What to do with the MLE

Let’s take a break from draft talk and move ahead a couple weeks to the start of Free Agency 2010 on July 1. Clearly, the best course of action is for Portland to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh…

Just kidding, this isn’t one of those pieces. Outside of some courtesy phone calls, the Blazers aren’t going anywhere near any of the many free agents expected to get max or near-max contracts. Beyond that, those guys aren’t worth your time discussing. What is worth discussing is what Portland can do with the Mid Level Exception.

Since the Blazers will be over the salary cap once the extensions to LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy kick in, Portland will have the MLE in hand to offer any free agent a contract of up to five years at the league-average salary, which will probably come in a little over $6 million per year. That may not seem like much, but both good and overrated players sign for the MLE every year, and if used correctly it’s a great tool to fill out a rotation with specialists and role players.

It can also royally screw your salary cap situation if you either A. Use the MLE too often or B. Use it to overpay players like Marcus Banks, Chris Duhon or Brian Cardinal.

That said, let’s take a look at some of Portland’s potential options this summer. Clearly, Portland’s strategy in free agency will hinge on the sort of players they get in the draft, so when going down the list, assume we’re talking about each player as though they wouldn’t be overly superfluous with recent picks. As you’ll see after the jump, the primary theme is shooting, shooting, shooting.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Rivers speaks with guard Ray Allen in the second half of play against the Orlando Magic during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals NBA basketball series in Orlando.

So good, he's scaaaaarrry. Lame? I don't care. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

Ray Allen, SG, Age 34: He’s the oldest guy on the list, and the best option, to boot. Nevermind that he’s one of the best shooters of all time, he’s just a good fit for team that will probably be trying to rebuild its offensive attack around more interior options. I probably don’t need to explain the ways he could free up space for Oden and Aldridge, as his shooting credentials speak for themselves, but one of the more underrated aspects of his game is his work on the break. Scoring 1.3 points per transition possession, 17 percent of Allen’s total offense came on the break, and it’s not because he’s out dunking on people and drawing a ton of and-1’s. The Celtics run an exceptional secondary break, routinely getting uncovered threes for a trailing Allen or Paul Pierce, and while some of this success is due to Rajon Rondo’s ball-pushing, it’s not luck that Allen keeps getting left on the wing. Not everything on the fast-break has to be a layup or a dunk, and having one of the best trailers out there would be a good step to Portland getting easier buckets.

Udonis Haslem, PF, Age 29: Haslem is the prototypical, role-playing power forward that you would love not to be overpaying. He’s a good rebounder, active, can hit the 15-foot jumper and, being one of the better full-court power forward defenders in the league, doesn’t hurt you anywhere. While I like Dante Cunningham, I’m not convinced he is the long-term option at the backup-four spot. Unfortunately, it sounds like Haslem is following Wade to wherever he goes in free agency.

Louis Amundson, PF/C, Age 27: Amundson would be a cheaper alternative to Haslem, but not an ideal fit for Portland because of his lack of a mid-range jumper. He’s active on offense and a reasonable pick-setter and finisher, but you’re signing Amundson for his career 14 percent offensive rebounding percentage. He’s solid on defense, and might be better than you’ve seen in Phoenix were he in Nate’s system, but he’s not great against the pick-and-roll, nor on closing out on stretch forwards. But if Juwan Howard is transitioning to a role on the coaching staff — apparently a year away from that, if he’s re-signed — then Amundson could be a cheap replacement. And remember, the MLE can be split up as much as you want, so you could sign someone to a larger contract and try to get Amundson with what’s left over.

Matt Barnes, SF, Age 29: Is he a great option? No. Is he a decent option if you can sign him for under $2 million a year, as he’s making now in Orlando? Absolutely. While he has the reputation of a “tough guy”, Barnes is, by all accounts, a good teammate, and really isn’t that rough of an on-court player. Two problems: He has a player option on his contract, meaning if he opts out of Orlando, he’s going to want to make more than the $1.6 million he’s making now. Secondly, he probably isn’t an upgrade over Martell Webster, so you’re using part of your MLE on someone who wouldn’t be part of the rotation, barring trades of Webster or Rudy Fernandez.

Kyle Korver, SF, Age 28: Another small forward, another guy that probably isn’t a target unless someone gets traded. He shoots better than 40 percent from deep and is a reasonable passer, an important trait for shooters you’re placing around large bodies like Oden. It’s one thing to be able to shoot on the kick-out pass, its another to be able to re-post the big man or hit him with quick passes when he’s got deep position and only three seconds to remain in the paint.

Mike Miller, SF, Age 29: Miller made almost $10 million last year and is almost surely taking a pay cut, which is appropriate given his productivity has fallen off since he was with Memphis three seasons ago. He’s capable of playing point-forward — career 16.9 assist percentage — which makes him an attractive option next to Jerryd Bayless, and, like the others, is a 40 percent shooter from downtown. Of the Barnes, Korver, Miller small forward trifecta, Miller is probably my choice, as he’s the most skilled, won’t be looking for too much money and is coming on consecutive anonymous seasons with Minnesota and Washington.

Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Playoffs

Notice Redick's hands don't immediately go to cover his face when he gets hit. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

Restricted Free Agents

J.J. Redick, SG, Age 25: Things are shaping up for Redick to be your classic, “He was in the playoffs for a long time and performed well, so somebody is going to overpay him” guy. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give him a good chunk of the mid-level exception for, say, four years, but it’s worth considering because it means he’ll be a hot commodity and might get priced out of Portland’s range. The pluses to Redick are, like Miller, that not only is he a good, quick shooter, but he can contribute elsewhere, playing strong defense — as you have seen on Ray Allen — with the capability of creating off the dribble, hitting the post man and getting himself open off screens. Like Ray, he’s also someone you’d feel comfortable with shooting those end-game free throws when teams are intentionally fouling. All that sounds good and makes up for an ideal role player on a team built around a big body, you just want to wind up overpaying.

The second thing to look at is Redick’s standing as a restricted free agent, meaning the Magic have right of first-refusal should Redick sign an offer sheet with another team, as with Portland, Utah and Paul Millsap last summer. By most reports, the Orlando coaching staff loves Redick, and the team is more likely to trade Brandon Bass to dump salary rather than let Redick get away. The best chance at getting him might be to sign him to a similarly front-loaded contract with big signing bonus to what Portland offered Millsap. But even if you do that, your MLE is tied up for the seven days the team has to match the contract, so others options could get whisked away while you’re forced to sit on your hands.

Anthony Morrow, SG, Age 24: In two years, in over 500 attempts, Morrow is shooting better than 46 percent from the three-point line. That’s almost 100 points better than Rudy Fernandez shoots from anywhere. Nice as that sounds, we also have no idea whether or not Morrow can properly play defense or not, as defense isn’t in the Golden State Dictionary, Volume Ever. But with the ownership uncertainty of the Warriors, who will be just at or above the salary cap, Morrow might be easier to pry away than Redick. He’s also not nearly the playmaker that guys like Miller, Redick or Allen are.

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Tags: Anthony Morrow J.j. Redick Kyle Korver Louis Amundson Matt Barnes Mike Miller Nba Basketball Nba Free Agency 2010 Portland Trail Blazers Ray Allen Udonis Haslem

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