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Why the Trail Blazers Couldn’t Keep Ed Davis for $4.4 Million

Surprised the Blazers let one of their best reserves head to Brooklyn for next to nothing? You shouldn’t be.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers lost a free agent tonight as Ed Davis agreed to a one-year, $4.4 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. Since the news broke, reactions from observers around Portland have ranged from confusion to shock.

In actuality, this has been coming. It’s the culmination of trends ongoing for at least two years, if not more. To anyone looking hard at Portland’s cap and roster situation, it would have been more surprising for the Blazers to ink Davis to a deal than for him to leave.

Before getting into detail, let’s acknowledge that Davis, while an incredible, heart-filled, blue-collar player, plays at a position and in a style that’s prioritized low in the modern NBA. Back-to-the-basket, rebounding bigs aren’t in demand. They come cheaply and can be replaced relatively cheaply. Davis’ new contract isn’t exactly world-changing.

The Blazers also have Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins, and Caleb Swanigan under contract, all of whom play Davis’ positions. None of them can replace Davis spiritually, but Ed still would have stood among four potential reserves. He was part of Portland’s foundation, but not directly load-bearing.

Those things are beside the point, however. The real issue is this: Davis was well worth that contract. It was a steal at one year. He played well, was well-liked, and ended up as a valuable reserve for the Blazers. Under normal circumstances, there’s no way they should have surrendered him to that kind of counter-offer. Under normal circumstances, if that’s what Davis wanted and what the market would bear, they should have thrown an arm across his shoulder, reminded him that packing up a house is far more of a pain than staying in one, and welcomed him back home. Under normal circumstances, re-signing Ed Davis was a no-brainer.

The circumstances in Portland aren’t normal.

As we have been telling you all season, and even farther back, the Blazers are deeply committed financially to a mish-mash of players and stuck in limbo. They’re riding with $110.5 million in salary committed for next year, a $4.7 million qualifying offer that they’re trying to cheap center Jusuf Nurkic into, and 4-5 roster spots still to be filled after that against a luxury tax threshold of $123 million.

Whenever cap space issues get brought up, people tend to respond, “Well sure, they can’t sign a big-name free agent, but...” or, “It’s just spending a little more money. What’s the big deal?”

This is the big deal. This kind of financial encumbrance goes beyond not being able to offer max contracts, though that’s part of it. (Oklahoma City just gave one to Paul George and they’re going to be on the hook for $130 million in tax penalties this season, much more than the entire salary cap paid over again.) The Blazers have to worry about using mid-level-exceptions...the throw-away offers that everybody gets to use.

This isn’t just about not being able to bring on new players. Portland can’t keep the perfectly good players they’ve brought in, even if they like them, even if those players want to stay. That’s the cost of doing business the way the Blazers have done it.

Make no mistake, once they’re in this predicament, the decision on Davis makes perfect sense. When you’re in the luxury tax, contracts get more expensive. That $4.4 million deal offered by someone else becomes an $8.8 million deal on your ledger because of penalties. The rewards don’t balance the costs anymore. They do for the other team, just not for you.

In this situation, the Blazers have to keep an eye on Nurkic’s potential contract offers. He’s not likely to get a big deal, but what if he signs a $10-12 million offer sheet after Portland has already committed $4.4 to Davis? They’d have to consider letting Nurkic walk instead, which would be even less defensible.

This is what happens when you stick yourself so close to the sideline that even an inch more sends you out of bounds, when a couple hundred thousand dollars could make the difference between receiving millions of dollars in tax windfalls and becoming part of the group that pays them.

The solution, of course, is not to get into that situation. But that boat sailed for the Blazers long ago.

I’m fairly certain this will not be Portland’s only move of the off-season. They’re going to bring in a player or players. They’re not saving Davis’ money for nothing. I expect the move to be minor. (Watch for minimum contract signings.) I also expect it to be sold like it’s more. All of that is beside the point.

Even if the Blazers do pull off a dream deal that vaults them closer to contention, a team trying to contend could sure use Ed Davis. The Blazers could have had him for next to nothing. They won’t because they couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity when it was there.

If the Blazers make a more modest move, as expected, the merits of that move can’t be judged just by the “x” of the player’s talent and effect. The proper equation will be “x - Ed Davis”. That dims the prospects.

Not being able to see the smart move or get the right players is one thing. Putting yourself in a situation where you see the smart move and the player is right in front of you, but not being able to actually make that move is another. The Blazers are in the second situation right now.

That’s why they lost Ed Davis.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge /