The Portland Trail Blazers enter the Summer of 2022 trying to build a contender around All-Star guard Damian Lillard once again. Trading CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and several veterans at last year’s NBA Trade Deadline made it clear that the franchise was ready to try new tactics while doing so. A 27-55 overall record in 2021-22 made it obvious that they haven’t gotten there yet.
Portland will rely heavily on their lottery pick in the upcoming 2022 NBA Draft. They can use the pick to acquire a promising rookie or trade it for veteran help. Beyond that, the Blazers will depend on free agency signings and ancillary trades to improve the roster.
But how much cap space will Portland have in the upcoming signing period?
The aforementioned mid-season moves all featured salary discounts for the Blazers. That left the impression that they’d have money to spend in the 2022 free agent market. Those moves did drop Portland below the luxury tax threshold for the year...a critical step in financial stability. It also left the potential for them to clear cap room for free agency.
Before we start counting Portland’s millions, though, we need to take a hard look at how much space they can create, and at what cost. As it turns out, even after the money-saving trades, the picture may not be so rosy.
Talking about the salary cap is always perilous. If you get granular enough to please exacting observers, the discussion gets mired down in decimal points and legalities. If you make it simpler, you sacrifice accuracy. We’ll tread the middle ground here, helping you understand the general outline without getting bogged down too much in lawyer-like details.
The NBA Salary Cap is expected to be $122 million next season. With each section, we’ll list Portland’s remaining cap space after the contracts in that section are accounted for. Again, all numbers are approximate.
Numbers come courtesy of Spotrac.
Starting Money: $122 million
The Blazers will carry $58.4 million of salary obligation into the summer. That number encompasses seven players.
Lillard is the behemoth of the group; his salary accounts for $42.5 million of the total. Nassir Little and Justise Winslow are scheduled to make around $4 million each. The other salaries are all under $3 million.
Going this far, Portland’s situation looks good. The cap for 2022-23 is estimated at $122 million, leaving the Blazers approximately $63.6 million to play with. The real number would be somewhat less, as nickel-and-dime deductions, but you get the idea: tons of space.
But that’s not the end of the story. In order to generate that much usable room, the Blazers would need to start with just Lillard and those six other, relatively minor, players. If they wanted to preserve more of their current roster, they’d need to go on a shopping spree among their current players.
Remaining Money: $63.6 million
The Josh Hart Question
Interim General Manager Joe Cronin has indicated that Josh Hart is part of Portland’s plan going forward. If so, his salary is set for $13 million next year.
The Blazers don’t have to keep Hart. His contract is non-guaranteed. They could eat whatever portion of the deal is owed to him upon being cut (likely small) and clear most of that $13 million to spend. This will be one of their decision points this summer.
Let’s assume they do keep Hart, though. That puts their obligation at approximately 71.4 million for eight players, still plenty good.
Remaining Money: $50.6 million
Cap Holds on Starters
Hart isn’t the only inflection point for Portland this summer. Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons—projected to be starters next year if they return—will both enter free agency in July. Nurkic is an unrestricted free agent, Simons restricted.
Portland will need to decide whether to re-sign their two major free agents or not. Until that decision is made, Nurkic and Simons will count against Portland’s cap as cap holds. That’s a fancy way of saying, “We’re holding a given amount against your available cap space for each player, in case you do sign them.”
This is similar to the hold a hotel or gas station makes against your credit card before purchase. The business contacts your card company and makes a reserve against your credit before you pay, ensuring there’s enough money available on your line of credit to complete the transaction. Once you’ve bought the stuff, the hold amount is replaced by the actual amount you spent.
The NBA does the same with each franchise’s free agents. They reserve a set amount, based on the salary of the player involved, to make sure a team has enough money to re-sign its own free agents before it spends money on other free agents. The only ways to get rid of a cap hold are to sign the player or renounce him, saying they’re not going to make the purchase after all.
Nurkic carries a cap hold of $18 million. Simons’ is $11.8 million. Combined, that’s $29.8 million held against Portland’s cap, that they can’t spend.
The Blazers can clear all that space by releasing those two players. If they intend to bring them back, though, we have to subtract $29.8 million from Portland’s available cap space to hold their places. With Nurkic and Simons in tow, the Blazers would be on the hook for $101.2 million.
Remaining Money: $20.8 million
You could anticipate less of a cap obligation if you think Nurkic and Simons will sign for less than $29.8 million, combined. I’m guessing the Blazers would be incredibly fortunate to get them for $15 million apiece. The real cap cost will probably be higher. If so, the Blazers will try to sign them last, letting the cap holds stay on the books until the very end of their free agent process.
Simons could throw a wrench in the system, though. He’s a restricted free agent. The Blazers have the right to match an offer sheet that he signs with another team. Once that offer sheet is signed, the Blazers will only have two days to exercise their right to match it. That means Simons’ modest cap hold could be replaced with a larger amount fairly quickly, eating into Portland’s space.
Also note that Nurkic and Simons aren’t the only players with cap holds. Joe Ingles has a $19.5 million hold himself. If the Blazers don’t cut him or re-sign him for less, his cap impact will be enormous.
The First-Round Pick
As mentioned above, Portland holds a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Actually drafting a rookie is the most cost-effective way forward. If they trade the pick, their cap space will be affected by the salary details in that trade, of course
Let’s speculate the Blazers get the 6th pick in the draft and use it rather than moving it. The new draftee will count as $6.5 million against their cap, the approximate space it would take to sign player eventually.
The Blazers are now at $107.7 million in cap obligation.
Remaining Money: $14.3 million
The Blazers acquired Eric Bledsoe in a mid-year deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s scheduled to make $19.4 million next year, but the contract isn’t guaranteed. If the Blazers waive him—which seems somewhat likely, unless they want that $19 million counting against their cap—they’ll still owe $3.9 million in guaranteed money to him next season.
Remaining Money: $10.4 million remains.
The Ghost of Andrew Nicholson
Way back in 2017, the Blazers acquired Andrew Nicholson while dumping Allen Crabbe on the Brooklyn Nets. They waived Nicholson, then stretched his salary out over several years to distribute the cap cost instead of absorbing it all in a single season. They’re still paying for that move. $2.8 million will be added to their cap next year because of it.
Remaining Money: $7.6 million
The Rest of the Roster
In all of this, we have only accounted for 11 active players. The minimum for cap purposes is 14. For every player missing, a small cap hold, roughly $1 million, is levied against the ledger. The Blazers could fill these spots with current players, but the cap hold is the cheapest way to move forward, so we’ll presume that for now, leaving the best-case financial scenario intact.
Three roster space cap holds equal around $2.9 million. This leaves the final tally at...
$117.3 million in cap obligation, $4.7 million remaining.
But wait, there’s more...
Using Cap Exceptions
You’re probably familiar with cap exceptions, allowing teams over the cap to sign free agents even if they have no cap space.
The non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception next year is projected at $10.3 million. The bi-annual exception is worth around $4 million.
Here’s something you might not know. If a team isn’t over the cap, but their salary obligation leaves less cap room than cap exceptions would give them, that team gets to use cap exceptions as if they were over the cap.
In other words, if the Blazers’ obligations leave them less than $14.3 million in available cap space—the total of their possible exceptions—they use cap exceptions just as if they were over the cap instead of their lesser remaining cap space.
In practical terms, it make no difference that they have a couple million remaining. If the Blazers have less than $14.3 million of space on the ledger, they might as well be over the cap. Since $4.7 million is less than $14.3 million, there you go. We can’t really talk about Portland using available cap space to entice free agents this summer. They’ll use the same exceptions that everybody else has.
Far from having oodles of money to throw at NBA free agents this summer, the Blazers are, in essence, capped out.
The only way to generate usable cap space would be to jettison Josh Hart, Jusuf Nurkic, or Anfernee Simons. Those three players will soak up almost all of Portland’s available space on their own, even in their cheapest (reasonably) possible incarnations. If the Blazers relinquish one or more of those players—plus Ingles and Bledsoe, obviously—then they’d have some cap room to sign players outright. How much would depend on the player, but remember, they need to get more than $14.3 million total space to make it practical, so likely they’d need to lose two of the three in order to make the move worth it.
Long story short: Portland got under the luxury tax and saved millions in potential paid-out salary with their mid-season moves last year. They did not generate usable cap space with those moves, though. That would take deeper cuts than they’ve already made.
If the Blazers thought incoming free agents would give them more of a boost than Nurkic, Simons, or Hart, they could release one or more of that trio and sign those free agents instead. If they don’t think they can get more value out of the free agent market than they’re receiving from their current players, they’ll have to keep their incumbents and make use of their cap exceptions to add to the team.