Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is coming due for a contract extension. The decision to pay him or defer will send ripples up and down Portland’s lineup, many of them aimed straight at forward Noah Vonleh...a fellow starter, eligible for a bigger payday at the same time as Nurkic. The interplay between the two players on the court and cap ledger is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I have a riddle for you: Noah Vonleh.
Actually it is a little more specific. There was an article about the difficulties of signing Nurkic to an extension next summer, but overall people generally agree that we will do it, just as a matter of how and how much. Along with that, there's the general feeling that Vonleh will be a salary cap casualty at the same time. Of course there is the whole question of who he is as a player. Will he continue to be the player we saw with Nurkic who can possibly carve out a solid role on that starting unit? He also has good shooting percentages to go with his rebounding and hustle. Is there a chance he starts to put a full game together? Or will he slide back to his old form or be overtaken by our stable of bench players?
With all of this I get that it would be difficult to sign him to a deal that either party would be happy with now, but it seems like there is no chance we can keep him beyond next year with Nurk's contract on the horizon. So if he turns out to be a quality starting 4 who compliments that unit, he would be a big loss if we can't get any kind of return. Can't we sign our own guys more easily? Could we sign him now and just blow our cap while we can? Wouldn't we have to try to find another player at that point anyway? What would it take to resign him (crystal ball gazing permission granted).
I know there is a lot of questions here, but my main one is: Why does it seem like not resigning him is a foregone conclusion no matter what he shows us this year?
Let’s admit that Vonleh made incredible progress last season. As highlighted by our friends at basketball-reference.com, his stats skyrocketed in several key categories.
Paired with Nurkic, Vonleh progressed from dead awful to...not bad. Since Nurkic is presumably sticking around, there’s hope that “not bad” will become a semi-permanent state. That hope is bolstered by Vonleh’s low age (21) and experience (3). He hasn’t hit his limit yet and won’t be expected to for another 2-3 years.
Let’s also admit that despite accelerated growth, Vonleh’s performances aren’t that special. He looks good when measured against his own past performance, but outside of his body (and latent hope due to age) there would be no reason to pick him out of a large group of relatively mediocre NBA players. He’s unreliable on offense outside of 3 feet. His defense doesn’t matter. The one skill he possesses in spades—rebounding—is also the most replaceable skill in the league. He’s a placeholder with upside, not much more.
Vonleh’s saving grace is that he’s cheap. Playing out a rookie contract that will earn him $3.5 million this year and a $4.7 million qualifying offer next, he’s a no-risk acquisition. If the salary cap were divided equally among a 15-man roster, each player would earn $6.6 million. Anybody making less than that is a bargain even if he produces nothing. Vonleh is producing, so it’s all good.
That story will change when he comes up for an extension. Blazers fans are screaming bloody murder about Meyers Leonard making $9.9 million per year. They’re willing to trade him for a pack of used bubble gum and a Betamax player. But comparing Leonard’s historical production Vonleh’s is like watching an elephant sit on a beach ball. The past season—Leonard’s worst by a long shot—was comparable to Vonleh at his absolute best. Unless Vonleh comes out of his shell in a big way, you’re not going to like him at any price above his current salary.
As much as folks are sick of hearing about it, the luxury tax will also loom large in the Vonleh extension decision. Extending Nurkic would appear to be a no-brainer at this point. That could add $17 million or more to Portland’s cap obligation. That’s close to what they were paying Allen Crabbe, whom they just dumped. Unless the Blazers trade away other players for nothing, they’re once again looking at a $30-40 million tax penalty and a $170-180 million roster when they start paying Nurkic what he’s worth. Every dollar they spend beyond that will have at least another $3.25 attached to it. Under those circumstances, an $8 million offer to Vonleh would cost the Blazers $34 million in real dollars. When the bill is that high, you’ve got to make sure you’re getting premium production. Vonleh doesn’t offer it.
If the 2017-18 version of Noah Vonleh complements Portland’s starting lineup, there’s hope that many NBA players could do so, including some that are young and still on cheap rookie deals. (Looking sidelong at Zach Collins here with a passing glance at Caleb Swanigan.) Given what we know now, it’s far more likely the Blazers would start one of those players at the four rather than lock themselves into an expensive Vonleh contract.
Thanks, Eric! Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!