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Is Seth Curry a Stopgap?

The Trail Blazers prized free agent signed only a one-year deal. That puts his future with the team in question before he’s even donned the uniform.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mild ambiguity surrounds Seth Curry’s contract with the Portland Trail Blazers. When the deal was initially reported, both ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Jason Quick, writing for NBC Northwest, indicated it was a two-year contract with a player option. But Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders lists the contract as a single season agreement. Blazer’s Edge has reached out to Curry’s agent for clarification and will update if we receive a definitive answer.

In the meantime, it’s important to discuss the implications of signing Curry to only a single guaranteed season. Heading into the 2019 offseason, Curry will only have one year of tenure with the Blazers. This means he will not qualify for the famous Bird Exception, which would have allowed general manager Neil Olshey to exceed the salary cap to retain him.

Instead, Portland will only be able to use the “Non-Bird Exception,” limiting Curry to 120 percent of his current salary — approximately $3.36 million. The Blazers could also use their 2019 taxpayer midlevel exception, around $5.5 million, to retain Curry.

If Curry lives up the expectations set at the end of the 2017 season — over the last 26 games he averaged 15.5 points and 2.8 assists, shot 43.6 percent on 3-pointers, and played respectable defense — the Blazers will not be able to retain him for the Non-Bird Exception and may have difficulty keeping him at the full taxpayer midlevel exception. Olshey could easily lose his “major” 2018 signee after only one season.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers-Media Day Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Curry’s situation harkens back to the Festus Ezeli contract of 2016, when the Blazers signed the oft-injured big man to a short deal knowing that they would have difficulty retaining him if he did have a breakout season. It was essentially a “kick the tires” opportunity to try to get some useful service out of a player other teams had shied away from.

With Curry the Blazers appear to be taking a similar approach — give a small contract to a player coming off a season missed due to injury and see if they can hit the jackpot. If he does work out they can hopefully use the MLE to re-up him next summer.

But the move is not risk free. Curry will have the option to choose a different team, he could sign for more than the taxpayer MLE, and the Blazers have potentially sacrificed their 2019 MLE for a player they already have under contract this year.

Note that Curry’s value in 2019 is also a wild card. Free agency 2018 has been the antithesis of 2016, with several players signing below market deals due to a lack of salary cap space. More contracts come off the books next summer so there will be more money available, but it’s unclear if a sixth man/fringe starter like Curry will demand more than the taxpayer MLE. If he does, the Blazers will have absolutely no way to retain him, short of shedding significant salary elsewhere.

From Curry’s perspective, this deal makes sense if he is confident he is fully recovered from the stress fracture that cost him the entire 2017-18 campaign. With no other reliable backup guards on the roster — despite Portland having SEVEN backcourt players — he will be all but guaranteed significant rotation minutes and can use the 2019 season as a tryout for a larger contract. Curry will be 28 in a couple weeks, so this may be his only chance for a major NBA free agent payday. Locking in to a small, multi-year deal would have guaranteed some cash, but it may have hamstrung his long-term earning potential.

The limitations and risks associated with Curry’s contract suggest that the Blazers see him as either a stopgap or as a player with significant question marks, which is not unreasonable given that he has a track record of about half a season. But if he does succeed, Olshey may have little or no opportunity to keep an integral part of the Blazers roster in Portland.