Some time has passed for Portland Trail Blazer fans to assess the outcome of a terrible outing in this year’s NBA playoffs. Some of the hardest things that Portland fans have to come to terms with are the tough decisions required to alleviate the franchise from its own crippling salary cap situation. Back at the trade deadline, General Manager Neil Olshey made sure that the Blazers would stay under the cap by unloading Noah Vonleh for cash in order to avoid luxury tax implications. The Blazers didn’t get a player of any value in return, while the Chicago Bulls got an extra body for a couple of bucks.
Getting space is important because the Blazers should make it a goal to be active in the upcoming free agency market. Jusuf Nurkic enters free agency, and should command decent dollars on the market. While fans might think that the centers won’t command top contracts this summer, there are plenty of teams like the Dallas Mavericks that can throw a short-term contract at Nurkic for a higher price per year. Given that a player like Nurkic hasn’t quite found a home yet, he’d be foolish to leave a bunch of money on the table, and a short term contract affords him flexibility to negotiate another high paying contract before he hits thirty years old. It’s easy to see how the Blazers won’t end up with Nurkic.
This upcoming free agency isn’t as thin as fans think either. One thing that hurt the Blazers in the playoffs was the sheer lack of depth at the end of the lineup. Players like Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, and Pat Connaughton just couldn’t lift tertiary scoring duties, thus it’s an area Neil Olshey needs to act upon immediately. Players like Demarcus Cousins, Chris Paul, and Paul George are becoming available, and the Blazers might not even get a meeting with any of these superstars. However there are plenty of players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Thaddeus Young, and JJ Redick, who are more than capable at filling in offensively.
It wouldn’t be smart for the Blazers to offer a contract to anybody right now. If Olshey decides to stand pat, he’d end up in the same salary situation sans Jusuf Nurkic. If he offers Nurkic a contract, then Portland keeps the same roster that lost in this year’s playoffs. The franchise will now be paying a heavy luxury tax price just to exit the first round next year.
There are two ways that the Blazers can approach their cap situation, but Olshey needs to decide on Nurkic’s future. If the Blazers pursue Nurkic, then the team have a tougher time at getting the cap space necessary to be able to go after a free agent who can score. Frank Urbina has noted that the Blazers own Nurkic’s Bird Rights, meaning the team can get an agreement with Nurkic, pursue a free agent, and then sign Nurkic while going over the cap afterwards.
So let’s say the Blazers and Jusuf Nurkic like each other a bunch and want to get a deal done? Great! Neil Olshey now has to sell one of the Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, or Meyers Leonard contracts. I’ll remind you that, especially in the case of Turner and Leonard, these contracts are ugly behemoths. The uglier the behemoth means that the sweetener in a potential deal needs to be pretty freakin’ sweet.
One sweetener would be the Blazers first round draft pick. It’s in the later part of the first round, so unfortunately, it’s not that sweet. Most of the teams that have cap space already don’t really need to get to Portland’s spot in the first round unless a special player dramatically falls to that 24th pick. The Mavericks could potentially absorb Maurice Harkless while taking Portland’s first round pick, but I don’t think the Blazers could receive much in return. The Mavericks could be kind and give Portland back the 54th pick, but even that might be a little much. If the Blazers pick was in the top 16, then unloading the Harkless contract would be easy-peasy.
Depending on how things turn out with JJ Redick, then the Philadelphia 76ers could be another trade partner for the Blazers first round pick and Maurice Harkless. The Phoenix Suns could also engage with the Blazers in this scenario, as it’d benefit the team to grab another 1st round pick instead of having too many second rounders. The sad thing is that Harkless would probably go straight to the bench on any one of these teams, as youth development takes priority.
Since the first round pick isn’t looking to be good enough to entice teams to assist the Blazers get out of cap hell, the next best thing would be to trade CJ McCollum. Granted he’s an amazing player, most teams would take a sizeable sacrifice for his talents. Again, the first team that comes to mind is the Dallas Mavericks. Dennis Smith Jr. is in need of a shooting teammate, and the Mavs could definitely take back the Meyers Leonard contract. I can imagine that Wes Matthews will opt into the final year of his contract, and the Mavs would send him back over to Portland.
To be clear, a trade like that is a steal for the Dallas Mavericks, but the Blazers wouldn’t hold much leverage in this kind of a situation. The Mavs are very flexible in terms of cap, which is why I bring them up as a trading partner. The silver lining in a trade like this would be the ~$14 million that the Blazers open up to sign Nurkic after grabbing an offensive minded free agent. That kind of space could put them in the running for JJ Redick or snag Wayne Ellington.
Other teams include the Atlanta Hawks, and again the 76ers. The Hawks do have the space to accommodate CJ and a bad contract, but because coach Mike Budenholzer just left, the team wouldn’t be interested in having a good player play by himself. If the 76ers say goodbye to JJ Redick and bite the bullet on getting back Meyers Leonard or Harkless, then it’d be a win for them to get an established shooting guard veteran. However, former University of Washington player Markelle Fultz will probably be ready to take on the full breadth of minutes as he works his way back from an injury rookie season.
Lastly, the Sacramento Kings would be more than happy to take McCollum at the cost of Meyers Leonard. The Blazers would have to get back a disgruntled Kings’ player, but this entire thought experiment goes to show just how hard it is to fix a huge salary problem.
It’s either giving up McCollum or saying goodbye to Nurkic for good, in my book. The Blazers could do absolutely nothing and just sign Nurkic and hit the luxury tax, but there’s just too much pressure from the fans to get something done after an abysmal performance in this year’s playoffs. As a GM, one couldn’t possibly think that the same exact roster is the way to go. Damian Lillard had already complained to owner Paul Allen right before the trade deadline, so full stop, Neil Olshey desperately needs to get something done this offseason in order to set this roster straight for next season. Fans should expect no excuses.