Hassan Whiteside was one of the most interesting and polarizing members of the 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers roster. He’s also an unrestricted free agent this year. Some Blazers fans would love to keep him, others can’t wait to see him go. Then there are people like Michael, a Blazer’s Edge Reader who wonders if there’s a third option, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’m sure many of us were a little disappointed when Whiteside’s massive contract wasn’t moved at the deadline. So with it expiring but Blazers still over the tax line, while I know it is rare, can you envision any scenarios where we pull off a sign and trade involving Whiteside? What teams do you think would be interested?
Let’s talk about the chances of a Whiteside trade in the abstract, then the specific likelihood of a sign-and-trade.
How Attractive is Whiteside?
I don’t anticipate the market for Whiteside being huge this summer for a few reasons. Centers aren’t in favor in general, though that trend is slowly starting to shift. Mobile bigs who can shoot deep are coveted nowadays. Whiteside doesn’t check off either box.
I suspect teams are going to look at what happened to the Miami Heat versus what happened to Portland when Whiteside moved here last summer. The development of Bam Adebayo was obviously a huge part of Miami’s success this season. Jimmy Butler was equally so. But fairly or not, it won’t be lost on NBA executives that the Heat transitioned from bottom feeders to NBA Finalists after Whiteside departed. He got all the opportunity one could wish with the Blazers this year, but Portland’s defense didn’t improve. Neither did their win total.
Where, exactly, does Whiteside fit? Lower-level teams will love his stats, but still wonder whether he’s a piece to build around and grow with. Playoffs-level teams will wonder if his contributions and priorities will justify his price. Whiteside is in no-man’s land that way. Somebody’s going to want him. I don’t expect the whole league to be hot for him.
A potentially-depressed financial market due to COVID shortfalls may change the landscape a bit. It’s possible that no free agents, aside from a few premium signings, go for big bucks. In that case, with costs moderate and stats high, Whiteside becomes a much more attractive prospect.
This works against a sign-and-trade, however. The lower the price of the the free agent, the easier he becomes to sign directly. Teams viewing Whiteside as a complementary frontcourt asset would be more inclined to use a mid-level exception to sign him than trade away an existing player for him.
The “hard cap” also makes sign-and-trade deals harder. Take a deep breath; this will take a second.
You already know that teams can go over the salary cap line, and even over the luxury tax threshold, using cap exceptions. These include Bird Rights (re-signing your own free agent), bi-annual exceptions, and non-taxpayer mid-level exceptions.
Think of those exceptions like a trap door in the cap ceiling. If a team sneaks through the door quietly, in the right ways. they can get way above the ceiling climbing as far as they want. If they make the wrong kind of noise, though, the trap door will snap shut on them. Then they’re stuck below it.
This “trap door” rests at the Luxury Tax Apron. It’s set around $6 million higher than the actual luxury tax threshold in a given season. Here are the actual levels for 2019-20 (rounded):
Salary Cap Line— $109.1 million
Luxury Tax Threshold— $132.6 million
Luxury Tax Apron/Hard Cap— $138.9 million
If the Apron/Hard Cap trap door shuts, teams cannot spend any money beyond it, even with exceptions that otherwise would have worked. Nor can they make a move that would cause the door to shut if that move would leave their final salary level above it. In effect, the tax apron/hard cap line becomes that team’s spending limit for that season.
Here’s the key for our discussion: receiving a player via sign-and-trade deal is one of the “noisy” events that triggers the hard cap trap door shutting. A team agreeing to a sign-and-trade with Portland wouldn’t just be accepting Whiteside, but a limit on what they could spend for the year.
A Practical Example
Let’s assume for a minute that the cap and luxury tax lines will remain the same next season as this year. If they kept everyone besides Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony, the Blazers would owe $114 million in salary. That’s above the Salary Cap line ($109.1 million), but below the Luxury Tax Threshold ($132.6 million).
Let’s say the Blazers loved Whiteside and offered him a contract at $30 million per year. That would put their new salary level at $144 million...way above the cap line, tax threshold, and even the Luxury Tax Apron ($138.9 million). But that would be ok! They could do it, because using Bird Rights to re-sign your own free agent isn’t “noisy”. It doesn’t trigger the alarm that shuts the trap door.
But let’s change the deal to a sign-and-trade using that same $30 million contract. The Blazers are still ok. They used Bird Rights to re-sign Whiteside. They didn’t trigger the trap door themselves. But the team receiving him is now making the kind of noise that snaps the trap door shut for them. It will close at $138.9 million. They cannot spent a penny more than that this year, period. They must be able to absorb the new Whiteside contract without exceeding that level. They must also get all their other deals done without surpassing that level as well. They can’t use any exception, offer, or loophole that would take them above it (including Bird Rights with their own free agents), even if they could have before.
Plenty of teams out there could do this. Some have the available cap space already. Most could send back enough salary in trade to make the initial deal with Portland work. But simple salary exchange is no longer the only consideration. Any team receiving Whiteside would need to worry about how that hard cap affects their ability to make other moves, use other cap exceptions, and sign other free agents.
This example above presumes the cap will remain the same next year. The NBA salary cap is based off of Basketball Related Income...how much revenue the league took in the season prior. The COVID-19 stoppage ate into that number big-time. The league will certainly come to an agreement that prevents the cap shrinking to untenable levels, but we don’t know how high it will be. It may shrink. If the cap number goes down, the Luxury Tax Apron “trap door” lowers as well. The consequences of accepting a player in a sign-and-trade deal get more intense.
Sign-and-trades do happen. Teams are willing to hard-cap themselves to get them. Nine teams did so last year via sign-and-trade. Fifteen teams incurred the hard cap overall...roughly half the league. But shifting financial conditions, combined with questions about Whiteside’s utility and compensation level, may conspire against teams being willing to hard cap themselves specifically for him.
For those reasons, I think that Whiteside re-signing with Portland with Bird Rights or signing somewhere else for cap space or an exception are more likely than Portland signing and trading him.
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