The Portland Trail Blazers are clinging to a 19-19 record as the NBA Trade Season swings into high gear. The combination of high aspirations and mediocre performances would suggest that the Blazers will be active as the February 9th trade deadline approaches. The Blazers have young players, talent, and even an expiring contract or two to leverage as possible avenues for improvement. They need size and defense, among other things. Might a marriage be made in the coming month?
While deals are quite possible, two factors provide hidden speed bumps in Portland’s quest to complete a deal. Both are financial. Usually that’s the hardest part of the NBA trade puzzle for laypersons to understand, but both of these issues are clear and simple.
In an earlier article, we explained Portland’s luxury tax situation. It’s fine now, but they have incentive against adding any more salary this season.
The Blazers are also looking at another potentially-tricky situation. The salaries of the players they need and the salaries of the players they can send out might not match up.
Since the Blazers are over the salary cap line, they need to match salaries on incoming trades with 125%. That’s a standard situation throughout the league, nothing the Blazers haven’t dealt with before.
But because of the nature of their team, the Blazers have a “salary gap” in the middle of their roster. Most of their players are either young, making very little money by NBA standards, or veterans, making a bunch. They don’t have many players in the middle zone.
Jusuf Nurkic begins the band of veterans. He makes $15.6 million. The salary ledger rises through Jerami Grant ($21.0 million), Anfernee Simons ($22.3 million), and Damian Lillard ($42.5 million).
Among the young (or ancillary) players, Shaedon Sharpe makes the most, at $6.0 million. By all indications so far, the Blazers aren’t willing to move him. Nassir Little is the next player down the list at $4.2 million, and it shrinks from there.
Practically speaking, that leaves a large gap in Portland’s tradeable salary structure between $4 million and $15 million.
Only two players live in that gap. Gary Payton II makes $8.3 million, Josh Hart $13.0 million.
It’s possible that the Blazers pull off some kind of franchise-changing deal before the February 9th trade deadline. That move would involve expensive salary packages and multiple starters departing. Realistically, though, that kind of exchange is hard to pull off mid-season.
When we think of Trail Blazers trades over the next few weeks, most of us are envisioning a swap that brings in a veteran defender, someone to plug into upper bench minutes, probably a frontcourt player.
Looking over those players—the Jae Crowders and Mo Bambas of the world—plenty of them live in the band between $8-11 million, the exact range that the Blazers lack salaries to trade.
Payton is the most natural salary fit, but it would be odd to see the Blazers sign him to a free agent deal, have him play one (1) game all season, then trade him. Also, if they’re looking for mid-rotation defensive help, Payton is the archetype. They might bring in someone bigger, but it’s hard to envision them getting someone better. Even if they did, losing Payton, the margin of gain would be slim.
That leaves Hart, the player we keep underlining as Portland’s likeliest trade candidate for a thousand reasons. Hart has a player option at the end of the season, which he’s likely to opt out of. That makes him a good target for teams looking to shed salary. He’d also be attractive to a franchise making a potential playoffs run that wants to upgrade.
Even so, Hart’s $13 million contract mandates a minimum of $10.4 million coming back to Portland, assuming their trading partner is also over the cap. That falls within the $8-11 million salary range, but misses the lower half.
Making up the difference for any swaps outside the “Cinderella Band” gets more difficult.
The Blazers could keep Hart and try to package a couple of lower-salary players to get their guy. Justise Winslow makes $4.1 million, on an expiring contract. Nassir Little makes $4.2 million. Like Payton, these are your mid-rotation guys already. Would packaging them both for a short-term-utility veteran be an overpay?
Below those two, everybody on the roster is drawing $2 million or less. Now you’re talking three players for one, which isn’t really feasible.
Or we could go the other way, positing two players coming to Portland for Hart’s higher salary. Would the other team find value in that? Keep in mind, again, the Blazers do not want to take on more salary than they end out, even in a two-for-one deal.
And what about losing Hart himself? Does moving your fifth starter for a seventh man make sense, particularly with Winslow and Little—the players who would replace him—injured?
These kinds of trades get consummated in the NBA all the time. The Trail Blazers can probably find one. But these complications are going to make it harder—and the options more limited—than it seems in water cooler trade talk. Every extra moving piece adds to the degree of difficulty. The lack of an easy salary swap is likely to create more moving pieces for the Blazers, making potential moves more intricate.
Ironically, this is less true of a bigger deal than it would be for the simple move the Blazers need: adding one player who would help them out in that 6th-9th rotation spot.
Final Note: The Blazers do have a $6.5 million trade exception available from trading Robert Covington to the Clippers last year, but see above about not wanting to add luxury tax dollars.