NBA Free Agency 2023 opens tomorrow at 6:00 PM Eastern. At that time the Portland Trail Blazers, along with the rest of the league, will be able to sign free agents and make trades, governed by the new year’s salary cap and at least partial implementation of a new set of CBA rules.
As we anticipate the big change-over, let’s look forward to the steps and decisions the Blazers will need to make over the next few weeks.
Re-Signing Jerami Grant
The biggest item on Portland’s free agency list is also their first. Forward Jerami Grant is an unrestricted free agent. Using Bird Rights and an extra year on his contract that nobody else can offer, the Blazers will be able to give him more money than any other team. They have significant incentive to, as well.
Portland’s need for Grant goes beyond his 20.5 points per game and their utter lack of frontcourt depth. The Blazers will be over the salary cap whether or not Grant stays. Him leaving would take away the danger of exceeding the luxury tax threshold, but that’s the only benefit. They’d not clear any money to sign other free agents, essentially losing him for nothing. They cannot do that with a straight face if they are making any pretense at improving next season. They’d also forfeit the ability to trade him later, taking away a potentially-valuable future asset.
Grant refused an obligatory extension offer from the Blazers last year. That was so he could reach this moment, getting the most years and dollars on his contract that he could reasonably expect. This is the opportunity he and the team have been waiting for.
News of Grant and the Blazers reaching an agreement should be almost instantaneous. Significant delay would mean one of two things:
A. He’s considering signing with another team, leaving Portland in the lurch.
B. The Blazers are considering not re-signing him, which would send the signal that they’re going into rebuild mode. At that point, you can expect a sell-off of all the veterans on the team. And yes, that includes You-Know-Who, as it would give the lie to Portland’s promise to build up a contending team.
As neither of those options are good, Blazers fans should look for Grant news to break as soon as possible.
Snip and Clip
Who the Blazers aren’t bringing back will show as much about their intentions as who they are. We received news yesterday that they won’t make a qualifying offer to forward Cam Reddish, while they did extend one to guard Matisse Thybulle.
Those decisions are strategic. In a perfect world, the Blazers would have kept both. As it is, they’re going to be near the luxury tax threshold, a place they’ll probably occupy for multiple years as Damian Lillard’s contract matures. Adding even a small amount of salary can have big consequences for them. That’s why they had to choose between their young restricted free agents in waiting. Thybulle was more valuable to them than Reddish. They weren’t willing to spend $14 million, minimum, to retain both.
Kevin Knox II has a team option for $3 million next season. Trendon Watford’s $1.8 million for next year is not guaranteed. Jabari Walker’s $1.7 million is only partially guaranteed. Those figures are low, but Portland’s margins could be razor-thin, depending on what moves they make.
Understanding that, you’ll also understand Portland’s use of cap exceptions, The major one is a mid-level which, if they stay under the tax line, should be worth about $12.5 million. That’s enough to lure a decent free agent. The Blazers need one too.
Portland also has a bi-annual exception of $4.5 million and two trade exceptions of $8.3 and $2.6 million. The former can be used to sign free agents, the latter two used in trades.
The use of exceptions could put the Blazers into tax territory, either this year or in future years. Those exception contracts don’t run for one season. Portland has to strategize two or three years down the road, incorporating future moves they’d like to make into the equation. They can’t keep accumulating contracts, only to suffer penalties later for what turned out to be a big stack of middling rotation players.
How, and whether, the Blazers will use their exceptions will be the most fascinating part of this year’s free agency process. Those exceptions are the only means they have to sign players outright (except their own free agents, of course).
Going all-in is unlikely. The penalties for exceeding the tax are onerous in the new CBA. Only the most champion-ish of championship teams could consider running up a huge bill. A back-to-back lottery team like the Blazers shouldn’t start a tab at all.
Exceptions can be split, though. The Blazers could offer a lower contract to a strategic free agent without spending the whole wad. If they can find an attractive player at a cheap price, they’ll be able to bite.
You’ll note that none of the above options improve the team dramatically. If they want to do that, the Blazers will need to engineer trades this summer. They were reportedly active in trade talks leading up to the draft. They opted to keep the third pick—and Scoot Henderson—instead.
The new year will bring new opportunities. Portland almost has to move one of the guard quartet of Henderson, Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Shaedon Sharpe. They can’t play all of them. None of them are the type to languish on the bench.
Using cap exceptions will be the most intricate exercise in Portland this summer, but trading will be the most prominent. Until the trade shoe drops, neither we nor the team will know their future or their real salary ledger going into it. The Big Trade Move (or as big as it gets) will set the tone for the rest of their moves.