The Blazers have no cap space and will lose free agents. Here’s how they get better
Portland can’t add a max free agent, or anything close. But they can explore several routes to upgrade key positions on the roster.
After the Trail Blazers were swept out of the Western Conference Finals, a disappointing ending to an otherwise fantastic season, Damian Lillard offered this offseason approach to Yahoo!’s Chris Haynes:
“We just have to continue to improve with the guys we have,” Lillard said. “And then if it presents itself where we can get some guys in that can maybe take us to the next level, then look at that. I think that’s all we can do.”
The Trail Blazers aren’t in the market to sign a max free agent, but they are in the market to improve on their most successful season since 2000. With Lillard and the Trail Blazers in talks to agree to a supermax contract extension, according to Haynes, Portland doesn’t plan on going anywhere any time soon.
The West projects to get stronger overnight. You can bet LeBron James will be back in the playoffs, and the Clippers might land two max free agents. The Warriors have proven they’re just as good with Kevin Durant as they are without him, and several other West teams project to make leaps forward next season.
The Trail Blazers may have been swept out of the Western Conference Finals, but their success lies in arriving there in the first place. How does Portland give itself the best chance to return, while also improving its roster get over the hump next time?
It’s not easy, but the Trail Blazers have some options.Upgrade via trade
Portland has one of the best backcourts in the NBA, but it desperately needs to upgrade at the forward spots. At times in the playoffs, Terry Stotts went to the bench instead of relying on starters Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless in critical stretches.
Evan Turner is a facilitator, but he only shot only 21 percent from deep this season and attempted and made just one three in the playoffs. Aminu becomes a free agent this summer, and Portland may not be able to retain him even if it wanted. The Trail Blazers will also find it difficult to keep playoff savior and free-agent-to-be Rodney Hood, and if a team makes a hefty enough offer on restricted free agent Jake Layman, it’ll be tough for Portland to match that, too.
That means the Trail Blazers will need to explore trade opportunities with other teams if they want to improve on the wing. Portland could explore trading one position to upgrade another.
Jusuf Nurkic isn’t expected to start running or jumping his surgically-repaired leg until October, but he will return, and when he does, Portland will automatically be a better team. Zach Collins is a young, floor-spacing, two-way big man gives the Trail Blazers a different look off the bench. Meyers Leonard is sandwiched between the two, and his 30-point Game 4 with five threes made may have been enough to win some rival executives over.
Can the Trail Blazers find a deal, pairing Leonard and a first-rounder to upgrade at the forward spot? A blockbuster (or Netflix?) idea could be packaging Leonard, Turner and protected picks in a deal for Kevin Love, who has won a championship and provides offensive firepower Portland could use in its front court.
Portland’s front office will have to be creative if they want to upgrade without cap space, and trading a player like Leonard, as beloved as he is, could be an option on the table.To dump or not to dump?
Another factor in Portland’s ability to upgrade is which mid-level exception they’ll have at their disposal.
The mid-level exception is valuable because it allows teams to exceed the salary cap to sign one or multiple free agents. Last summer, the Clippers split theirs between Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Scott, and the Bucks used their mid-level to sign two valuable playoff contributors in Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton. Other notable uses of the mid-level last summer were the Wizards signing Dwight Howard, the Hornets signing Tony Parker, the Pelicans inking Julius Randle and, of course, the Warriors landing DeMarcus Cousins.
It would be beneficial to the Trail Blazers if they are able to use the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception. That would enable them to sign a player to a first-year salary of $9.25 million (or to a four-year, $39.7 million deal). If the Blazes project to be over the luxury tax, they will only receive the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of one-year, $5.7 million (or three years, $17.9 million).
The problem is that Portland already has $126 million on the payroll next season, and teams only have the full mid-level accessible if it doesn’t take them over the projected $138 million apron (about $6 million above the projected luxury tax). Thus, it will be impossible for the Trail Blazers to use the full mid-level if they don’t find a way to dump one of their larger contracts.
The obvious way to do so, if they choose to explore this route, is attaching an asset to Turner’s $18.6 million salary and trading him to a team with cap space to absorb it, like Atlanta or Sacramento. Lillard and McCollum enjoy playing with Turner because he takes the pressure of initiating the offense off their shoulders. But Turner doesn’t shoot threes, and threes are the name of the game in this era’s NBA.
If Portland creates space via trade, they can be in the market to sign a player like Marcus Morris, a versatile defender who can both create his own shot and hit spot-up threes. He’s the ideal complementary role player to a Lillard-McCollum back court who just so happens to play both ends of the floor. Another option could be using the full mid-level to go after Thaddeus Young, who made $13.7 million last season but might take a slight pay cut to join a contender.
Portland could also use its mid-level to re-sign its own free agents, like retaining Seth Curry, who posted the NBA’s third-best three-point percentage and will triple or quadruple his $2.8 million salary this summer. Portland will not have Bird Rights on Curry, so this is the only mechanism it’ll have to give him a raise. (The same applies to Hood and Enes Kanter should Portland want to keep them).
If they don’t create the space necessary to be eligible for the full mid-level, they will have the $5.7 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception available. That would allow them to enter the luxury tax to re-sign Aminu, but it would also limit the help they can get on the open market.Develop their own players
Lillard said it best: Portland has to continue to improve with the players they have on the roster. Luckily for them, the Trail Blazers have several players who have yet to scratch the surface of their full potential.
Zach Collins showed flashes of becoming a legitimate 3-and-D big man in the postseason and should be a player to watch in the future. Portland selected Anfernee Simons with their first-round pick in 2018, and he was good enough to go from being a fifth-year high school senior straight to the pros. Skal Labissiere once had promise as a young player whom the Kings traded for on 2016 draft night, and he lit them up for 29 points in the regular season finale. Harkless has taken strides in his game becoming a reliable two-way wing, but he still can get better on both ends of the floor.
Portland also has the 25th pick in this year’s NBA Draft. In his latest mock draft, SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell has the Trail Blazers adding depth to the back court with Iowa State’s Talen Horton-Tucker.
The Trail Blazers will get Nurkic back at some point next season, and they were able to make the Western Conference Finals without him. If Portland can keep developing from within — and there’s no evidence to the contrary — their younger players should be able to step up and have a bigger impact next season.
It won’t be easy. Portland has a payroll stacked to the heavens and will more than likely lose key role players without finding adequate replacements. But that’s the name of the game, and champions find ways to improve with limited resources. The Trail Blazers will have to do just that, banking on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum powering this team to another deep postseason run.
Portland got this far with small tweaks last summer. It’ll have to do so again this year.