The Portland Trail Blazers are in the midst of another hard-fought NBA Western Conference playoffs race, but also in the midst of potential transition of ownership after the passing of former owner Paul Allen. Yesterday Jason Quick of The Athletic published an article based on an interview with President and CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment Chris McGowan, who indicated that the team was proceeding routinely and that no sale plans were in motion. But what does that mean? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
We read that the Blazers are staying put right now but that also means they’re staying put in limbo to my mind. How do you think ownership decisions and possibly selling the team will change the outlook on trades? If there’s a good deal out there will we still take it? Or is the team just going to stay in mothballs until somebody else owns it?
It’s an interesting story. We have to be careful not to undersell or oversell it. According to McGowan, the Blazers are in the middle ranges of their bell curve, neither prepping for a sale nor making firm commitments for the future. It’s business as usual. The big question is, what is that business? That was not entirely clear even before Paul Allen passed.
An eventual sale throws another layer into what was already a murky situation. Trying to forecast trades or other moves is dangerous. We simply don’t know yet how this is going to go.
I don’t believe a presumed eventual sale leads to clear conclusions about moves right now. A couple variables might come into play, but they’re light and loose.
- Wins and losses probably don’t matter much. If the Blazers could win a title, that would affect their visibility and thus sale value. No reasonably-predictable move vaults the Blazers that high this year. Short of NBA Finals success, neither 30 wins nor 50 wins will change the final sale price of the team. Good teams and bad teams both sell. Frankly, both have been attractive, historically. I don’t foresee the team making moves to get incrementally better with the hopes of facilitating a sale.
- Finances do matter. The extent to which this is true depends on the purchaser. If the Blazers get bought by a large corporation or a billionaire owner as an investment, a couple million of debt here or there in the initial years won’t matter much compared to the projected long-term payout. If a smaller, local concern makes a bid—John Canzano’s suggestion of a Merritt-Paulson-led group, for instance—the millions start to matter more. Cash flow can get thorny post-purchase for a partnership. Keeping the balance sheet reasonable alleviates that concern. I don’t think there’s a mandate to cut salary or get under the luxury tax for sale reasons (though the team still could if they wanted, and it may be a prudent move). I don’t foresee them making any trades that add substantial, longer-term contracts, though. Otto Porter fans may not want to hold their breath unless the Blazers send out big salaries in return.
- To the extent that purchasing the team is a passion project—which is not guaranteed—roster flexibility matters as well. The Blazers don’t have much right now; they’re stuck. Selling a franchise doesn’t happen overnight, though, and wiggle room is on the horizon. New owners don’t often overhaul their teams in year one, but they don’t want to wait three whole seasons before being able to touch the roster. Having to fire-sale the entire franchise in order to gain flexibility isn’t attractive either. I’d be surprised if Portland took on major contracts that run past 2020 unless the names attached to those contracts are eye-catching.
All of that said, it’s possible that these things would be true even without a potential sale. Transferring ownership doesn’t change the basic conundrum that the Blazers are paying too much for a team that’s producing too little. It just gives the responsibility for fixing it to a new person.
I’m guessing that any trade that would have gone through before the ownership issue arose will still go through. I’m also guessing that the needle through which those trades must be threaded has gotten smaller, not because of future sales considerations, but because that’s just where the team is right now.