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Which Free Agents Could the Trail Blazers Re-Sign on the Cheap?

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Everyone wants good players, nobody wants to pay full price for them.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers free agents in the Summer of 2019 include Enes Kanter, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, and Seth Curry. Portland’s salary cap budget in the Summer of 2019 wouldn’t buy half a bag of movie popcorn. With the Blazers coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, fans are clamoring for ways to keep the team together. This is giving rise to plenty of “discount signing” scenarios, several of which occupy today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question.

Dave,

Common wisdom says that it’s not players’ job to make the team roster work within the salary cap, but they can’t be blind to the team’s salary cap constraints and how that affects the potential for winning big.

What are the odds:

  1. Enes Kanter or Rodney Hood accept the taxpayer MLE for one year, knowing that after next season Meyers, Mo, and ET will have expired contracts, leaving more money to get a better deal in the 2020 off-season?
  2. Chief signs a 1 year team friendly deal?
  3. Damian signs an extension somewhere between the standard max extension and the super-max he is eligible for, in order to help the team save money to retain talent?

We realize the team has grown in spite of being hamstrung with the value of the 2016 off-season signings, but it would be great to see them grow even more this coming year, rather than just wait out the clock for more options in 2020.

Thanks,

Ian

We covered this a few months ago, but it bears repeating. Players bear 0% responsibility for a team’s cap situation. The player’s job is to play well, rising as far up the salary comparison ladder as possible. During negotiations, it’s up to the player and his agent to work out the best deal they can based on their demonstrated competency, modified by factors such as age, value to the franchise, and so on.

What the team pays the other 14 players on the roster is not the concern of the player negotiating their contract, except for comparison’s sake. If the team overpaid players and ended up above the salary cap, that’s a front office issue, not the player’s. They shouldn’t have done that. Oops. The player is still worth what he’s worth and should get paid that amount.

Naturally, players have the right to value other things besides money. Players who see themselves in a perfect situation might sign at a discount, as might a player chasing a championship. It’s worth noting that both of these examples rely on the good aspects of a franchise: camaraderie or success. Salary cap issues are usually the result of poor decisions, or at least ones that didn’t work out as expected. The latter situation is not like the first two.

Either way, it’s great when players feel enough of a connection to a franchise to consider turning down money elsewhere. When that happens, fans of that franchise should celebrate. Expecting it to happen, let alone depending on it happening, is a different matter. That’s not fair to the players.

Whatever happens in the 48 minutes after the ball tips, this is a business. Loyalty is real, but constantly commodified. The NBA exists because people purchase tickets, buy merchandise, and put their eyes on broadcast channels. Everything about it is geared to get you, the viewer, to invest and come back. The concept of “loyalty” is part of the pitch.

We overlook the sales job the same way we look past actors in a movie, seeing the characters they play instead. We do this because we like the sport and the connected feeling we get from it. We’re free to indulge because, on a given day, we have little more at stake than the price of a ticket and time spent. It’s entertainment; our investment in it is emotional. We could pick up and leave tomorrow without high cost.

This is not so for players. The NBA is their life and their livelihood. Many players won’t earn in five decades of “retirement” what they rake in for a single season in the league. NBA contracts are high stakes and incredibly weighty.

When fans use the word “loyalty”, they mean, “Sticking with what I’ve always done, continuing to enjoy it to the fullest.” Apply that same word to a player signing a contract and it may mean giving up the chance to do what he’s always wanted to do, or at least a portion of the reward for it. “Loyalty” means real earning power forsaken, never to be recouped: millions of dollars, a lifetime of dreams. The word does not transfer from one side of the fan-player chasm to the other.

Make no mistake, franchises will sell culture to players as well. They want what the fans want: good players at the cheapest price possible. Players are free to buy into loyalty, if that’s their thing. But they’re also free to say, “Show me the money.” That is, by far, the safer and saner road. As we’ve mentioned before, franchise loyalty—at least the financial part—does not extend beyond the limits of a player’s contract. As soon as the player stops producing or suffers a career-ending injury, the “loyalty-based” environment quickly becomes a business again.

Though fans and franchises are usually allied in the loyalty argument, even that relationship is not secure. Ask Seattle Supersonics fans how deep NBA loyalty to supporters and their cities runs. Imagine, though if someone asked to you bet 60% of your lifetime earning power on the Blazers always remaining in Portland, no matter what, with zero incentive for winning the bet other than you get the money you would have earned anyway. Would you trust the NBA and take that deal? More to the point, what incentive would you have to take it, even if you were sure in your heart that the Blazers would never move? It’s not a good bet. You don’t win anything extra from it. That’s the same scenario players face when considering trading dollars for loyalty.

I get the impulse to hope discount deals happen. Blazers fans should be encouraged by Enes Kanter still showing up on social media wearing Portland gear. Maybe we’ll all get a pleasant surprise in July. It’s just not fair to expect or plan on it, especially when, under different circumstances, the Blazers wouldn’t have needed free agents to take a discount to remain.

As to your specific examples:

  1. Kanter is more likely to take a discount than Hood, I’d guess, because he’s already been paid a ton. But I don’t see a single-year contract as a good move for him. The specter of a career-ending injury—and all the lost dollars that would have accompanied a bigger, longer deal—looms too large. It’s just a bad idea from a player’s perspective. However, I do believe Hood could be signed at a taxpayer’s MLE level, probably for a short term. I don’t think he’ll get a ton on the open market. In that case, the deal wouldn’t be discounted.
  2. Al-Farouq Aminu will probably have interest in re-signing with the Blazers and could accept a team-friendly contract. I doubt it will be for one year. The Blazers only have $23 million-ish coming available in 2020, and that’s if they keep the current roster (including 2019 and 2020 draftees) without additions and the salary cap projections bears up. They will be filling six roster spots with that $23 million. That’s not a ton to go around. They could exceed the cap to re-sign Aminu, but then his cap hold would eat into the $23 million and...long story short, they’d be paying just to bring back the same squad with new spare parts. That’s probably not attractive for Portland. By the way, what if the Blazers make a cap-clogging trade mid-season? Will they still be interested in luxury-tax Aminu if they have a new power forward on board?
  3. By the time Damian Lillard’s extension kicks in, the Blazers will either be in a rebuild or salary cap hell. In neither case would Lillard taking a discount help much. (In order to be effective, his dollars would need to put them below the cap enough to sign a free agent they couldn’t have otherwise. That’s not impossible, but it’s hard to forecast accurately.) Lillard has taken a discount already. That may indicate his willingness to do so again. Or it may mean that enough is enough and it’s time to get everything he’s worth. Even if you’re super rich, you can always find a use for 15 million more dollars.

Obviously I’m shooting from the hip here. Nobody knows what’s in the minds and hearts of the players except the players themselves, their families, and probably their agents. Maybe the Blazers will get lucky. I’m just saying that Blazers fans can’t be disappointed or angry at the players if that doesn’t happen.

Expectations of discount signings are inherently unfair. If anything makes them come good, it’s not the desires of the fans or the franchise, but the sacrifice of the players involved. It’s great to say, “Oh my gosh, thank you!” after it happens. It’s less cool to say, “I wish they would...” or, even worse, “Why didn’t they?” if they don’t.

Thanks for the topic, Ian! Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

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