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Analysis: Blazers Trade Noah Vonleh For Financial Reasons

Eric Griffith breaks down the financial and on-court ramifications of the Noah Vonleh trade. Hint: There’s a lot of one, and very little of the other.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers-Media Day Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Noah Vonleh’s ongoing development as a member of the Trail Blazers is officially over. In a move designed to get the Blazers under the luxury tax threshold, General Manager Neil Olshey traded Vonleh and cash to the Bulls earlier today in exchange for the rights to 32-year old Milovan Raković .

Financial Implications

Simply put, the decision to move Vonleh was motivated almost entirely by financial concerns, and not on-court considerations.

It’s been well documented that the Blazers face significant salary problems in the coming seasons. In July, 2016 Olshey signed Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Allen Crabbe to contracts totalling nearly a quarter billion dollars. The fallout of these deals, combined with extensions for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, means that the Blazers will be paying out over $100 million in guaranteed salary to only five players in 2020, and will almost certainly suffer a significant luxury tax bill in both 2019 and 2020.

By comparison, Vonleh’s current salary of about $3.5 million seems rather inconsequential. But Vonleh’s relatively small deal takes on greater value in light of 2018’s $119.3 million luxury tax. Salary dumping Vonleh drops the Blazers payroll for this season down from $122.2 million to $118.7 million — they will move from about $2.9 million over the tax to about $600,000 under it.

This move will immediately save the Blazers about $4.4 million in 2018 tax payments, and makes them eligible to receive a portion of the tax payments made by other teams. By getting out of the tax this year, the Blazers also guarantee that they won’t by hit by the dreaded “repeater” tax — which is activated once a team is over the tax threshold in three of the last four seasons — until at least 2022.

The incremental savings of trading Vonleh now were likely appealing for a team that only ended up in the black after leaguewide revenue sharing last year, and faces a dire payroll situation going forward.

Cash, TPE, and Two Open Roster Spots

The Blazers also sent the Bulls cash, which likely covered the cost of Vonleh’s contract for the rest of the season. This is the first cash payment the Blazers have made; each team can send out up to $5.1 million per year, so assuming the Blazers covered the remainder of Vonleh’s salary they will still have more than $3 million left to spend. The Bulls are well below the tax threshold so this deal will be a net negative, or a slight positive, to their bottom line.

Lastly, since the Blazers took on no salary in return for Vonleh, they generated a $3.5 million trade exception which expires one year after today. The Blazers also have an 8-figure trade exception, generated by trading Allen Crabbe last summer, that they haven’t used.

Vonleh’s departure means the Blazers do have two open roster spots. Olshey will likely leave the two spots open and carry two-way player Wade Baldwin as a de facto main roster member for the rest of the season.

UPDATE: My math was off - the Blazers will have enough room under the cap to sign a player to a minimum contract for the rest of the season, per Albert Nahmad. Apologies for the mistake.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

What Did the Blazers Get in Return for Vonleh?

Officially, the Blazers received the draft rights to Raković, a 6’10” center from Serbia currently playing in the Swiss Basketball League. He was originally chosen by the Dallas Mavericks as the final pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Given his age, however, it is unlikely Raković will ever suit up for the Blazer.

He was included in the trade because, per league rules, the Bulls had to send an asset back to the Blazers. “Asset” is defined as a draft pick, cash, or the rights to a player who could play in the NBA or a reputable foreign league.

The Blazers sent the Bulls cash, so the Bulls could choose between a draft pick, or player rights, and clearly went with the latter. The Bulls gave up nothing to evaluate Vonleh’s potential and possibly re-sign him this summer as a restricted free agent.

On-Court Implications for the Blazers

The Blazers acquired Vonleh and Gerald Henderson from the Hornets in exchange for Nicolas Batum in June, 2015. The trade signified the first move in the deconstruction of the 2015 roster — Batum’s fellow starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez would all leave Portland that summer, as well.

Vonleh came to the Blazers with significant potential, but never thrived with the team. He appeared in 185 games, starting in 109, averaging only 3.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Vonleh had a brief post-All-Star break surge last season, coinciding with the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, averaging 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds on 58 percent shooting in 24.3 minutes per game.

This season, however, he could not maintain that success and was quickly displaced from the starting lineup by Al-Farouq Aminu, who has played the best ball of his career as a power forward. By mid-December, Vonleh was out of the rotation entirely.

Ultimately, the Vonleh experiment will be viewed as a disappointment in Portland and means the Blazers gave up Batum for a one-year rental of Henderson and some easily replaceable rotation minutes from Vonleh. It’s hard not to wonder if Olshey would have been better off swapping Batum for a draft pick, even if it was a non-lottery selection, instead of Vonleh and Henderson.

Bottom Line

For the Blazers, this deal was entirely financial — it saved a few million dollars in tax payments in the immediate future and put repeater tax problems into the (relatively) distant future. From the Bulls’ perspective, since Portland likely covered the remainder of Vonleh’s salary, this means they gave up nothing for the chance to take a flyer on Vonleh. If they like him, they will have his Bird rights this offseason to retain him.