Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside will be a free agent this summer. General manager Neil Olshey should re-sign him, if possible.
No cap space with or without Whiteside
The argument for re-signing Whiteside centers around the salary cap. Specifically, the Blazers will most likely not have cap space to sign free agents this summer regardless of whether or not Whiteside stays in Portland. Here’s the faux flowchart explaining that:
- The salary cap and luxury tax line for the 2021-21 season will be about $115 million and $139 million, respectively.
- The Blazers have more than $92 million for next season already locked up in guaranteed contracts.
- Let’s assume Trevor Ariza is not cut and Rodney Hood does not opt out of his contract. That raises the Blazers salary obligation to over $110 million for nine players (Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Ariza, Hood, Collins, Simons, Little, Trent) and before accounting for draft picks or roster holds.* That’s already bumping up against the $115 million cap.
- Unless Hood and Ariza both leave—seems unlikely—and the Blazers cut some more corners, operating below the cap isn’t an option regardless of whether or not Whiteside re-signs.
- Major take-away point: If Whiteside walks the Blazers will only be able to replace him with a minimum salary veteran since they’ll be over the cap either way. Whiteside is not perfect as a player, but he is almost certainly more valuable than a minimum salary guy. He should be retained, within reason.
Caveat: Don’t be an idiot
The Blazers will have the full mid-level exception (MLE) and bi-annual exception (BAE) available this summer.
As mentioned above, it will take about $110 million to retain the core nine players on the roster. Add in a first round draft pick for about $3.25 million and two minimum salaries for a little under $4 million (Hezonja and Melo?) and the Blazers are at about $117 million for 12 players.
The MLE and BAE will be about $9.72 million and $3.8 million, respectively. Assuming the Blazers use both, they’ll be at about $130 or $131 million with 14 players against a $139 million luxury tax line.
That gives them the equivalent of slightly less than a full MLE under the tax line to retain Whiteside using Bird Rights. More if they only partially use the MLE.
Here’s where the don’t be an idiot part comes in — given the trend away from traditional big men it seems unlikely Whiteside will get an offer for more than the MLE from another team.
If someone does throw $15 million annually — about the maximum for multiple seasons at Whiteside it would be understandable if Olshey didn’t counter-offer. As we’ve learned, locking up a lot of money in onerous, nearly untradeable contracts isn’t great. But if Whiteside will accept anything less than the MLE he should probably be retained.
Note that Whiteside is an unrestricted free agent so he can choose to leave Portland whether or not the Blazers match any outside offers.
This analysis only looks at the cap and at the narrow perspective of “Whiteside is better than a minimum salary player so he should be re-signed.” There may be other considerations, such as splitting time at center with Nurkic, that make this impractical.
We are also assuming the Blazers are going all-in next season for a Conference Finals run. If that doesn’t look feasible then the calculus on paying Whiteside changes. In other words, this should look more like the Cavaliers offering Tristan Thompson a huge contract than the Blazers matching $70 million for Allen Crabbe.
The big picture message is that, as of now, the $60 million in salary that the Blazers committed to four years ago for 2019-20 will expire with nothing more than Trevor Ariza, a $7 million trade exception, and the ghost of Andrew Nicholson’s NBA career to show for it. Since cap space is off the table, Olshey will ideally salvage more than that from the 2016 contracts. “More than that” means Whiteside.
Update: An FAQ is “could the Blazers re-sign Whiteside with the intent of trading him later for an asset?” Here’s my snap judgement analysis:
That’s catch-22. If he signs with Portland it probably means he couldn’t get a better offer elsewhere. But if he couldn’t get a better offer elsewhere the Blazers have to know he’s nigh untradeable (unless someone has an injury and/or gets desperate). Do the Blazers want to risk signing Whiteside if they know it will be tough to trade him?
*We’re assuming Nurkic is going to hit his performance bonus since the Blazers will probably take that into account while planning for tax reasons.