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Trail Blazers Face a Tough Choice with Ed Davis at NBA Trade Deadline

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Davis is playing well for Portland. He’s also an unrestricted free agent on one of the league’s most expensive rosters. Can the Blazers afford to keep him?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Davis is having a whale of a comeback season for the Portland Trail Blazers. Averaging 7 rebounds per game in just 19 minutes of play while shooting 57% from the field, he’s become Portland’s second-unit anchor. Ed Davis will also become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, as his contract runs out. That puts the Blazers—owners of an astonishingly high payroll—in a quandary, which is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Recently Jason Quick said or implied that the Blazers were going to keep Ed Davis. Do you find that credible? How does that work?

Another Ed

It’s possible. The Blazers need to shed roughly $3 million of salary before the end of the season to fall beneath the luxury tax threshold. This would have three effects:

  1. It would prevent them from paying out tax penalties.
  2. It would allow them to receive disbursements from other tax-paying teams. Receiving instead of paying out will amount to a swing of a few million in their favor...not huge, but still welcome.
  3. It would keep them from starting the clock on the dreaded “repeater” tax designation. If a team spends three out of four seasons over the tax threshold, penalties increase. With Jusuf Nurkic needing a new contract and multiple restricted free agents on the horizon, the Blazers will be in danger of crossing the tax line over the next few years no matter what they do. Delaying the onset of that journey would be smart.

Davis’ contract is worth $6.3 million and expires in June. Trading him away for a future asset (think second-rounder) would get Portland well under the threshold. He’s also one of two players whose talent-to-dollar ratio makes them movable and whose departure wouldn’t affect the long-term outlook of the team. Noah Vonleh is the other. If the Blazers are limited to a single, simple trade this February, either Vonleh or Davis will go.

Naturally the Blazers aren’t limited to single, simple trades. Trading players north of Davis on the contract scale (Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, Evan Turner) would be harder because their salaries are larger and run for multiple seasons. Moving one of that trio would open up the possibility of getting a player in return while still shedding salary. As long as the incoming player makes $3 million less than Portland’s outgoing player, Portland will be good. It’s difficult to imagine anyone yearning for the privilege of paying Leonard, Harkless, or Turner through 2020, but it could happen.

More significant deals are also possible. If CJ McCollum were included—which I don’t think will happen this deadline—a $3 million variance in salary return would fit well within NBA trade rules, no extra action required. Multi-player deals are also available.

Less significant moves are also possible. The Blazers could package Shabazz Napier and Jake Layman to a team able to absorb their salary and achieve the same effect.

Basically the Blazers need to make a move—any move—that saves them $3 million. They’ll want to make the most advantageous one possible, but if all else fails, Davis or Vonleh for a draft pick gives them what they need in simple, clean fashion. That’s why their names are out there. But trading Davis is hardly the only option on the table. If the Blazers want to keep him through June, they can.

Not trading Davis at the deadline doesn’t mean the Blazers are committed to him long-term though. Portland is already on the hook for $110.5 million in guaranteed salaries next July. The projected salary cap sits at $101 million. Davis is an unrestricted free agent and does not factor into that $110 million total. Vonleh, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier, and Jusuf Nurkic are restricted free agents. Jake Layman has a $1.5 million tab, non-guaranteed. None of those players are included in the total either.

If the Blazers were to retain Layman and re-sign all four of their restricted free agents for just the qualifying offers—no new contracts, no matching offers from other teams, the cheapest option possible in all cases—their ledger would read $126.2 million. That’s well over the projected luxury tax line. It’s also over the projected tax “apron”, a secondary tax boundary beyond which a team’s ability to trade or add players gets constricted. It’s the most constrictive, undesirable financial situation possible. And that happens without re-signing Davis. Add Davis to the total and the Blazers are in Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers salary territory, paying championship prices for a roster that’s not far above .500. That cannot be done.

If the Blazers are invested in keeping Davis, the first question they’re going to need to ask is whether they can afford Nurkic as well without destroying their ledger and future flexibility. Once they settle that matter, they’ll have to choose between retaining Ed and other fan favorites like Napier and Connaughton. You can’t have them all. Practically speaking, keeping one means releasing others.

Again, bigger-picture trades could change the landscape, but until that happens, Davis’ future with the Blazers remains tenuous. Moving him would be among the easier trade deadline resolutions. Letting him sign elsewhere may become mandatory once the new free agency period hits.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or on Twitter @davedeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com