NBA Off-Season Preview: Blazers' Hands Largely Tied This Summer

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Friday May 19th, 2017

While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the Portland Trail Blazers in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.

Last summer, Portland’s aggressiveness led them down a perilous path. They had an expiring opportunity to use salary cap space before re-signing their restricted free agents and eventually used it on Evan Turner before retaining Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard on lucrative contracts. After a somewhat disappointing season where they finished with the eighth-best record in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers have an impressively expensive team with a potentially prodigious luxury tax bill. However, general manager Neil Olshey also made a brilliant deadline trade to acquire center Jusuf Nurkic, who helped push Portland to the playoffs and has one more inexpensive season before he becomes properly paid as a free agent. If billionaire owner Paul Allen is still willing to foot a massive bill for this team, Portland can effectively bring the whole team back. If not, this could be a very complicated off-season.

Here are three key storylines to watch for the Trail Blazers this off-season:

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Luxury Tax: Portland is looking at a $40 million luxury tax bill even if they stretch Festus Ezeli’s $1 million partial guarantee and let Tim Quarterman go. Using the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (about $5.2 million) would run it back up to almost $60 million. At those high rates, unloading any salary means significant savings but Portland’s problem is that most of their money is tied up in either franchise cornerstones like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum or deeply unsavory multi-year contracts like Turner and Leonard. They have sweeteners like Ed Davis and three picks in the second half of the first round, but sacrificing assets to clear salary would weaken the team for the sole purpose of saving their owner money. That pattern happens frequently in the NBA but all of Portland’s bad money came on their books a year ago so it is possible they will largely grin and bear it, at least for one season.

Jusuf Nurkic extension: The Bosnian big man excelled during his two months in Portland and the team outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Nurkic is eligible for an extension this summer, which could be challenging for both sides. Portland does not need to worry about replacing his cap hold with salary since they have no flexibility for 2018–19 anyway. But the Blazers should still ask for a meaningful concession in terms of salary if Nurkic wants the immediate security of a long-term deal. His fractured right leg and inconsistent time in Denver should also give Portland reason to wait and see how the 2017–18 season goes before committing to him via a massive new contract.

Draft picks: Thanks to deadline deals in both 2015 and 2016, Portland has two extra late first-round picks this year. Those combined with their own choice (No. 15) gives them an interesting collection of assets. Olshey could try to combine picks or add in a player or two to get a better choice, use some or all of them to unload some of their bad contracts or simply try to add quality young players who would be on team-friendly rookie scale contracts for four seasons. The most likely outcome is a mix of these approaches, depending on what offers are on the table.

Potential Free Agents: Pat Connaughton (Non-Guaranteed), Festus Ezeli (Partial Guarantee) and Tim Quarterman (Non-Guaranteed)

Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: None

Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): None

2017 Draft Assets: Own first rounder (15th overall), Memphis’s first (20th overall) and Cleveland’s first (26th overall)

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Potential Targets: At most, the Trail Blazers will only have the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception and minimum contracts to work with as a team far over the luxury tax line. Adding a capable backup point guard like Shelvin Mack could help the lineups without one of Lillard or McCollum or they could focus on a shooting forward like Luke Babbitt or Mike Scott, particularly if Noah Vonleh’s time at center inspired coach Terry Stotts to make that a more regular part of their rotation. One other interesting dynamic is that the Trail Blazers do not have many roster spots to work with and spending extra money on partial guarantees for players who are cut in training cap would add to their already hefty luxury tax bill.

Pressure Scale: 6. This all depends on Allen. If he is comfortable paying $200 million in salary and the luxury tax on a team that will probably be in the lower half of the West playoffs next season, the front office can breathe easier and focus on using their limited team-building tools to their maximum effect. If Allen feels differently, Portland’s summer gets much more complicated. After all, it would be hard to even find a taker for Turner’s three years and $56 million or Leonard’s three years and $31.8 million. Both of those albatrosses look meaningfully better a year from now with only two seasons remaining.

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State of the Franchise: Expensive maintenance. What makes Portland’s situation distinct in the current NBA landscape is that their financial challenges will not let up any time soon. With the salary cap stabilizing now that the national TV deal has been incorporated, their expensive contracts will rise faster than the cap line. Without massive changes, they will be a luxury tax payer until at least 2020 but likely until Lillard and McCollum hit free agency in 2021. Nurkic’s payday next summer will create an even more expensive core and the team could also negotiate a less costly extension with Vonleh since their options to add new talent will be limited during their time in the tax.

Along those lines, value contracts for Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu help in the immediate but eventually Olshey will have to choose to pay them as unrestricted free agents or let them go without compensation. That reality could lead to the front office pursuing trades for one or both of their 2015 signees just to get some cost-controlled value back. Portland’s 2017 off-season will likely eventually serve as a test case down the line as other teams find themselves in the same position because of decisions they make this summer.

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