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Taxes and Trials in Week One for the Trail Blazers

Blazer’s Edge Readers wants to know what’s going on with Portland’s salary cap and new systems.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are only a few days, and one game, into the 2021-22 NBA season and questions about. A loss to the Sacramento Kings on opening night put Blazers fans in a sketchy mood. Suggestions of trades based on saving money rather than improving the team have increased the temperature under the beaker. Fortunately the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is hear to address both.

Hello Dave,

I read that the Blazers are going to try to move below the luxury tax by cutting a player. I didn’t think that worked. Is it true? And would they really get rid of a guy like Anthony Simons or would it be one of their older more expensive players? What do you think happens to us if we lose more talented players? I think we don’t have enough as it is. I’m 78 so maybe I don’t understand it all though.

Yolanda

Hi Yolanda. You probably have the right general idea, but it actually doesn’t quite work like you’re thinking.

The Blazers can release any player they want at any time. But they would still owe the player his salary unless another team agreed to take it over. That’s called, “Picking him up off waivers.” If that happens, the Blazers don’t owe his salary anymore. But if it doesn’t (and it usually doesn’t), they’ll still be responsible for his contract. They won’t save any salary cap space. That’s why you don’t just see teams cutting players willy nilly.

Instead, what the Blazers might do is trade Anfernee Simons for a draft pick and/or cash. They’d trade with a team that can absorb his salary without having to send back a player. Cap picks and cash don’t count against the cap. That’s one way to get rid of enough salary to fit under the tax threshold.

That doesn’t fix the problem you’re talking about, though. Simons is the 6th or 7th man in Portland’s rotation this year, one of the first players off the bench. The bottom half of their roster is full of minimum-contract players already. It’d be hard to find someone to replace Simons’ contributions. They don’t have the luxury of losing that kind of player for nothing unless the season is already ruined.

Portland might consider making a different trade, though. Robert Covington is making $13 million this season and Jusuf Nurkic is making $12 million. Both players are on expiring contracts, meaning they won’t necessarily be back next year.

The Blazers only need to shave $1.5 million off their salary cap to escape tax territory. They might need to lose a little more if they keep Nurkic, because he could earn bonuses this year that make his contract more expensive. Either way, if they can trade one or more of the players mention and take back players who are still talented, but make slightly less money. Then both issues—money and talent—will be solved.

We talked a fair amount about this issue during the summer. Unless the Blazers do very well in the first half of the season, you should probably expect trade talk to rise near the trade deadline. They won’t abandon ship, but they might look to trim back a little.

Dave,

I don’t like how the Blazers look right now. And losing to the Kings at home in the opener? I don’t think I can express my feelings without using words you don’t allow. How bad is it? Am I overreacting after one game because I think it’s bad.

Jerm

Let’s factor out the losing to the Kings part. It’s not a great sign, but that part DOES fall into the “just one game” category. The Denver Nuggets lost to Sacramento on opening night last season. They did ok afterwards. Besides, as we said on this week’s Dave and Dia Podcast, Damian Lillard’s game-tying shot was left about a quarter of an inch. Had it gone in, the game may have ended differently. Analysis based on a quarter of an inch isn’t worth much in the long run.

Instead, we want to look at issues that remain true whether the Blazers finished the game up three or down three. And you’re right, some of those induce nervousness.

The team is supposed to look disjointed, playing in new ways on both ends. You’d expect the defense to look bad, initially. It looked bad last season. The changes in scheme aren’t that great, though. The things that are falling apart appear to fall into two categories:

  1. Not being able to make the read correctly on the second, or successive, rotations. In other words, first rotation comes, second rotation needs to cover for the first, but that doesn’t happen.
  2. Just not moving very energetically.

Those aren’t scheme-related issues. They’re player-related. If they persevere, the best the coaching staff can do is simplify the system, to at least make the reads easier. But that’s what the Blazers tried before and there wasn’t much success. And defensive rotations in the halfcourt won’t fix a 20-2 deficit in transition points. The only real traction the Blazers have had defensively over the last ten years came with different personnel. That’s worrisome.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad, but the offense is borked too. In a way, they’re succeeding. They got more inside shots than usual against Sacramento and shot a higher percentage. They even kept turnovers reasonable, which is a huge key to the season.

Meanwhile, their three-point shooting has gone to heck and nobody outside of CJ McCollum looks comfortable, like they know what they’re supposed to be doing. Much of the guards’ success still comes from taking the ball in their own hands. Everything else is happening in fits and starts. In what seems like a paradox, higher percentage looks aren’t translating into easy offense. The Blazers only had 85 points heading into the fourth period against the Kings. They had already given up 100.

Portland will have better nights...games where the offense just clicks. Will clicking become the norm, is the question. And if so, will it happen through the system or around its edges, as the big scorers go iso, leaving their friends in new, weird positions where they’re not as comfortable scoring?

I don’t think the new system will be judged on how much Lillard and McCollum produce. They’ll be able to get their points one way or the other. Point totals and assist-to-turnover ratios for Nurkic and Norman Powell, plus Robert Covington’s three-point percentage, will tell the story. But you’re not going to be able to judge those for just a game. We’ll need a month or two to see how they average out before we know for sure.

Thanks for the questions! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @DaveDeckard!