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Why the Trail Blazers Can’t Stay Together

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Portland looks like a potential powerhouse, but their rotation will be short-lived. Here’s why.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers are cruising towards a potential 50-win season and some of the most exciting playoffs matchups in recent memory. Amazing play from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a fantastic year from Jusuf Nurkic, and a significantly-bolstered supporting cast make the Blazers a team to be reckoned with...or at least grudgingly respected. But how long do they have to prove themselves before financial and free agency realities hit? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

The Blazers are finally a team I can love! How do we keep them together? I know money might be tight with new ownership but please tell me we’re looking at a couple years of this before we have to give up on the dream that we can contend. How do we keep the players now that we’ve got them?

Bud

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Bud, but there’s no way the Blazers can keep their rotation intact past this summer. Four of their top ten players will be free agents in July. Even if the front office and owner were willing to spend the money to keep them together, there’s no way it can happen. Sit back and we’ll explain why.

The Numbers

Here are the key numbers for next season.

Projected 2019-20 Salary Cap: $109 million

Projected 2019-20 Luxury Tax Threshold: $132 million

Minimum Cap Obligation for Portland: Approximately $131 million*

*This number does not include re-signing any free agents. It presumes the team carries 14 players with Jake Layman playing for the one-year qualifying offer (the minimum amount practical for him to accept). It also presumes the Blazers sign a mid-20’s-level 2019 first round draft pick, plus two absolute minimum salaries for players with zero years of experience to fill out the roster. If the Blazers draft higher or fill their 13th and 14th slots with more experienced players, the number will go up.

As you can see, Portland is already tight against the tax threshold just with the players still under contract come July. Here’s what happens if they want to re-sign their own free agents.

(All numbers will be rounded to make things easier to digest.)

Al-Farouq Aminu

Current Salary: $7.0 million

Ballpark Request: $8.0 million

The Blazers hold Bird Rights to their long-time power forward. He’d be the easiest of their free agents to re-sign. They can offer him anything up to a maximum salary. He’s going to want more than he makes now, but presuming he’d re-sign for $8 million (plus annual raises), their cap obligation would come in around $138 million. (Remove a minimum salary from the ledger, add in Aminu’s new salary.)

At that point, the Blazers would be $6 million over the luxury tax threshold, adding penalties of $9+ million to their bill, leaving a projected total cost of $147+ million for the season. If they were willing to pay that, keeping Aminu is certainly possible.

Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood, and Seth Curry

Kanter Current Salary: $490,000 Ballpark Request: $9.0 million

Hood Current Salary: $3.5 million Ballpark Request: $5.0 million

Curry Current Salary: $2.8 million Ballpark Request: $5.0 million

Playing around with these fantasy numbers, we’d speculate the Blazers adding $19 million in salary to retain the rest of their free agents. This would push their cap obligation to $157 million and their total bill at the end of the season to a whopping $220 million. That would be far higher than any NBA team is paying this season, dwarfing the payroll of the Golden State Warriors and everyone underneath them.

That scenario is completely theoretical, though. The Blazers couldn’t incur that kind of bill even if they wanted. They signed Kanter and Curry as free agents. Hood was traded after signing for a qualifying offer. That means the Blazers do not have Bird Rights on any of them. This is different than the Aminu situation. The Blazers can’t just re-sign these players to any salary they’d like.

Unless their salary structure changes radically, the only contract Portland will be able to offer their non-Bird free agents is a taxpayer’s mid-level exception worth roughly $5.7 million. That’s not $5.7 million each, that’s $5.7 million total to make offers to any or all all of the trio.

In order to retain all of them, Portland would have to convince Kanter, Hood, and Curry to play for $1.9 million per year apiece. No matter how much they like Portland, that’s not happening.

Portland probably can’t retain Kanter even by offering the full $5.7 million exception. Even with his limitations, he’s worth more than that. Hood or Curry would likely re-sign at that number. The Blazers would need to choose one of the two to keep.

But Wait, There’s More!

Even if the Blazers do convince one of their non-Bird free agents to stay, signing them with the taxpayer’s exception would trigger the luxury tax apron rule. Basically, the minute they try to use this exception, the Blazers would be hard-capped at $138 million. As we said above, re-signing Aminu would already push them to that limit. If they want to keep Aminu, they can’t even make an offer to their another free agent unless they cut salary somewhere. They’d need to trade away Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, or one of their Big Three to stay under the apron and make it work.

Obviously the Blazers could make an offer to Hood or Curry without re-signing Aminu. They’d be below the apron then. They’d still be hard-capped at $138 million for the season after using the exception, though, so their room to sign other players would be severely limited.

Is There Any Way to Keep More Players?

Technically, yes. Practically, no.

If the Blazers were to trade Turner, Harkless, AND Leonard for zero cap obligation, they might create enough cap space to retain more players. The odds of such severe salary-dumping trades happening are small. Re-signing those players would also obliterate Portland’s cap space for the foreseeable future.

We should also note that the Blazers could partially dodge luxury tax penalties by trading away contracts mid-season. Luxury tax isn’t tallied until the final day of the season. They might be willing to play chicken with the tax penalty if they’re sure they can dump significant salary in February, 2020. That wouldn’t help them get more players this July, though. It’d just take some of the sting out of keeping them.

The Upshot

Barring a miracle, you can pretty much forget Portland retaining their current supporting cast. They’ll probably have to choose one (1) of their four main free agents to make an offer to, and Kanter isn’t going to be the one unless they can dump salary first. If they do some maneuvering, they might get to keep two of the four. More than that is a pipe dream.

Thanks for the question! You can submit yours to blazersub@gmail.com anytime you’d like!

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