The draft is in the rear-view mirror and there are definite mixed feelings around the Portland fan base on how the team did in last week’s draft. I have made my opinion very well known that I think the Blazers did a great job to use their assets to add talent to the team that will help build for the future.
July 1st marks the next checkpoint of the NBA off-season. As of the 1st of July, the dreadful 2016-2017 NBA season is officially over and we can move into the 2017-2018 season. This also means that teams and free agents can “legally” begin to talk about free agency deals, and agree in principle to said deals.
Now that doesn’t mean that those parties aren’t currently talking about those deals, hence the quotation marks around legally, but it is when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo’s The Vertical begins to tell everyone where the free agents will play next year. (Sidenote: Woj should get an award for how incredibly he does his job. He is the most connected person in the history of the NBA)
Then there is this pesky thing called the free agency moratorium. Although teams and players can begin talking on the 1st, they can’t sign deals until July 6th at 9 a.m. PST. Each year this creates unnecessary drama and a week of waiting and pretending like these deals aren’t already completed.
Enough of the flawed system that the NBA has in place, let’s talk about the home team Blazers.
Why Free Agency Will Be Boring For Blazer Fans
Wednesday before the draft there was a report that the projected cap for the 2017-2018 season is lower than originally thought. A year ago, the cap was projected at $108 million. That was corrected midway through the season down to $102 million. Then Wednesday the 21st the league sent a memo to teams that the cap would be $99 million for the upcoming season.
Why the disparity?
Simple. Lack of playoff revenue.
There haven’t been any concrete numbers on how much money the league made, or lost, during the postseason, but it couldn’t have been good.
The Cleveland Cavaliers played 18 games, the Golden State Warriors played 17. When your premier teams are barely playing more than the minimum games for a team that goes to the Finals, you are going to lose out on major money.
Just for round numbers sake, Game 2 of the Finals had an average of 20 million viewers. That series only went 5 games. If it were to go 7, that would have been at least 40 million more viewers! That would have surely impacted the league’s revenue, and in turn it’s cap number.
How does all of this help spell a quiet off-season for the Blazers?
They have no money!
Let’s talk the Blazers’ 5 biggest contracts for next season:
Damian Lillard – $26,153,057
CJ McCollum – $23,962,573
Allen Crabbe – $18,500,000
Evan Turner – $17,131,148
Meyers Leonard – $9,904,495
Just with the largest 5 contracts on the books next year the Blazers are quickly approaching the salary cap. This gives them no flexibility going into the free agency period.
Portland’s Three Options Going Into Free Agency
As I see it, Portland really has three options heading into July, and none of them are particularly sexy. A lot of fans have imaginations of going after Paul George or Carmelo Anthony in trades, maybe going after Blake Griffin or Paul Milsap in free agency. It’s not going to happen.
Option #1 – Shed Salary. I would say that this is the most likely of the 3 scenarios that I am going to lay out. When you look at the list of the Blazers’ biggest contracts it is staggering to see how many games they started. Lillard and McCollum obviously started every game that they played. The other three are stunning. Turner and Leonard each started 12 games, and Crabbe started 7 games. That means that the Blazers will have $45+ million tied up in a trio that only started 31 games last season.
With that said, the most likely candidates to be moved to shed salary would be Leonard and Turner. They are both big numbers compared to how much they produce on the court.
The problem is, other teams see that same thing and have to live under the same cap that the Blazers have to. It is tough to shed salaries that the whole league is scoffing at.
If they can’t find buyers on Leonard or Turner, the Blazers may look to move Al-Farouq Aminu or Ed Davis who are on much more team-friendly contracts.
Option #2 – Be Creative. Now this is what General Manager Neil Olshey has done throughout his tenure in Portland. He is one of the best at shopping in the bargain barrel of the league and finding value in unusual places.
When it comes to being creative, Portland could find themselves in a variety of different situations. They could get involved in some three-team trades, they could do a sign-and-trade with a free agent, or they could get creative with the mid-level exception they have the ability to use this off-season.
The mid-level exception is a contract that teams can use to go over the cap and sign a player to their roster. Since the Blazers will be tax payers this next season, they will have a different set of rules on the mid-level exception that they are able to offer a free agent.
Since the team will be taxpayers, they will only be able to offer a player $5,192,000 for the mid-level exception contract, whereas teams that aren’t paying taxes can offer a player a contract of $8,406,000. That is a major disadvantage for the Blazers.
But… it leaves the door open for them to have a chance to bring a free agent in even though they don’t have cap space.
Another problem is that the team doesn’t have a single open roster spot. That roster spot would need to be created before they could sign a free agent to a mid-level exception contract.
Option #3 – Do Absolutely Nothing. This would be the absolute least popular option throughout the fan base, but I could really see it happening.
As the roster stands currently, the depth chart likely stands at:
Point guards – Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier and Tim Quarterman
Shooting guards – CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, and Pat Connaughton
Small Forward – Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jake Layman
Power Forward – Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and Caleb Swanigan
Centers – Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins
That’s 16 players. The Blazers can only carry 15 players on their roster into and through the regular season. That means there will have to be a minor move to create a roster spot. If I were a betting man I would say that Tim Quarterman is waived. That would leave the roster at 15 and in pretty good shape.
When I say “do absolutely nothing”, that is literally what I mean. Outside of waiving Quarterman, I could see the Blazers standing pat and doing nothing.
If that were the case, Olshey would be betting on some improvement from the guys that are already on the roster, a little bit more defined roles heading into the season, and improved health over last year’s stretch run.
The reason that Olshey has this option, which would be wildly unpopular among the fan base, is because of last season’s acquisition of Center Jusuf Nurkic. Watching this team play basketball last March was so fun, largely because of the addition of Nurkic. With the core of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic there is hope for the future and a group that can match up with most cores in the league.
Option three would be largely dependent on the franchise’s trust in the current roster. Doing nothing would be banking on the organic development of one of the youngest teams in the league.
Now with all of those options on the table, it is important to remember that life isn’t always black and white, especially in the basketball world. Most likely this off-season will be a combination of all three of the above options. Olshey and company have a plan and will look to execute that plan.
But, like we saw last year, things don’t always go according to plan. That’s not always a bad thing.
Remember last summer when the Blazers made a big push to sign Chandler Parsons to a max-level deal? Parsons went on to sign with the Grizzlies and only started 34 games for the Griz. That was a bullet dodged for the Blazers.
When the free agency period starts in a week, it is easy to overreact and be underwhelmed. There are 30 fan bases and there will be roughly 28 of those fan bases disappointed by the end of the free agency period.
Trust in the front office, they are paid handsomely to do their job. Running a basketball team is complex. You have to evaluate talent, manage the salary cap, and project the future of the franchise.
While the front office does this juggle over the next few months it will be interesting to see which approach they take to moving this team into the future.
No matter which way the front office goes, the Blazers still have a solid core for years to come. Lillard will be 27 when the season starts, McCollum will be 26, and Nurkic will be 23. The first two of those core three are both under contract for the next four seasons, Nurkic likely to be extended next summer.
A lot of teams around the league would love to have the franchise pillars that the Blazers do. The moves around those guys this off-season will just enhance their ability to grow and be competitive for the years to come.