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How Will the Trail Blazers Build for the Future?

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Portland has new players on board. Where do they go next?

Kent Bazemore Press Conference Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers will enter the 2019-20 season with a fresh rotation, shiny new players in Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore, and fresh hopes of challenging in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Their latest evolution has been greeted with optimism in most quarters. If the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is any indication, the predictable question of how good they’ll be is going to be accompanied by two more: for how long, and what’s next? Today’s trio of questions provide a representative sample. Let’s dig in!

Dave,

Vacillating between optimism and confusion with our recent roster moves. I like the additions. At the same time I have trouble seeing how this is different from last year. I liked Enes Kanter and Seth Curry too. Are we just cycling in slightly better people without getting better in the long run? It feels like an expensive electric shell game?

Ryan

The important thing here is to remember the goal...or rather, all facets of it. The aim wasn’t to build onto the team, it was to build onto the team without adversely affecting their cap situation now or next summer. Hassan Whiteside didn’t make sense just because he was a good player. He made sense because he’s a good player with an expiring contract for whom the Blazers traded two other semi-expensive-expiring-contract players. If any of those qualifications aren’t present, the deal doesn’t happen. Ditto for Kent Bazemore.

Operating this way, the Blazers have kept themselves away from financial doom and have preserved potential cap space for 2020.

The cost, as you have identified, is the same the Blazers have paid with ALL their acquisitions since that fateful Summer of 2016:

  1. Nobody’s going to stay. OR...
  2. The players who do stay will eat up so much cap space that the team has no further flexibility to build.

If you end up liking Bazemore and Whiteside (Rodney Hood too, really) they’re either on their way to other teams after one more year or you better really like them, because they’ll become the next cap-gumming contracts that lock the Blazers into the same basic team for 3-4 more seasons.

Dear Dave,

So stoked about the season and even more stoked about next year’s free agents! I know the class isn’t as big as this year’s but who do you see them adding onto Baze and Hassan to push us over the top? Can’t wait!

Tyson

The Blazers have $92 million in guaranteed obligations for the Summer of 2020, with potential for $103 million. The cap is projected to be $118 million. That leaves Portland with $15-26 million in potential salary to offer free agents.

In an ideal world, Rodney Hood would stay cool with the $6 million on the second year of his contract, leaving the Blazers at $98 million in guaranteed obligations, with $20 million to spend.

That ideal scenario would include the following players under contract:

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Gary Trent Jr.

Eight spots are filled there, leaving 6-7 open.

The most notable names not on the list are the ones you just mentioned: Whiteside and Bazemore. There’s good reason for their omission. Whiteside will carry a cap hold of $35 million that summer, Bazemore $29 million. Cap holds remain in place, taking up potential free agent money, until the player is released or he signs a new contract with the Blazers.

(Skal Labissiere will also carry a cap hold of $7 million. I’m assuming he and Mario Hezonja will be afterthoughts, not worth mucking up our example for.)

Even though Portland’s cap obligation will total $98 million in their ideal 2020 situation, until they release or re-sign Whiteside and Bazemore, their cap will read $162 million for free-agent-signing purposes. That’s way over the cap. If they want to add players without releasing their two big 2019 acquisitions, they’ll be stuck with a mid-level exception for bait.

Re-signing the dynamic duo would substitute their new contract numbers for the cap hold figures. There’s little chance of the Blazers inking both to $20 million combined, let alone enough under $20 million to leave room for other signings. If the Blazers want to go after other free agents, they’ll have to release Bazemore and Whiteside.

Dave,

Olshey said he’s looking forward to pairing Hassan Whiteside with Nurk when he comes back. I’m ok with that but I really wanted a trade for a third star more. Do you think that can still happen? Is Neil that fond of Whiteside really?

Patricia

I’m sure Olshey is happy with his new players. They’re certainly getting him more love than the ones he traded away. They gave the team a new look at a fair price.

If you read what I just said about cap holds above, you’ll also understand that trading either Bazemore or Whiteside mid-season isn’t an impossibility. If they’re not worth breaking the bank for at the end of the year—forsaking all other free agents in the process—the Blazers aren’t going to keep them anyway. Obviously the player Portland traded for would take up cap/free agent space next summer too, but if he’s the guy they want, they’ll have no qualms including either of the new contracts for him.

Just as obviously, Neil Olshey isn’t going to spill all this on a national broadcast at Summer League. Messieurs Whiteside and Bazemore wouldn’t be happy to hear, “We got these guys because we like them, but we’re cool with dangling their contracts at the February deadline. That’s what we’re really hoping for.” Him not saying it doesn’t preclude the possibility.

The Blazers might keep Whiteside and Bazemore forever. (Unlike last year’s new guys, the Blazers do have Bird Rights on these two players.) They might keep them for a year, then release them to sign other free agents. They might trade them as the year progresses. All of those options are live. We’ll have to see which ends up happening.

Thanks for the Mailbag questions! You can keep them coming all summer to blazersub@gmail.com!

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