The longest season in Trail Blazers history is finally over. While the bubble was exciting at times, Portland’s ultimate fate — a five game shellacking from the Lakers — made one thing clear: Damian Lillard needs more help. NOW.
With the presumable goal of “win now” in mind, let’s explore what free agency options general manager Neil Olshey will have to reinforce the roster this offseason.
How can the Blazers sign a new player?
All of the team executives around the NBA face a great deal of uncertainty as they try to strategize their offseason moves. The reality is that the exact details of next season’s salary cap will be unknown until the league governors and players renegotiate the CBA to adjust for the COVID-19 related decline in revenue. For now, let’s assume that they find a mutually beneficial middle ground that doesn’t too drastically alter the rules governing player transactions.
With that assumption in mind, the most likely scenario is that the Blazers will be operating over the salary cap but under the tax apron (see Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ linked here for a refresher on these terms). That would give them three options to sign new players:
- Non-taxpayer Mid-level Exception: The non-taxpayer MLE will be the largest asset, in terms of dollars, the Blazers have at their disposal to sign a free agent. The MLE was set at $9.3 million for the 2019-20 season and will increase or decrease from that figure in accordance with the salary cap. This will affect all teams equally so even if the cap drops it will not put the Blazers at a disadvantage relative to other teams pursuing MLE free agents. Importantly, teams can split the MLE to sign multiple players, as the Blazers did with the taxpayer MLE to sign Gary Trent Jr. and Seth Curry in 2018.
- Bi-annual Exception: The BAE can be thought of as a limited version of the MLE. Unlike the MLE, which can be used to sign players for up to four seasons, BAE contracts are capped at two seasons. This prevents a team from using it to sign a player to a contract that will confer full Bird Rights. The BAE was $3.6 million last season, and will also rise/fall in proportion to the salary cap. The BAE is only available to teams who are over the cap but under the apron and did not use it the year before. The Blazers have not used the BAE recently so they will likely satisfy both requirements.
- Minimum Player Salary Exception: Teams over the cap can sign players to a minimum salary as long as the team is not “hard capped” (link to details). Olshey used this exception to sign Carmelo Anthony last season and will have it at his disposal again this offseason if another veteran wants to join Lillard and company.
What about retaining the current players?
Assuming that Mario Hezonja and Rodney Hood both opt in to player options, the Blazers will have three free agents this summer: Hassan Whiteside, Wenyen Gabriel, and Carmelo Anthony. Each one has a unique situation:
- Whiteside will be an unrestricted free agent. Portland has his Bird Rights so they can exceed the salary cap to negotiate a new deal. Whiteside, however, can choose to sign with a different team and the Blazers will have no recourse to retain him.
- Gabriel will be a restricted free agent. Other teams will have the option to offer Gabriel as much as the non-taxpayer MLE (VERY unlikely). The Blazers will have a right of first refusal to match an offer sheet from another team and automatically retain Gabriel if they wish.
- Carmelo Anthony is an unrestricted free agent. The Blazers will not have full Bird Rights for Anthony but can retain him by offering up to 120 percent of his 2019-20 salary or by using one of the exceptions listed above.
What about a sign-and-trade?
Questions about sign-and-trades come up almost exclusively in reference to Hassan Whiteside for the Blazers. The team is sitting on Whiteside’s Bird Rights so they could offer him a new contract and immediately trade him to another team, as long as that team is also under the apron. All of the usual salary matching rules will apply to that trade.
Since the Blazers are likely to be over the cap even if Whiteside signs with a new team, this is the only way to recoup some value for his contract. Unless they want to re-sign Whiteside, of course (ugh).