When Damian Lillard put public pressure on the Portland Trail Blazers to improve their roster earlier this summer, fans were hopeful it would push General Manager Neil Olshey to make an significant move that would propel the team into a championship contender. They’re still waiting. While re-signing Norman Powell and acquiring Larry Nance Jr. are a step in the right direction, a major trade has yet to materialize, nor has a significant free agent signing. For many fans, it seems to signal that the team isn’t serious about doing what it takes to put the best product possible on the floor.
Since Jody Allen inherited the franchise from her late brother, Paul, just prior to the 2018-19 season, the team has paid the luxury tax* twice; $15.1 million in 2019 and $5.9 million in 2020. While that may sound like a lot, there are six teams currently slated to surpass that total this season alone, led by the Golden State Warriors with a wopping $184 million estimated tax bill. The takeaway? Good teams, especially win-now teams, aren’t afraid to spend the extra money in pursuit of a title.
Unfortunately, the Blazers took cost-cutting measures last season when faced with the repeater tax penalty, a progressively steeper tax for teams in the luxury three out of the last four years. Despite entering the season with lofty expectations, buoyed by the return of Jusuf Nurkic and the acquisition of Robert Covington, Portland played most of last year one man short of the maximum allowed 15 players, presumably to avoid the tax. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was inked to a pro-rated deal late in the season, still keeping the team under the tax threshold. Allen saved money, but the team lost in six games to a depleted Denver Nuggets team in the first round of the playoffs.
With the Blazers very clearly in win-now mode, one would think they’d use every asset at their disposal to try and improve the team, especially given Lillard’s frustration. However, while they will likely just surpass the tax threshold this season, they still haven’t utilized their full mid-level exception, using only a portion of it on second-round pick Greg Brown III. This was their lone chance, outside of a trade, to bring in a truly impactful player, yet to this point nothing has materialized on either front. Lillard called for a major change, and while there have been several new additions to the roster, that call has largely remained unanswered.
The front office brass is certainly keenly aware of potential luxury tax ramifications, and while Portland will have to sign at least one more player to get to the league-mandated 14, their tax cost will be but a drop in the bucket for an owner with a net worth of $20 billion (their current tax bill is estimated at just north of $500,000). Utilizing the full mid-level exception would likely erase any wiggle room the team has of looking to avoid the tax in a trade deadline salary dump, but is the last chance to add a higher-end free agent to the roster. Unfortunately, at this point, the number of impactful players still on the open market are few and far between. In other words, the Blazers have likely already missed out on maximizing this opportunity, and may decline to use it entirely.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Lillard’s future with the franchise, the Blazers are pinching pennies at the worst possible time. They’re playing a dangerous game, and the consequence could be losing the best player in franchise history. Of course, if things go south, and Lillard leaves, the real losers will be the fans. The same fans who year-after-year have spent their hard-earned money supporting the team, even in trying times. It’s time for the higher ups to share that enthusiasm. The fans deserve it.
*luxury tax figures provided by Spotrac