It seems that most NBA teams are trying to build a ‘Big 3’ style core these days, and although not every team has this, every team has a ‘Big 3’ on their payroll. For some it is crippling and for some it is convenient. The Portland Trail Blazers fall into that second group.
In fact many small/mid market teams do. Most teams that rely on the draft instead of free agency are able to remain competitive without expensive stars because rookie contracts are so cheap. Damian Lillard, for example, is slated to make only $3.3M this year (shoe deal and endorsements aside), despite being one of Portland’s best players.
However; small/mid market teams pay for this would-be advantage with stability. When an elite player’s rookie contract expires, everything is thrown out of whack. The emerging star will often earn a salary that requires mild to extreme payroll restructuring depending on the team’s situation (think OKC’s preemptive dissolution in 2012), or leave for another team (a la Lance the Stephenson).
The Trail Blazers won’t have to worry about this with Lillard until 2016, but they are on the verge of a contract necessitated overhaul anyway. With LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez all becoming free agents at the end of this season, someone (likely Matthews) is going to get the rough side of the pineapple.
That is, of course, unless Portland can pitch pay cuts like Dallas, San Antonio, or Chicago. There are a handful of teams that have remained competitive through aggressive budgeting. If the Trail Blazers can be one of them, they may be able to build a contender without putting all of their financial eggs in one basket. Yet, the onus is not on the players to sacrifice salary, but rather on management to be smart about where and how they allocate it.
Regardless, the Trail Blazers currently reside in the middle ground of highest paid NBA trios, ranking 16th in the league for 2014-15. Like a few other teams, this status will be in flux between this season and the next as contracts expire and free agents are signed. For the time being, the team they have built is performing at an acceptable level for the tier they occupy.
Tier 1: “For everything else, there’s Mastercard” ($50M+)
Tier 2: “Gotta pay to contend” ($40M-$49.9M)
Tier 3: “Try to be smart, hope to be lucky” ($30M-$39.9M)
16. Portland Trail Blazers: $33.8 million
LaMarcus Aldridge ($15.2M) | Nicolas Batum ($11.4M) | Wesley Matthews ($7.2M)
Tier 4: “Tried to be smart, was mostly unlucky” ($20M-$29.9M)
Tier 5: “So it’s come to this…” (Sub-$20M)
There are a few outliers here and there that don’t quite fit their slogan (LAL, SAS, PHX), but the monetary trends come from a combination of market size (why the Lakers are so high and the Spurs are so low) and team philosophy. For the most part, you can see a correlation between high profile spending and overall success—both prior (LAC, OKC, etc) and anticipated (CLE, DAL, etc).
Right now, the Trail Blazers occupy a somewhat unique position because their heaviest costs are all worth their contracts and they have a rookie contract superstar. The only other team in this position is the Cavaliers, but Irving’s 5yr/$90M extension kicks in after this season, where the Trail Blazers have two more years of Lillard carved out before big money becomes a factor.
If the Trail Blazers can figure out how to survive free agency and keep their core intact through 2016, they will have a one to two season window where the starters have maximized chemistry and maximized talent in an affordable framework. This is their best chance as a small/mid market team to make a push for real contention, while their ‘Big 3’ on the payroll can fill out a ‘Big 4 or 5’ on the court.