two can handle the load on most nights, but Crabbe’s absence will ultimately hurt the team on offense against elite opponents.
Financial Consequences of Trading Crabbe
Despite the loss of Crabbe’s shooting, the Blazers come away decidedly ahead after this trade from a financial perspective. Nicholson was set to make $19.9 million over the next three seasons, while Crabbe’s contract totals beyond $56 million over the same period.
For the 2017-18 season, the Blazers swapped out Crabbe’s $19.3-million contract for Nicholson’s $2.8-million cap hit and reduced their payroll from $138.7 million to $122.2 million. This salary reduction lowered their current luxury tax bill from $43.1 million to $4.4 million
The bottom line: this trade will save the Blazers over $50 million in tax and salary in the next year.
Portland also now sits only $2.9 million over the luxury tax threshold. A straightforward move—trading Ed Davis for a draft pick, for example—could take them below the tax and delay any future repeater tax penalties by a year.
Offloading Crabbe becomes even more important next summer when both Jusuf Nurkic and Noah Vonleh hit restricted free agency. With Crabbe, the Blazers had $125.6 million in guaranteed salary; without him they have about $110 million locked up. Signing Nurkic, and possibly Vonleh, will still take the Blazers deep into the luxury tax—but it’ll also hurt less.
Lastly, Crabbe waived his trade bonus, saving the Blazers several million dollars and preventing an additional cap hit for the Nets.
What About “Stretching” Nicholson?
Nicholson was set to make $19.9 million over the next three seasons, but the Blazers have reportedly “stretched” his deal. That salary will now be spread evenly over the next seven seasons, per the rules of the stretch provision, meaning the Blazers will owe Nicholson $2.84 million annually until 2024.
This decision is almost inexplicable. Barring a total firesale, the Blazers are certain to be over the cap for the next three seasons, which is the original length of Nicholson’s deal. Reducing his cap hit from $6+ million to slightly less than $3 million in no way improves the team’s flexibility in the near future.
It could, however, handicap the Blazers down the road. Seven years is an eternity in the NBA—Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden were still with the Blazers seven years ago. Heck, the Lakers were still relevant seven years ago. It’s very possible the Blazers will have cap space at some point between now and 2024.
Stretching Nicholson means the Blazers will be at a $3-million handicap relative to the rest of the NBA. For a team with trouble attracting free agents in the past, literally every million could count. This would be forgivable if the stretch somehow helped the Blazers in 2017, but it doesn’t. It’s a decision made with the short term in mind while neglecting the potential long-term ramifications.
Management is attempting to sell fans the idea that saving a few million in luxury tax payments in the immediate future is worth a long-term sacrifice of cap space—even though the tax savings do nothing to help the on-court product. That flies in the face of the free spending we saw last summer, also calling into question the franchise’s long-term salary management.
The Blazers generated a roughly $13-million trade exception by swapping Crabbe for Nicholson. This could be a useful tool, but it’s unclear if the team intends to use it. Streching Nicholson suggests they’re trying to minimize their luxury tax bill, while using the trade exception would increase it.
(Luke Adams of Hoop Rumors has a more detailed breakdown of the trade exception).
What Does This Trade Mean Overall?
Trading Crabbe likely made the Blazers slightly worse on the court but significantly improved their cap situation. In the short term, it was a solid move that will help ease the financial pain of re-signing Nurkic next summer. The decision to stretch Nicholson, however, has the potential to slightly handicap the franchise in the long term despite doing nothing to improve the team.