The Portland Trail Blazers enter the NBA Trade and Free Agent season needing more talent at a cheaper price...a tall order for any franchise. Their guaranteed salaries, cap holds, and stretched contracts total $119 million against a $101 million projected salary cap. After getting swept in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans, they don’t appear to be ready to take the next step towards championship contention. Outside of All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum, they have no prize trade assets. Most of their roster is overpaid or on the verge of free agency.
In the midst of this muddle, SBNation is posing a question to those of us who cover the Blazers (along with 29 other NBA franchises): what would thrill the fan base this off season? Responses have to be realistic. The obvious answer—LeBron James—is off the table to teams without a realistic shot.
Given the obstacles illuminated in the opening paragraph, responding to this question is like trying to work one of those puzzles at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Solving one problem appears to create another. If the Blazers use their traded player exceptions to bring in “free” talent, those salaries will push them well over the luxury tax threshold. If they content themselves with re-signing free agent center Jusuf Nurkic, they go into tax land for the same team they fielded last year. If they pursue financial sanity and long-term flexibility by refusing to pay for players who won’t make enough of a difference to justify the penalties, they’ll go backwards right in the middle of Lillard and McCollum’s prime years.
As was true for Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in the classic movie Wargames, the only winning move is not to play. But that’s not an option either.
In the end, only one thing will release the tension and allow the puzzle to be worked properly. The contract millstone around Portland’s neck must loosen, which means trading away at least one expensive player. Candidates include Evan Turner (2 years, $36 million remaining), Maurice Harkless (2 years, $22 million), Meyers Leonard (2 years, $22 million), and McCollum (3 years, $83 million). McCollum would need to bring back talented players to avoid Portland falling from grace. Any of the others could be dumped for no return and the Blazers would still end up better in the long run. They’d create room to re-sign free agents, exercise exceptions, or clear cap space in 2020. None of those options are viable at the moment.
Saying that a salary-dump trade would be the crowning piece of the summer sounds weird, but that’s where the Blazers stand right now. If they were able to move Turner, Leonard, or Harkless without taking on salary in return, fans should breathe a huge sigh of relief...not because the players are bad, but because Portland would finally get slack to wiggle out of the conundrum into which they’ve placed themselves.
So what would make Blazers fans thrilled this offseason? Shedding some of the bigger salaries to have more financial flexibility both now and later; sending that salary outright, with little obligation in return, would be icing on the cake.
Would a cap-relieving trade make you jump for joy, or are your aspirations higher? Comment below, and check out other SBNation-NBA sites to see their answers.