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Analysis: Trail Blazers Did OK at the Trade Deadline

What happened, what didn’t, and what’s next as the Blazers pass through NBA Trade Deadline 2020.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The 2020 NBA Trade Deadline has passed and the Portland Trail Blazers spent it largely inactive. They remained satisfied with trading Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver for Trevor Ariza weeks earlier, augmenting that move by dumping the salary of Skal Labissiere for a low second-round pick.

Plenty of folks have written into the Mailbag asking questions before, during, and after the event. Here’s an omnibus analysis/review to address the most common queries.

Why Trade Labissiere?

The purpose was financial. Like the trade for Ariza, this move reduced Portland’s salary obligation for the rest of the year. The NBA calculates salaries at the end of the season for purposes of determining whether a team is over the tax threshold. The Blazers didn’t get under that line, but they’re closer. That’s important, as each dollar saved equates to two or three actual dollars in reduced salary and penalties.

Blazer’s Edge writer Eric Griffith sketched out the savings when the deal went down. It amounts to roughly $900,000 in salary plus $3.7 million saved in tax penalties. (Yes, they’re that steep.) Even tossing $1.9 million to Atlanta, the Blazers shaved $2.7 million off of their net bill for the season with this move. Since Labissiere was injured and not occupying a huge spot in the rotation when healthy anyway, it made sense.

What Does This Mean for the Season?

The Blazers dropped a relatively minor player for cash savings. They didn’t pick up anyone new. Whatever this season will be, it will be. Apparently no move was available that would have altered the course of the year. Either that or the cost of such a move, either in current talent or future obligation, was too high.

Some of the players exchanged across the NBA yesterday could have given the Blazers a better chance of earning a low playoff seed in April. None of them would have changed Portland’s destiny in the resulting playoffs series. Given their inability to alter the on-court product, Portland valued what they could control (finances) and made a move accordingly.

Whether you view this as mildly sensible or “waving the white flag on the season” depends on your expectations. The point is now moot. Playoffs or lottery, the Blazers will ride out 2019-20 with the team they have.

You never want to be the team giving away talent for nothing. You’d rather be the team acquiring it. But all things considered, this was a small move, an understandable one given the circumstances. It has little greater significance beyond that.

Wasn’t There a Market for Whiteside?

We don’t know. All we know is that the Blazers valued him higher than any trade offers they might have received. In an interview yesterday, Neil Olshey implied they valued him so highly that they weren’t even listening to offers.

Be that as it may, both Clint Capela and Andre Drummond found new homes at the deadline, so starting centers did move. Portland’s didn’t.

How Does This Affect Portland’s Next Move?

Whiteside’s enormous contract will create an even more enormous cap hold in July of 2020. This will obliterate Portland’s remaining cap space, leaving them with only modest cap exceptions to sign free agents.

Trevor Ariza’s contract will do the same thing, to a lesser extent.

The Blazers can get out of those holds entirely by releasing Whiteside and Ariza, making them unrestricted free agents. Doing so, they’d lose the ability to sign them with Bird Rights. In other words, they’d lose both players.

(The Blazers can replace Whiteside’s cap hold with whatever salary they re-sign him to. That salary would presumably use up Portland’s available cap space too, with or without Ariza.)

Functionally, the Blazers are left with a choice. Either they’ll use their summer cap space to bring back Whiteside and Ariza or they’ll release both players and use that cap space to chase free agents.

That seems pretty likely at this point. Player options for Rodney Hood and Mario Hezonja will muddy the cap waters. If that aggregate number gets diluted, Portland’s ability to draw significant free agents will vanish. They’ll probably decide they like who they have more than who they could chase on the market.

Can’t They Still Trade Ariza and Whiteside at the Draft?

In theory, players can be traded after their team exits the season, but before the new fiscal year starts in July. This is how draft-day trades happen.

Whiteside cannot be traded this way. CBA rules prevent trading any player with an expiring contract after the deadline. This avoids obvious cap shenanigans.

Ariza could be traded, but it’ll be difficult or impossible to do so. His contract for next season is not fully guaranteed. He’s scheduled to make $12.8 million in 2020-21, but that can be cut to $1.8 if the team releases him.

To prevent teams from using non-guaranteed contracts as a salary dump (trading for a non-guaranteed player solely with the intent of cutting him and saving money), the league instituted another rule. When traded after the deadline, but before the new year, players with non-guaranteed contracts the next season are only worth the non-guaranteed amount for purposes of outgoing salary, but they’re worth the full amount to the team receiving them.

That means Ariza only counts for $1.8 million in salary for the Blazers if they trade him during the draft (i.e. they could only take $1.8 million back) but the receiving team would need to absorb all $12.8 million of his contract onto their cap ledger. Nobody in the NBA has $11 million in cap room remaining this season. As far as I know, only the Warriors have a trade exception large enough to absorb Ariza’s salary outright. There might be multi-team, multi-player scenarios that could get an unbalanced trade like this one done, but I can’t fathom any off the top of my head.

Whiteside and Ariza Aren’t a Bad Haul from the Deadline Though?

This would be the PR spin, yes. Essentially it’s saying that what the Blazers had was better than what they could get. It’s a bold claim from a sub-.500 team, but passable. It speaks more of Portland’s lack of flexibility right now than the inherent value of their talent.

I have two big rubs against keeping Whiteside long-term.

One is his continued motivation in non-contract years. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf, and fair chances if he has. That said, Miami struggled with him to the point that two years ago, the suggestion that Portland (or anybody) would want him was dubbed near-insane.

The second piggybacks on the first. What do the Blazers do with Jusuf Nurkic? Part of Whiteside’s issue in Miami was a lack of playing time and touches. Nurkic had the same issue in Denver, platooning with Nikola Jokic.

Both players want, and deserve, to start. Both will want the lion’s share of the minutes. Neither is a comfortable power forward. I’m scratching my head trying to find any permutation that leaves Nurkic and Whiteside together, happy, and fully productive.

Retaining Whiteside makes sense if the Blazers don’t think Nurkic will return to full health, or if they intend to use one of their starting centers in a trade. Other than that, I don’t see a long-term scenario that makes sense.

Do You Think the Blazers Missed Out on Anything at the Deadline?

Judging by the deals announced, I don’t think they missed out on any big trades that would have been in their reach anyway.

The one that made me itch was the Sixers picking up Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks from the Warriors for second-rounders. The Blazers had no picks to offer and wouldn’t have wanted to take on the extra salary, having just dumped Labissiere to save money. If they had room and a couple picks, though, absorbing two 6’6 wings who can shoot wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. I know people are in love with Gary Trent Jr. after his recent ascension, and that’s great. Extra depth and options (essentially) for free wouldn’t have hurt. Portland wasn’t poised to take advantage of value deals, though. That grates as much as their inability to pull off a blockbuster that evidently wasn’t there.

Blazer’s Edge Night

Hey folks, we are down to our last few tickets for Blazer’s Edge Night, sending over 2000 kids in need to see the Blazers play the Timberwolves on March 17th. These may be the slightly more expensive tickets that are harder to get donated. Can you put us over the top by donating 1 or 2? Click through the link below to find out how.