The Portland Trail Blazers are not in position to make any franchise altering moves in free agency this year. Operating under the assumption that they exercise Robin Lopez’s team option in order to retain him, they are already over cap—even if Mo Williams leaves. This means that unless they make a trade that clears some cap space (unlikely, but not ruling that out), their best bet at signing a useful free agent in 2014 is the Mid-Level Exception (MLE). The Trail Blazers’ MLE looks something like $5.3 million this year, per the 2011 CBA.
For those unfamiliar with why or how this works, the MLE allows each NBA team to sign a free agent for a fixed amount once a year. The value and duration of the contract is determined by the team’s cap status. Teams that avoided luxury tax the previous season and are over cap (Trail Blazers) can sign a player to a four year contract for about $5M per year. Teams that paid luxury tax the previous season and are over cap can sign a player to a three year contract for about $3M per year. Teams that have cap room, but simply wish to use the MLE can do so to sign a player to a two year contract for about $2.5M per year. The player’s salary increases by roughly three percent each season.
If the Trail Blazers choose to use their MLE, they are not necessarily locked into a four year contract. Remember, last season the Trail Blazers used their MLE to sign Williams to a two year deal, but the agreed upon player option allows him to opt out this year, as he intends to do. I am a fan of this feature since we have no real idea what the team will look like after 2015 or so. The Trail Blazers may not want a Rodney Stuckey or Andray Blatche sticking around that long depending upon how things shake out for them in the next few seasons.
So what kind of player can Portland expect to get this year with the MLE? Chances are high that it would be a veteran that isn’t quite worth $8M+ anymore or a younger guy that has shown competence without signs of stardom. Either way, the ceiling is a role player worth his minutes in rotation—which isn’t a bad thing. The Trail Blazers aren’t trying to replace any core players anyway, and depth has not been their strong suit in recent seasons.
Positionally, the door is reasonably open. The Trail Blazers could pursue a) a defensive guard to hide Damian Lillard’s Swiss cheesery, b) a scoring guard to replace—and hopefully eclipse—Williams’ scoring punch off the bench, or c) a center that can protect the rim while Lopez is resting. The backup forward positions are pretty well filled with Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, though if a veteran leader like Danny Granger or a strong defender like Shawn Marion were to be available in that price range, I would not be surprised if the Trail Blazers made an inquiry.
This is both very good and very bad. On the good side, it means that the Trail Blazers can cast a wide net if they choose to do so. Any free agent fitting the listed descriptions that falls to the $5M price range will have a hard time turning down a team that can offer the maximum exception. Most teams with that kind of money to use on a mid-level player are far less appetizing and further from contention than the Trail Blazers are. On the bad side, it means that the Trail Blazers won’t be able to cover all their needs this offseason—at least, not in free agency. Regardless, the MLE is their best available tool at this time.