The Portland Trail Blazers will be looking to improve their roster during this summer’s NBA Free Agency and Trade period. The 24th pick in the draft is an asset, but they need more help than a lower-round rookie can provide. One of the means by which they might progress—a method they’re touting as a live possibility—is the Traded Player Exception. Like coupons from previous trades (most notably Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets last July), these trade chips allow Portland to acquire players from other teams without actually trading away their own. It sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. Let’s look...
I saw [President of Basketball Operations Neil] Olshey talk about this summer’s trade exceptions for Crabbe and whoever. I forgot all about those! Suddenly a summer that seemed boring might have a big twist. Seems to me as long as Paul Allen is willing to pay tax money those are like free cap space! What do you think the Blazers can do with them?
Unfortunately for the Blazers, Traded Player Exceptions aren’t free and they aren’t exactly the same as cap space.
The obvious price tag associated with exception comes in the form of the shiny, new contract owed the incoming player. By definition, trade exceptions leave a team paying more salary than they did previously. That burden comes with all associated penalties, including luxury tax bills and tax apron restrictions. Absent other moves, taking on a player of significant salary would push Portland over the apron and create a significant financial burden.
You also have to ask what kind of player the Blazers would be acquiring for all those dollars. In this way TPE’s are inferior to cap space.
Cap room is the same for all comers. If a free agent accepts it, the deal’s done...no third party required. That free agent could be a 15th-man candidate or LeBron James himself. The money spends the same either way.
Traded Player Exceptions cannot be used to sign free agents. They’re only used in trades. Other organizations must be willing to part with players before you can get them with a TPE. Since those other teams are not receiving a commensurate player in return, a TPE only gets you players that teams are willing to part with for nothing. That baseline expectation can be sweetened with offers of cash or draft picks, but you’re still in a wholly different ballpark when looking for TPE trades than you would be with unencumbered cap space.
The Blazers do have openings this year; several teams should be looking to drop salary. They’re still not going to get cream of the crop players with exceptions, though. Some would argue that the Blazers should be looking to offload bad contracts themselves rather than absorbing them. It’ll be strange if their path to victory involves picking up more mediocre players carrying undesirable deals when they already have several.
Real-Life TPE Deals
To give you an idea of how this works, here’s a list of all trades with a TPE as a major component that went down over the last five years. A couple other deals technically involved TPE’s but the exception played an insignificant role. Data comes courtesy of basketball-reference.com
The Washington Wizards received Kris Humphries from the Boston Celtics
The Philadelphia 76ers received Hasheem Thabeet from the Oklahoma City Thunder
The Denver Nuggets received Mo Williams from the Atlanta Hawks
TPE Shortcomings Exposed
Notice that the subset of TPE trades is small compared to transactions as a whole. Teams don’t often find suitable deals with Trade Exceptions.
Notice also the quality of player exchanged. Isaiah Thomas was the cream of the crop, scoring 20 per game when he was dealt. Trevor Ariza was functional as well...no longer considered a potential breakout player, but still in his prime. Kris Humphries and Thabo Sefolosha were shadows of their former selves. Hasheem Thabeet was Hasheem Thabeet. Mo Williams wasn’t even playing.
If you got a time machine, transported every one of these players from the day they were traded to today, then stuck them together as the Top 7 of a TPE All-Star squad, they’d be the worst team in the NBA. Stack them up against the Top 7 conventionally-traded players in any single year and Team TPE would get hosed.
Maybe, But Probably Not...
Seeing the frequency with which TPE trades are completed and the caliber of player they tend to bring, any enthusiasm for revamping Portland’s roster via exceptions should be tempered. Anything can happen. If the Blazers pull off a significant TPE-based move, more power to them. But hanging hopes on a strategy that doesn’t often come to fruition—and doesn’t yield great results when it does—says more about the stockpile of assets in Portland than it does about the magic of Traded Player Exceptions. First it was trade assets, then it was cap space, then it was draft picks...now we’re down to this. Blazers fans should certainly keep hoping, but don’t hold your collective breaths.
As always, keep those questions coming to email@example.com or on Twitter @davedeckard!