The Portland Trail Blazers are capped out for the next few years and face a high-profile decision regarding Jusuf Nurkic this offseason, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of options to acquire a player from outside their own incumbent free agents. On top of what will likely be the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception of $5.3 million, the Trail Blazers have another weapon in their arsenal that most teams in their financial position don’t: a $13.0 million Traded Player Exception generated in the Allen Crabbe trade last summer. The Crabbe TPE expires on July 25, so it will be use-it-or-lose-it time for Portland over the next two months. Under normal circumstances, there’s no way for a team with as much salary committed as Portland does to acquire an outside player without trading back matching salary, but in this case, they can take a new player (or multiple players) into that TPE without having to match.
However, just because they can bring in another player and re-sign Nurkic to any number under the max doesn’t mean they will. Portland begins their offseason a mere $7.9 million below the projected luxury tax line of $123 million, a number that will shrink as soon as they make their draft pick at number 24 in late June. With $6.1 million likely separating them from the tax come July 1, it seems far-fetched at best that they would bring back Nurkic and acquire a significant player with the Crabbe TPE, as the combination of those could cost owner Paul Allen somewhere in the neighborhood of another $50 million, depending on Nurkic’s salary, in team salary, dead money, and tax penalties. They could always bring Nurkic back and try to make a trade later to duck under the tax, but there’s a significant different between sliding under the tax when you’re $3 million over and when you’re $20 million over.
Any player acquired via trade would likely replace Nurkic and with that in mind, a few targets emerge:
Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta Hawks:
Dedmon quietly put together a very impressive 2017-18 season on a terrible Hawks team. After bouncing around to four teams in four years, Dedmon found success in Atlanta on both sides of the ball—he had the best offensive season of his career, spurred by his newfound three-point shooting, and was a key contributor to a Hawks defense that got 3.0 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor and defended at roughly a league-average level when he was out there (a very strong performance for Atlanta, which finished 26th in team defense last season).
Dedmon has a $7.2 million player option ($900k of which is tied up in bonuses) for the 2018-19 season and public opinion is split as to whether or not he’ll pick that up. His decision is due June 29, so the Trail Blazers will know whether or not he’s available by the time free agency opens. If he does, bringing him in on a much cheaper, but also much shorter, contract than Nurkic would require would be a cheap way for Portland to replace their incumbent big man without losing too much value in the process. Nurkic is a better pure defensive center but lacks the outside shot and defensive versatility Dedmon possesses. If Dedmon opts out, then a normal signing won’t be possible—he wouldn’t opt out of $7.2 million to take $5.3 million unless something goes horribly wrong during his free agency—but a sign-and-trade between Atlanta and Portland would make sense. Dedmon could lock in more total money, Portland could grab a big man who matches their timeline, and Atlanta wouldn’t have as much leverage to squeeze assets out of the Trail Blazers.
John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks:
Henson’s overpaid with two years and $21.8 million left on his deal but acquiring him would be a combination asset play and Nurkic replacement, especially if Nurkic signs an offer sheet for more than the $11.3 million Henson is slated to make next season. Viewed as a negative asset around the league, Henson would likely come attached to another draft pick for the Trail Blazers or could get them some salary relief of their own. Meyers Leonard’s contract is just about the same as Henson’s and swapping those two would create a new $10.6 million TPE the Trail Blazers could use anytime in the next 12 months after the trade is completed. Getting off of Leonard for Henson wouldn’t be a straight swap; Portland would likely have to attach a small asset to get the deal done.
Henson fits in as more of a traditional center than Dedmon would but could be a cheaper replacement for Nurkic if the market for the Bosnian big man is less tepid than many expect it to be.
Aron Baynes, Boston Celtics:
This one would be strictly a sign-and-trade, as Baynes will be out of contract come July 1 with no option. After signing a one-year, $4.3-million deal with the Celtics last July, Baynes proved himself to be more than capable of outplaying that salary with his strong defensive play throughout the regular season and playoffs. Depending on how the big man market shakes out, Baynes could receive interest from enough teams to push him out of Portland’s $5.3 million exception, but they’d be able to dip into the Crabbe TPE to bring him in at a higher number, while still retaining the remainder to perhaps use later on in the month before it expires.
Baynes fits the Nurkic and Henson mold as a more traditional center but brings a defensive skillset that matches Nurkic’s without needing the post touches on the other end to keep him engaged. Add in a burgeoning three-point shot (11-for-23 during the playoffs!) and it’s not out of left field to argue that he’s a better player and a better fit with this Portland team than Nurkic is.
The Trail Blazers are in a tough financial position but have an ace up their sleeve that could see them be more active in free agency and trade rumors during July than most teams that already have $110 million committed for next season. The $13.0 million TPE expires July 25, so don’t be surprised if they attempt to use all or part of it on a Nurkic replacement if they’re unable to strike a favorable deal with the mercurial center.