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Blazers in Free Agency Purgatory, Salary Cap Hell, Must Find Trades for Salvation

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While the rest of the Northwest Division has been adding players left and right, the Blazers have remained at a standstill. We explain why.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Free Agency news and negotiation period is into its last day; the July moratorium will end at noon, Eastern on Thursday. At that point, free agents will begin to sign contracts with their new teams and proposed trades will become official. Despite the ticking clock, the Portland Trail Blazers have made no moves, creating not even the slightest ripple in the Free Agent pond. Plenty of folks are having angst about that, as evidenced by today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

This has been a more disappointing July than last year. It’s the most disappointing I can remember. What can we do? Everybody else is signing free agents and we’re stuck. How do we get in gear?

Lawrence

Oh man...I don’t know where to start with this, but a short and recent history survey seems best.

If you can’t remember a worse off-season then you might have forgotten the summer of 2015, just two years ago, when LaMarcus Aldridge left in free agency and the Blazers dumped 4/5 of the starting lineup around him. That was unprecedented for a team winning 50+ games and making the second round of the playoffs.

After that the Blazers did make their decisive moves. Last summer they re-signed everybody, bringing aboard Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli in the process. They had cap space. That’s how they spent it. Those were their big swings.

The inactivity during the current free agent signing period is not due to incompetence or lack of desire; Portland simply doesn’t have the money to sign anyone. They’re close to $40 million over the salary cap, which means they’re $50 million past the point of being able to make an offer to any reasonably good free agent. If they wanted to compete for J.J. Redick, they’d need to shed $63 million in salary. Perspective: that’s more than the entire salary cap just three years ago.

At this point, what do you want them to do? The numbers are astronomical; the signings just aren’t possible. That doesn’t make this an awful free-agency period, it makes it an inactive one. We knew that was going to happen the minute the Blazers signed on the dotted line for all those 2016 contracts and extensions. It’s going down exactly like it had to. Other teams can chase Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Zach Randolph, and Chris Paul because they don’t have the same players under contract Portland does. End of story.

If it’s any consolation, I suggested on Twitter yesterday that Blazers fans regard trading for Jusuf Nurkic as the big move of the year. If it helps, pretend that they made a sign-and-trade deal this July for him instead of trading for him straight up in February. Psychologically it should amount to the same thing. They did change the roster this year. They just didn’t wait until summer to do it.

Either way, any moves that require cap flexibility are done. The only ways to revolutionize the roster at this point are internal growth—including that of draftees Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan—or trade. I don’t think the market for Portland players outside the Big 3 is hot right now, so I doubt you’ll see a major move. But you never know. All it takes is one partner.

Hey Brooklyn. How you doin’?

Hi Dave,

I'm curious as to whether or not you've heard anything about Larry Sanders and if he might be someone to consider for possible MLEing.

Thanks,

Shawn

Oh boy, the taxpayer’s mid-level exception. This is the loophole within the rule, the one way the Blazers could still add to the roster without trading anybody. Despite being over the cap they can offer a player (or multiple players) up to $5.2 million, total to sign with them. Here are the problems with that scenario:

  1. They have no roster spots available unless they cut Pat Connaughton, whom Neil Olshey spoke very highly of just a couple weeks ago. That’s probably not happening.
  2. Since the Blazers are over the luxury tax threshold, every dollar they add has an out-sized effect on their bottom line because of draconian penalties. When the official 2017-18 NBA Salary Cap numbers were released, we ran a scenario estimating that if nothing changed, Portland would pay around $178 million actual dollars for this roster in salaries and penalties (give or take a few hundred thousand). That’s a huge figure.

If they use that exception, the already-onerous financial burden increases further. They’d be replacing Connaugton’s $1.5 million salary with the $5.2 million MLE. On paper that’s only a $3.7 million increase. but the added tax burden would push the real payroll cost $17 million higher. That would leave the total outlay for the roster slightly over $195 million.

Even with the current television-contract-inflated salary cap numbers, that’s like paying for two complete rosters, folks.

It’s one thing to ask whether Larry Sanders—a player who couldn’t find traction with the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, playing only 13 minutes total for the season—might be worth a $5.2 million flyer. If you’re asking whether Sanders is worth $17 million a year cash money, I doubt you’d find a GM anywhere who’d green-light that. The same is true of most players the Blazers could sign at the MLE level.

It is possible for Portland to use only part of the MLE to sign a player. Any team can sign players for the veteran’s minimum salary. Those two options could provide another player without blasting the roster cost to the moon, but the principle still holds. Using the mid-level exception might have added value at relatively little cost when the Blazers were down near the cap line. The value isn’t there any more.

In theory, the Blazers still have a couple options to shake up their lineup. Practically speaking, every avenue outside of a trade is closed to them. Some options could re-open if they make a trade to free up roster space and money; that depends on the specifics of the deal. Either way—whether seeking talent or greater flexibility—if you’re looking for a way out of this gridlock, look to the trade machine first.

While you’re waiting for that Big Move, why not write your own Mailbag question to us at blazersub@gmail.com? We always enjoy reading your thoughts.

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