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Could the Trail Blazers Sign a Max Free Agent This Summer?

Maybe...but at what cost?

Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Two Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Every couple of weeks, the Portland Trail Blazers are linked with a hot new free agent. The Blazers are a prime target for national pundits and player agents alike, as they appear to have a glut of available cap space coming free this summer. This has caused confusion among the ranks of Portland fans, dreaming of the next Zach Lavine like a star atop their July Christmas Tree. We’re going to clarify a bit in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hey Dave, I’m having some trouble understanding the Blazers future salary cap issues. Using hoopshype.com as a reference and doing some rough math it seems like the blazers would have enough space to sign a nearly max deal with a player while retaining Ant and Nurk at reasonable salaries. Side note; I love Nurk and Ant but I don’t think either deserves anything close to a max contact at this time. Do you have any thoughts on what their contracts are forecasting at? Another side note. I often hear Josh Harts name come up in FA talk this summer. Once again using hoopshype as a reference it seems he has a player option in 23-24. That would make him guaranteed for next season. Can you speak to Hart and Bledsoe’s contract specifics?

Thanks, Todd

I don’t often leave questions completely unedited, but yours covers almost all the variables in the equation, so congratulations! Word-for-word to the Mailbag.

We’ve covered this before in long form, but it’s worth repeating every time new players are rumored for Portland. The Blazers have potential to open up cap space, but they do not actually have the cap space as the roster is currently constructed. The players you mentioned define the difference between those two words.

For these numbers, I’m going to use Spotrac, a slightly different source than you used.

Portland only has $58.4 million in super-sure, have-to-pay-them contract obligations to active players next season. Against a projected salary cap of $121 million, that leaves $62 million free...way more than a maximum contract.

The Blazers also owe $2.8 million to Andrew Nicholson, who never suited up for the team following a 2017 trade but is still on the books. That takes Portland to about $61 million in round numbers. That’s still great.

Here’s the catch: those figures only account for Damian Lillard (who takes up $42.5 million of that $61 million obligation) and six mid-to-low rotation players, the most prominent of which is Nassir Little. Nobody between Lillard and Little has been paid, according to these numbers.

As you might suspect, those in-between salaries account for a lot of money. They come in two flavors: cap holds and contract options.

Cap Holds

You’re probably familiar with Bird Rights, the salary cap exception that lets a team re-sign its own players even if that signing would take them over the salary cap. That, and a couple other exceptions, guard against a team growing a star player, then losing him to competing teams with more cap space.

These exceptions create a loophole, however. What’s to prevent a team from using its cap space to sign up everybody else’s free agents, then re-signing its own player last, only going over the cap with the last, “exception” signing? If I have $30 million in cap space plus a center I need to re-sign, instead of using that space on my center, I could lure a max player to my team with the $30 million, then go over the cap to re-sign my own center. This makes the cap limit much weaker. It might as well not exist.

To prevent this, the NBA provides for cap holds. When a team’s own free agent comes up for a new contract, a prescribed amount of that team’s cap space is held for that player, against the chance that they might sign him. The exact amount is based on the player’s prior salary...the bigger the previous contract, the bigger the cap hold.

The cap hold sits on a team’s salary ledger until one of two things happen:

  1. The player signs an actual contract with the team, at which time the new salary amount replaces the cap hold.
  2. The player leaves the team, either by signing with another team or by the team renouncing him. “Renouncing” is a severing of relationship with the organization. At that time, the cap hold disappears entirely, as the player is no longer available.

A team cannot use any cap space that is “held” in this way until one of those two things happens. They might as well not have it. It’s as if the player was already on the books.

Including the #7 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Blazers have eight active roster members with cap holds on the books. Jusuf Nurkic’s is worth $18 million, Anfernee Simons’ $11.8. Joe Ingles has a $19.5 million cap hold. Together, the eight holds total $62.8 million.

There are a couple extra charges, but let’s skip them for now, just noting that $63 million in holds already pushes the Blazers to the cap line.

Contract Options

Portland has two players with non-fully-guaranteed contract options next season. Eric Bledsoe is scheduled to make $19.4 million, with a guarantee of $3.9 million. If the Blazers keep him, the larger number will go on their books. If they release him, they’ll owe the smaller. Josh Hart is on the books for $13 million with no guarantee.

If the Blazers release both players, they’ll only owe $3.9 million. If they keep Hart, $16.9 million goes against their cap. If they keep both, that number will rise to $32.4 million.

Cap Space Ahead?

Having read this, you can see that the Blazers have less than zero cap space available for 2022-23 at this point. They can create cap space by renouncing players who carry cap holds or by opting not to retain Eric Bledsoe and Josh Hart.

It’s important to note how many players the Blazers would need to release in order to generate space. We haven’t accounted for every dime here, but for our purposes, let’s go with our rounded figures of $61 million in “must-pay” salary, $63 million in cap holds, and $32.5 million in non-guaranteed contracts. That puts Portland at $156.5 million, well over the projected $121 million cap line.

You posited a maximum contract signing. Let’s pretend that costs $30 million. The Blazers would need to get that far under the cap to make the offer. Dropping to $121 million wouldn’t do it. They’d need to pare back to $91 million.

Taking low-hanging fruit, Portland could renounce Ingles and release Bledsoe. That would eliminate $35 million in obligation. They’d be down to $121.5 million, right near the cap line.

Every dollar past that—and they’d need $30 million more—would come at the cost of releasing prominent, active rotation players: Nurkic, Simons, Hart.

Even though we’re talking free agency signings, these transactions would be more like trades from Portland’s point of view. The Blazers would need to send away players to sign one. Would that $30 million signee be worth losing Ingles, Bledsoe, Nurkic, and either Simons or Hart? If you wouldn’t trade those four players for the player the Blazers are trying to sign, you couldn’t advocate signing them in free agency this summer either.

I hope that clears up the murky waters a bit. It should also provide perspective the next time a national news outlet speculates that the Blazers could sign Hot Guard of the Moment. Is that guard worth losing your starting center and another productive wing? If not, Portland’s probably not in the running.

Thanks for the question! You can send your own to blazersub@gmail.com!