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Trail Blazers Road to Improvement Narrows

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Free agency, trades, the NBA draft...what in the world can Portland do to get better?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Portland Trail Blazers exited the playoffs, fans and analysts have been scrambling to come up with scenarios in which they might improve. NBA free agency and trade season beckons. The NBA Draft will commence in a matter of weeks. What might the Blazers and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey have up their sleeves? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question.

Dave,

I realized I’m almost glad the Blazers got swept, because if the won, fans would just point at GS and play the “what if” game again. At least now folks realize a lot has to be done to win a championship. What do you think is the #1 thing they need to get to the next level.

Tom

Getting another good player would help. Since the playoffs ended, I’ve seen other outlets rattling off free agents, either in the abstract or connected with the Blazers. When that happens I’m reminded of the old foolproof plan:

  1. Covet free agents.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Maybe the front office has something up their sleeves? The honest answer is that I’m not sure what the road forward is at this point. Let’s lay out the usual paths to improvement, assess where the Blazers are, and maybe you can tell me.

Signing Free Agents with Cap Space or Cap Exceptions

Portland’s cap situation is the biggest beef I have with the “In year four of a five-year rebuild” mantra. Rebuilding teams don’t usually exceed the cap before the rebuild is nearing completion. In no way, shape, or form do they flirt with the luxury tax threshold. If you’re rebuilding and you have to worry about the luxury tax apron, you may be rebuilding wrong. Yet here we are.

The traditional way to acquire free agents is to sign them. The Blazers will have $110.5 million in cap obligations come July, not counting cap holds on their free agents, nor including the cap hit for re-signing any of them. Were they to let Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier, et al walk for nothing, they’d still be $9 million over the cap, unable to sign any free agents anyway. For that reason alone—never mind talent and position in the rotation—Portland is likely to re-sign Nurkic, at the very least. Assuming he makes anything north of $10 million, that signing will put them in luxury tax territory.

Aside from an added luxury tax bill, signing Nurk won’t harm them much. Zero flexibility is zero flexibility whether you’re at the cap line or the tax border. But that signing will certainly impact their next move.

Just north of the tax threshold, right around the $125 million mark, lies the Luxury Tax Apron. Teams are free to exceed it as far as they wish as long as they only re-sign their own players to do so. The Blazers could re-sign every free agent they have, let their salary balloon to $140 million, and nobody but Paul Allen’s accountant would blink.

Acquiring free agents when you’re close to the apron is a big headache, though. A team cannot use their bi-annual exception to exceed the apron, nor can they receive a player in sign-and-trade. A team that uses either of these methods to acquire a player becomes hard-capped at the apron. For that season, they cannot pass the apron to take on extra salary in otherwise-legal trades, or for any other reason. Every move they make from that point onward must make their cap obligation balance or drop, period. That limits signings, potential trades, almost anything the team does.

Teams can use the mid-level exception to exceed the apron, but that exception is smaller than the norm and they can only offer three-year deals with it instead of the usual four. In other words, all non-taxpaying teams get to entice free agents with a better mid-level exception than taxpaying teams get. If the Blazers wanted to sign a free agent this way, they’d need to convince the player that Portland is not only THE place to choose among all 30 NBA destinations, but taking less money to come here would be worthwhile. This is the same franchise that had trouble luring free agents when they had more money to give than 90% of the league, so...

Trades

As long as the Blazers don’t get themselves hard capped, they’re free to make trades under the usual rules. Taxpaying teams operate under slight constrictions: salaries must match within 125% plus $100,000. That’s doable.

The apron does provide one firm restriction, mentioned just above. Teams may not receive a sign-and-trade player who would take them over the apron. Since the Blazers will be at the line (assuming Nurkic returns) they cannot take on sign-and-trade players.

They can still sign-and-trade away their own free agents.

They can also receive a sign-and-trade player if they first lose enough salary to keep that player from pushing them over the apron.

That said, trades require valuable assets to bargain with. The Blazers have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but they’ve publicly scoffed at the idea of moving either. If the starting guards are untouchable, the cupboard gets bare quickly.

  • Nurkic could be used in a sign-and-trade, providing he doesn’t sign an offer sheet with another team (which would disallow it).
  • Portland’s draft pick has some value, as does Zach Collins.
  • Al-Farouq Aminu is in the last year of a reasonable $7 million contract.
  • After that, it’s a Hail Mary prayer that somebody will take Evan Turner ($17.9 million), Meyers Leonard ($10.6 million), or Moe Harkless ($10.8 million) off Portland’s hands for a small enough return to get the Blazers away from the apron.
  • Any combination of the above is also possible.

In each case, the player Portland trades out is either intrinsic to their current roster or has negative trade value to other teams, probably mandating a sweetener to be thrown in. Given this, it’s hard to see the Blazers making a move forward that doesn’t start with a significant move backwards. They’ll be fortunate if both happen in quick succession. Most reasonable trade scenarios will involve the Blazers giving up current assets in the hope of future gain.

The Draft

Portland does hold a tangible asset: the 24th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Rookie-scale contracts will be a godsend to this team. Or the pick could be used as the single, shining piece of bait the Blazers can offer in trade, an enticement nearly everyone will consider valuable.

Even here, though, value has limits. Assets aren’t abstract; not all first-round picks are created equal. Whether executed or traded, draft picks have value relative to those of 29 other teams. 23 picks in the first round this year will be more valuable than Portland’s, anywhere from marginally so at the 23rd selection to immeasurably so with the 1st. The clearest, least-encumbered asset Portland owns is still mediocre compared to that of most other teams in the league.

Conclusion

Everybody agrees the Blazers need to get better. They’ve been a lower-tier playoff team for years, moving to mid-tier seeding this year by the narrowest of margins, only to get swept hard out of the playoffs once again. They’re nowhere near elite. An argument can be made that they put up the worst showing among Western Conference playoffs teams, period. With Lillard and McCollum on contract clocks, Portland needs to improve fairly soon.

At the same time...

  • They probably can’t re-sign all their own free agents while remaining fiscally responsible
  • Their options to sign other people’s free agents are limited
  • The one exception they might use is hard to sell to prospective free agents because it’d be worse than almost anyone else’s comparative offer
  • Everyone with high value they might consider trading is intrinsic to the team or has been sold as key to their future
  • Everyone they’d love to trade has low value, either because of performance or salary
  • Their draft pick is an asset, but it’s also 24th out of 30 first-round picks
  • The only way out of this is to not re-sign Jusuf Nurkic, but even that wouldn’t free up actual cap space, just freedom to use cap exceptions that won’t bring in players as good as he is

I can tell you how the Blazers can remain basically the same. I can tell you how they might make radical changes that could open a road forward, but those changes would cost them significant assets, make them look like they’re eating crow, and would likely end up with them going laterally (with a possibility of backwards).

You didn’t ask me to do any of those things, Tom. You asked me how the Blazers get better.

As I look at their current setup, the talent, and the numbers, my response to your question ends up being a single word. It starts with “da” and the last three letters are the abbreviation for “Frequently Asked Questions”...just with a different vowel.

Appropriately enough, that word usually ends with a question mark, which is exactly where this survey of Portland’s position is ending up. Nothing is impossible in the NBA, but the eye of Portland’s needle for great moves has been shrinking for the last few years and it’s getting into microscopic territory now. Given that, how do the Blazers get better, especially when 28 non-Warriors teams are also looking to improve and most are in a better position to do so than Portland is?

I’m going to throw that question right back at you, Tom, and at all our readers. What are the best solutions you can dream up to improve this roster that...

A. Have a decent chance of working. And...

B. Aren’t just the miracle, sweetheart solutions that every NBA team hopes for?

Go ahead and work through it in the comments below, and send any Mailbag questions you have to blazersub@gmail.com or hit me up @davedeckard on Twitter!

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