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2020 Salary Cap Space and Other Trail Blazers Myths

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The Blazer’s Edge Mailbag takes on some of the prevailing wisdom surrounding Portland’s future options.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Chevy Nova didn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries. Wait at least an hour after eating to swim. Coca Cola invented Santa Claus! Chances are you’ve heard, and maybe believed, a hundred myths like this. Any time a subject becomes important in the popular consciousness, speculation—true and false—is sure to follow. This is true of sports as well, including the Portland Trail Blazers. Today in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag we examine some of the myths, and accompanying wishful thinking, surrounding the team right now.

Dave,

What do you think about how viable it is to wait until 2020 and use cap space to improve the team? I know its close to the end of Dame and CJ’s contracts but if we could make a big move then that might convince them to sign on again and we’d have a superteam or closer? One more max player would do it, right?

Robert

I’ve heard 2020 thrown out as a magical cure-all, a sweeping wind that will blow away the cap-vs-talent miasma hovering over the Blazers. Bad news: even if one more max player would push them over the top, and even if they could convince such a star to come, the Blazers won’t be in position to make that kind of signing...even in 2020.

The summer of ‘20 will be the first time Portland sees usable cap space. That much is true. And at first glance their situation looks promising. They’re obligated to $74.8 million in salary that summer, well below the projected cap of $120 million.

Unfortunately that $74.8 million is dedicated to just four active players: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan. It also includes stretch-provision dollars given to Andersen Varejao and Andrew Nicholson. (Yes, still.) The bill goes up when you factor in the other players Portland will need to pay in order to keep the roster viable.

During that summer the Blazers will owe salary for 2018, 2019, and 2020 first-round draftees. Assuming they draft all three years in the 24th position (taking this year as the pattern) that trio will add an aggregate $4.7 million in salary. Now their cap obligation stands at $79.5 million.

These numbers do not yet include Jusuf Nurkic. If the Blazers do not re-sign him, what kind of viable team can they offer a potential superstar free agent in 2020? What happens to their record in the meantime? (And then what happens to the salary obligation owed to correspondingly higher draft picks?) Unless we’re planning to drift wholly into fantasy land, we need to assume Portland retains Nurkic. We’ll give them a bargain-basement price: $10 million in the third year of his contract. Even that low amount puts their obligation at $89.5 million.

But wait, there’s more. We’ve still only accounted for 8 players. CBA rules mandate a cap hold for every open slot below 12 on a team’s roster. That’s equal to a league-minimum rookie salary per slot, which at that point will come to $900,000, give or take. Times four, that makes $3.6 million in extra obligation, pushing Portland’s total to $93.1 million.

Keep in mind what the Blazers would have to do to keep their obligation that low. Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman, and Wade Baldwin would all need to go. They could not be replaced by anyone whose contract lasted more than a single year (two in the case of Davis’ replacement). The Blazers could not take on long-term salary in 2018-19 and would need to spend the 2019-20 season with half the roster on low-paying, expiring deals. That’s two entire seasons of the Lillard-McCollum prime treading water to facilitate this signing opportunity.

Even with all that, Portland would only create $27 million in cap space...assuming the cap reached $120 million. (If it leveled out at the 2018-19 amount, they’d have around $10 million.) $27 million is a healthy amount, but the maximum salary in that cap environment starts at $30 million for a player with 6 or fewer years of experience. It tops out at $42 million for a player with 10+ years in the league. Portland ends up short...up to $15 million shy of a true max offer.

Even if they got a really good player to take that $27 million, the Blazers would field a Top 4 of Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and their new signee, plus Collins, Swanigan, three low first-round picks, and 5 players making the league minimum. Lillard and McCollum would be in the final years of their respective contracts. Lacking credible depth, they’d have a single year to prove they were something special before the starting guards could walk.

Is a superstar likely to sign in Portland under those circumstances? If not, the Blazers would have spent the last two seasons doing nothing in hopes of providing help for Lillard and McCollum, only to strike out on the help. That’s not a strong sales pitch to retain their prized backcourt.

Long story short, the entire idea is impractical. Unless they’re able to trade one or more of their albatross contracts before 2020, Portland would have to go through way too much to get to that summer with significant cap space, and they’d be in a worse position to sell free agents on coming here than they were in 2016 when they totally blew the same kind of opportunity.

The Blazers can certainly do something in 2020 with a little strategic planning, but they need to be plenty good before then, adding a modest piece to put them over the top. They’re not likely to save the franchise during that summer, even if they do manage to cobble together cap room.

Dave,

Now I know the LeBron talk is unrealistic but there’s been so much talk about it. Please say there’s hope. I want it to be real!

Dan

Lebron dissing Portland for passing up Kevin Durant wasn’t enough for you?

We could talk about fame and fortune, supply and demand, and all those obvious things, but you already know where that leads. Far be it from me to crush hopes. I’ll just say that Blazers fans talking about LeBron coming to Portland remind me of that 50-year-old guy in the coffee shop who somehow gets it into his head that the barista is legit flirting with him. Once he starts thinking that way, he starts finding all kind of evidence to prove it could be true.

You can never say never, I suppose. Among all the baristas in the world—and all the guys trying their last stab at feeling young and stupid by winking at them—maybe there’s a couple somewhere that have found healthy, legitimate romance together. If so, I haven’t seen it. The other 999,999,999 incidences where this occurs just look pathetic. As they say, there’s no fool like an old fool.

Guru Dave,

Kawhi Leonard is available! I’ve seen some Portland trades that get him. How likely is it and would you do it?

Jill

Any trade that doesn’t involve CJ McCollum is wishful thinking. LeBron coming to Portland is probably more likely than San Antonio accepting a deal for Kawhi that doesn’t involve Lillard or McCollum.

If the Blazers are willing to trade CJ, they need to be OK if it just turns out to be a salary dump. Kawhi will be a de facto free agent next summer. He’d help Portland, but the Blazers are not likely to get deeper into the playoffs next year than he’s already been with the Spurs, and he’s more than willing to leave San Antonio. Why would he re-sign in Portland?

A healthy, happy Kawhi would balance the roster better than McCollum does, but he’s not guaranteed to be either of those things, nor is he guaranteed to stay. That makes this idea pretty much a non-starter.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or on Twitter @DaveDeckard!

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