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Can the Trail Blazers Keep Enes Kanter?

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The center is performing well. What will the Blazers need to do if they want to retain him past July?

Portland Trail Blazers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Enes Kanter is one of the new darlings of Portland Trail Blazers fans, stepping in for injured center Jusuf Nurkic capably, helping Portland to a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in their best-of-seven playoffs series. Kanter is also a free agent this summer. The Blazers picked him up for cheap mid-season after he cleared waivers from the New York Knicks. They won’t get off so easily if they want to re-sign him. How likely is that? Is it even possible? That’s the topic of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Your friend Chad [ed. Chad Doing of Rip City Radio] has been spouting off about us not being able to get Kanter back because of money. He’s not covering all the bases. There’s trades and there’s Kanter taking less than before. Can the Blazers get cap space to sign him back? I know he’s your friend but Blazers are more important. Help us school him.

Drey

I read the Twitter threads you’re mentioning. Here’s what I came away with:

  1. People are massively, perhaps even stubbornly, misinformed about salary cap rules. That’s not entirely surprising because the Blazers are outliers, operating in territory replete with obscure restrictions.
  2. We really, really need to talk about fan requests/assumptions/dreams that players will express loyalty to teams they love by signing for significantly less money than they’re worth.

The Cap and Kanter

We talked about Portland’s bench and their salary cap situation a month ago. You can refer any Twitter arguments about the cap in general to that post. We’ll do a brief summary of Portland’s situation as relates to Kanter here.

  1. The Blazers are obligated to $129.5 million in guaranteed salary next season already if Jake Layman takes a minimal qualifying offer. They can shave off a million by dumping Layman, but this number does not count cap holds or anyone else re-signing, so it’s actually a low estimate. We’ll go with it for purposes of this post. (ALL numbers here are approximate; we’re trying to be understandable more than technical.)
  2. The salary cap is projected at $109 million, putting the luxury tax threshold around $132 million and the luxury tax apron around $138 million.
  3. The Blazers have four incumbent free agents this summer (assuming Layman doesn’t become a restricted free agent): Kanter, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, and Seth Curry.
  4. Of those four, they only have Bird Rights on Aminu. He’s the only player they can ignore cap restrictions to sign. They cannot use Bird Rights to exceed the cap when offering the other three contracts. They must either get below the $109 million cap (all but impossible) or use a cap exception to sign Kanter, Hood, or Curry.
  5. Since they’re so far above the cap, the only significant exception the Blazers have is the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. That’s worth around $5.7 million. If they want to retain Enes Kanter, he’d need to sign with them for that amount or lower.
  6. Since $129.5 million (cap obligation) + $5.7 million (MLE exception) equals $135.2 million, Kanter would be Portland’s only significant signing. They’d still hold Bird Rights for Aminu.

Summarizing:

IF Enes Kanter took far below his market value and IF the Blazers were willing to part with all their other incumbent free agents except Layman, then they could keep Kanter.

What About a Trade?

If the Blazers were to trade away Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, OR Moe Harkless and take no salary in return, they’d get far enough below the tax threshold to use a Standard Mid-Level Exception instead of the taxpayer’s mid-level. This is worth around $9.2 million. Kanter might sign for that, depending on the market.

The Blazers would still be hard-capped at $138 million if they used the standard MLE, but they’d be farther away from the hard-cap line because of the savings from the trade. They could conceivably keep Aminu in this scenario.

In order to make it all work, they’d have to trade the outgoing player before attempting to sign Aminu and Kanter. The problem is, taking on Portland’s expiring contracts will be a last-ditch option for teams with cap space, if it’s even an option at all. That means this process will need to start late in free agency, leaving Aminu and Kanter rejecting potential offers in hopes the Blazers can eventually get that cap-clearing deal done. If the Blazers failed to do so, one or the other of those players would go without an offer from Portland. Meanwhile other teams would have already spent the bulk of their free agency money. This would be sub-optimal for the player left out in the cold.

Either the Blazers would have to get a cap-clearing deal done early in free agency or Kanter and Aminu would be taking a huge risk agreeing to wait.

Summarizing:

The Blazers could try to get Kanter at a slightly-reduced rate and keep Aminu if they can move one of their big expiring contracts, plus get both free agents to wait until that trade is done (with no guarantee it can be until it actually happens). They’d still be hard-capped at $138 million as soon as Kanter signed.

Let’s Talk About Reduced Rates

Getting free agents to take less money to stay in Portland than they could get on the open market is embedded in the discussion above. Even the full MLE may be less than Kanter can get elsewhere. It’s significantly less than his last deal.

Fans justify this with the oft-voiced assertion that Kanter (or Hood, or Curry, or Aminu...they’ve all said it) “love” this franchise and thus might re-sign at bargain-basement prices because of their fondness for the team.

Let’s not doubt the players’ sentiments, or their motives for saying so. Personally, I think all those expressions were on the up-and-up. The franchise has a fair amount of cultural warmth at this point. It’s not the kind that would attract star free agents, but once players have been here, yeah...they appear to like it. That’s awesome and a credit to everyone involved.

Even if Kanter loves the franchise and its culture, there are multiple reasons why taking less money is a bad idea.

The Money Isn’t Coming Back

Kanter is entering his prime earning years. He doesn’t get to tag extra seasons onto the end of his career if he didn’t make enough money in his mid-20’s. He can’t make it up broadcasting or doing anything else in his post-NBA life. Every dollar he forsakes now is lost forever.

Kanter might like Portland, but he also might like the next team he plays with. Who knows? It’s way more fun to like something while making $6-8 million more per season than wishing you were. That’s $24-32 million dollars left on the table on a four-year deal. Unless you’re already billionaire-rich, it’s a ton of money. Any responsible agent will caution him heavily against giving up irreplaceable cash for ephemeral loyalty.

Loyalty Goes One Way

The Blazers wouldn’t offer Kanter a no-trade clause. They couldn’t promise to re-sign him after his current deal is done. Nor could they promise to make up what he might have earned for his career should he get injured playing for them and lose it all.

Kanter would be putting his livelihood at risk; the Blazers would be risking nothing. They’d trade him if they thought it made their team better (or even more financially solvent). They’d bid him goodbye if he experienced a career-ending injury while playing for them at a reduced rate. They could not do anything else and still fulfill their mission.

Players have a mission too, and it’s not always congruent with a specific team. If they can’t sacrifice theirs for him, he shouldn’t sacrifice his for them.

It’s a Huge Double-Standard from Fans

Fans want Kanter to love the Blazers because of their culture and chemistry. Meanwhile fans love Kanter and want to retain him because he’s playing well. Those are not the same thing. They want him to be loyal to their franchise while they and their franchise view him in standard, even mercenary, business terms.

If culture and chemistry are the coinage of the realm, Blazers fans should love Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner. By all reports, those two are beloved in the locker room and subtly help create the culture that Kanter is supposed to attach himself to, at great sacrifice.

If fans ask players to sacrifice based on culture and chemistry, should they not also be willing to reward based on culture and chemistry? When fans clamor for the Blazers to re-sign Leonard and Turner for $21 million and $28 million per year, respectively, then players should heed calls to be loyal to the team. Otherwise, such talk will only end up costing the players every time.

Naturally, fans wouldn’t want the Blazers to offer Leonard and Turner those contracts. It would end up destroying the team’s chances at success...just like signing at a significantly lesser rate then experiencing a career-altering injury would destroy a player’s chances at success. It doesn’t even have to be a career-ending injury; cutting 25% off of point and rebound totals between now and the next contract could do the same.

Anyone who insists on other people changing priorities and taking on risk to benefit them when they’re not willing to do the same in return is not someone you want to do business with, let alone hitch your wagon to.

If Kanter himself chooses to play for a lesser rate, that’s his privilege. He’s simply re-defining his terms of success. Having fans suggest he do so is another matter. That’s actually a good sign he’s among people thinking more of themselves than of his well-being. It’s understandable, but also the opposite of welcoming culture.

Thanks for the question! You can send them in to blazersub@gmail.com anytime!

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