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Salary Cap FAQ: Can the Blazers find a way to keep Enes Kanter?

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General Manager Neil Olshey has his work cut out for himself.

Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Trail Blazers almost certainly want to keep Enes Kanter on the roster. The Turkish center filled in admirably — better than many expected — for the injured Jusuf Nurkic in the final weeks of the regular season and playoffs. Nurkic will miss a chunk of the regular season next year so it’d be a huge help to keep Kanter in a Blazers uniform.

How much can the Blazers offer Kanter?

One small problem: General Manager Neil Olshey might not have a way to keep Kanter. As has been discussed endlessly, the Blazers are not in a great spot financially. They already have $126 million in guaranteed salaries committed to 10 players against a $109 million salary cap and $132 million luxury tax. Not great!

Consequently, as of now, the Blazers can only sign players using the taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE) of $5.71 million, a minimum contract, or Bird rights. Since Kanter has only played one season with the Blazers they do not have his Bird rights and he clearly won’t take a minimum contract.

You can squint and imagine a scenario where Kanter receives no appealing offers from outside teams and re-ups for the taxpayer MLE to try to secure a bigger contract in 2020. But given that many teams have cap space this summer and Kanter’s stock is about as high as it can get, that seems unlikely. (But keep your fingers crossed.)

How can they offer Kanter more money?

To offer Kanter more money the Blazers will need to “unlock” the full MLE of $9.25 million. That is a contract Kanter may be inclined to accept. To qualify for the MLE the Blazers will need to be under the luxury tax apron of $138.3 million AFTER the MLE deal has been signed. At that point the team will be “hard capped” and can’t sign any player for any reason so using the MLE has to be the last move they make (i.e. they need to go into the negotiation with about $129 million on the payroll and every other roster spot filled).

Is that possible? Let’s take a closer look.

Assume the following:

  • Non-Bird rights to Rodney Hood are renounced
  • Non-Bird rights to Seth Curry are renounced
  • Al-Farouq Aminu signed via Bird rights for roughly $9 million, reducing his cap hold by more than $4 million
  • 2019 first round draft pick is traded
  • Jake Layman is offered and accepts a $1.9 million qualifying offer.

In this scenario the Blazers will have $137.7 million dedicated to 12 players.

(Salaries taken from Basketball Insiders.)

Remember, the magic number we are looking for to even be able to use the entire MLE is $129 million, before accounting for other players to fill out the roster.

So now let’s imagine the most obvious, if slightly unrealistic, scenario: the Blazers trade Evan Turner and the 2019 draft pick for a veteran minimum salary player. That creates the following scenario:

Look, considerably less than $138.3 million! This even includes a bi-annual exception (BAE) player (another exception that can be used if teams stay under the apron) to act as a de facto replacement for Hood. (Check out this excellent post from BlazersFanSince1970 for details on the BAE.)

The bigger point is that if Olshey’s primary goal is to open up more money for free agents then the optimal scenario is to get about $14.5 million below the $138.3 million apron — this would allow use of the full MLE, the BAE, and have enough leftover for another minimum contract veteran player.

Given the assumptions above (re-signing Aminu, trading first round pick) the Blazers will need to dump about $13.6 million in salary to make that happen. That number shrinks to only about $4.6 million if the Blazers renounce Aminu.

The illustrative example above, salary dumping Turner, may be difficult to accomplish. A more likely scenario, assuming the Blazers are content to pass on larger trades, is that two players will be packaged together with assets to clear that $13.6 million. Likely some combination of Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless. BlazersFanSince1970 digs deeper into the multitude of scenarios here.

The tl;dr message here is that the Blazers have options to become players on the free agent market this summer, if Olshey is willing/able to sacrifice an asset or two to cut salary. Whether or not that is the best course of action, of course, remains to be seen.