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Portland Trail Blazers Salary Cap FAQ: Mid-Level Exceptions, Harkless’ 3-point shooting, Signing a Veteran Under the Luxury Tax, and More!

Eric Griffith answer all your mid-season salary cap questions!

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, without a major splash from the Trail Blazers (apologies to Noah Vonleh). Immediate attention now turns to the buyout market, with an eye looking ahead toward the offseason. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of some salary cap related FAQs that will be relevant in the coming months.

I thought the Blazers traded Vonleh to get under the tax line. Why did they try to sign Belinelli?

General Manager Neil Olshey’s decision to trade Vonleh did get the team under the luxury tax line — the Blazers’ salary current sits at $118,692,688, which is $573,312 below the $119,266,000 tax threshold.

But Marco Belinelli announced yesterday that the Blazers had attempted to sign him. Veteran minimum contracts in the NBA all exceed $1,000,000, so, confusingly, signing Belinelli would have put the Blazers back into the tax, right?

Not quite. Minimum contracts signed in the middle of the season are pro-rated, so Belinelli (or any other player signed from here out) would not carry a full season cap hit. The Blazers could sign a player to a minimum deal and just barely avoid the tax:

Note that veteran players signed to minimum deals carry a cap hit equivalent to the minimum salary of a player with two seasons of experience, and the league subsidizes the contract to fully compensate the player. This ensures that teams won’t avoid signing experienced players because of salary concerns.

Players must be signed before March 1 to be eligible to appear in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see if the Blazers pursue more free agents this month to fill one of their two open roster spots.

But what if Harkless shoots 35 percent or better on 3-Pointers and gets a $500,000 bonus?

Last season Maurice Harkless received an extra $500,000 for shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers. He has the same bonus again this season, and with Harkless shooting 36.6 percent from deep, that would seem to jeopardize the Blazers’ ability to sign another player and stay under the tax.

But since Harkless hit the 35 percent benchmark last season, his bonus is now considered “likely” and so it is already included in the cap calculations mentioned above. Harkless’ hot shooting will not prevent Olshey from pursuing a minimum contract player.

Now that the Blazers are under the tax they should be able to use the full MLE this summer, right?

Unfortunately, the Blazers will almost certainly not be able to use the full mid-level exception this summer, even though they are below the tax line now.

Here’s why: Teams can use the full mid-level exception when they are under the tax apron ($6 million over the luxury tax level) AFTER the exception has been used.

This summer, the apron will be set at roughly $127 million and the full mid-level exception will be roughly $8.5 million. Importantly, as of July 1, the 2018-19 team salary will be used to determine eligibility for the full MLE, so the team’s current tax status is irrelevant.

In other words, to use the full mid-level exception Portland will need to get its 2018-19 salary down to $118.5 million. They’re already over $119 million just with Jusuf Nurkic’s cap hold and guaranteed salaries for Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Harkless, Al-Farou Aminu, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan. That’s only nine players!

The $119 million in guaranteed salary plus Nurkic does not include cap holds for Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis, Pat Connaughton, or first round draft picks, which will add another $30 million to the cap calculation. Getting under $118.5 million is going to be VERY difficult unless Olshey finds a way to salary dump Turner and Leonard or Harkless.

The Blazers will have the option to use the taxpayer mid-level exception, which will be around $5.25 million.

Wade Baldwin must have been called up to help fill out the roster in anticipation of a bigger trade that ultimately fell through, right?

Probably not. Jason Quick noted on Twitter that Head Coach Terry Stotts says the Blazers called up Wade Baldwin because of reasons associated with the 45-day limit for two-way players:

The details in the tweet are slightly off — but the intent can be figured out. When the Blazers called up Baldwin at the end of January, there were roughly 53 days left in the D League regular season. After the D League regular season is over, the 45-day clock no longer applies. Thus, if the Blazers officially re-assign Baldwin to the D League during the all-star break and stop the clock for eight days, they’ll be able to keep him on the main roster, uninterrupted, for the rest of the season.

It’s certainly possible that Baldwin’s call-up coincided with trade talks, but given Stotts’ comment, and the way the dates align with the 45-day clock, it seems more likely that his re-assignment was a coincidental procedural move.

Is Anthony Morrow Still on Speed Dial?

The Blazers left a roster spot open for most of the season after cutting Anthony Morrow, Archie Goodwin, and Isaiah Briscoe. At the time, Stotts said that the team wanted to keep the roster spot, and mentioned the luxury tax:

“We wanted to have an open roster spot,” coach Terry Stotts said. “Being a luxury tax team -- this is probably more of a question for Neil (Olshey) than for me -- it’s an added expense. I think the open roster spot was important.”

Given that: 1) a player on a non-guaranteed salary allows the same amount of flexibility as an open roster spot, 2) they never signed anyone for the 15th spot, and 3) they just made a trade that reduced the roster to 13 solely for financial reasons, it is now safe to assume that the decision to cut Morrow, Goodwin, and Briscoe was a tax-related decision and not a basketball decision.

More salary questions? Leave them in the comments below! Or find me on twitter @EricG_NBA.