“The Portland Trail Blazers are locked into their current roster” is a statement that has become pretty much accepted as fact among many Blazers fans and much of the press. Already over the cap, it’s hard to see where Portland has any flexibility at all. What’s worse, just re-signing Jusuf Nurkic (a likely restricted free agent) will put the Blazers well into the luxury tax. Not re-signing him leaves a Nurkic-sized hole with no money available to sign a replacement.
On top of that, three of Portland’s current top five salaries have two years left on their contract and are dramatically overpaid based on their recent production. The Blazers are stuck with another year of hoping for “internal growth,” right? Not so fast.
The Blazers have options. None are without some combination of sacrifice, risk or expense, but possibilities are there. Here are some of the strategies Portland could pursue to change the roster.
Spending like a drunken sailor
The Blazers have a $12.9 million cap exception that they earned from the Allen Crabbe trade with Brooklyn. Even though the Blazers have blown past the cap, they could use this exception to sign a player, cost-be-darned. They could then turn around and re-sign Ed Davis, Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. The result would be a staggering tax bill, but it would be perfectly legal under NBA salary cap rules. Paul Allen could certainly afford it, but he’d have to be pretty confident that the Blazers are one $12.9 million player away from a championship. If the Blazers do want to use the exception, they have until late July before it disappears in a puff of smoke.
The Blazers aren’t the only team in the NBA with players who are underperforming their contracts. Additionally, other teams have players who have worn out their welcome for one reason or another (Carmelo Anthony — I see you!). Meyers Leonard was a spectator for almost the entire season. Maurice Harkless was listless for much of the year, and while he came on at the end of the season, he’s still overpaid even when at his best. Evan Turner probably gets more criticism than his play warrants, but the $17.8 million he will make next year is far too much for someone who averaged 8.2 points per game and shot 31.8 percent from deep.
The Blazers could go in two directions here, and possibly even both at the same time.
Option 1: Try to move some or all of the aforementioned Blazers for other teams’ headaches that Portland management thinks might be a better fit in with the Blazers. Perhaps an overpaid head-case just needs a new team and some Oregon Pinot. Or maybe that underperforming forward can find his grove in a new system.
Option 2: Trade current headaches with two years left on their contracts for other teams’ headaches that only have one year left on their contracts. This might not help the Blazers next season, but it could set up an enticing salary cap situation in the summer of 2019, hopefully while Damian Lillard is still at his peak. This option would require some finesse and possibly a draft pick sweetener, but depending on the size of the headache, it isn’t out of the question (I still see you Carmelo!).
Portland has a first- and a second-round draft pick in every tradeable future year. Draft picks are always in a demand, so the sky is the limit to what could possibly be achieved here. Of course, the cost is high. The NBA is littered with teams that traded their future for a mediocre present. Still, one could make the argument that there might never be a better time than now to trade their current year’s pick. The pick will be low enough that it is unlikely to bring a difference-maker in the near term, but other teams might value it highly enough to take a high salary in return, or perhaps part with a quality player who doesn’t fit their timeline. It’s not inconceivable to think a trade that includes a Blazers pick or two could relieve salary pressure and make the team better in the short term.
Parting with one of their cornerstones
Trading Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum might be a PR nightmare, especially trading Lillard, but either player could command a heavy price in the market. No matter where you stand on the argument about whether Lillard and McCollum can co-exist on a championship team, you simply have to consider making a major move like this. The value of either player will almost certainly never be higher. And if you really want to blow things up completely, can you imagine the haul you could get for trading both of them?
Realistically, it is difficult to see Lillard, the face of the franchise, going anywhere. But what if trading McCollum could help you stay under the tax, get a useful player and net a good draft pick? Surely the possibility of trading McCollum is at least being kicked around by the Blazers’ front office.
So, which option will it be?
If we go by recent history, the most likely option will be “none of the above.” The Blazers have strived to “stay the course” and stressed “patience” under Neil Olshey. Still, there are some factors that make some sort of a move more likely this offseason than in the past.
Consecutive first-round playoff exits and an impending tax bill for just re-signing the players already here could mean there’s more flexibility for making a major deal. A change in the front office can’t be ruled out, either. Still, would you really be surprised if the Blazers entered the 2018-2019 season with a roster that looks similar to the one that ended the 2017-2018 season? Regardless, don’t let anyone tell you that this roster is locked in. The possibilities to make changes are there. It’s just a matter of whether the Blazers choose to.