Portland Trail Blazers: 2020 Salary Cap and Free Agency update

The Portland Trail Blazers are in an interesting position as they prepare for the 2020 Free Agency period. How should they spend their limited funds?

There seems to be uncertainty around the direction that the Portland Trail Blazers will take with their salary this year and moving forward. After the 2016 spending spree where Neil Olshey handed out inflated contracts to Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe, the Blazers are now in a position where they need to choose how to spend their money moving forward.

In 2019/20, the Blazers began the season with a whopping $140 + million of salary. They started and finished the season with the league’s highest payroll.

Though many moves have been made over the last 12 months to get off certain players and contracts, the Blazers finished the 2019/20 season with a $137.8 million salary. This was with the salary cap being set at $109 million and the luxury tax line at $132 million.

The contracts of Turner, Crabbe, and Leonard are behind this team now, but when they were signed, this was part of the massive salary cap increase in 2016. Crabbe was dumped in 2017, Leonard was traded to bring back Hassan Whiteside before the 2019/20 offseason, and Turner was moved for Kent Bazemore in the same period.

None of these moves at the time were seen as money-saving trades, more that Neil Olshey was bringing in guys who fit better than the current option.

When Bazemore was traded again, this time to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, there were questions that Blazer management may be trying to reduce payroll costs and the luxury tax bill, as Ariza earned $7 million less than Bazemore did.

But, Ariza was significantly better than Bazemore was, and Bazemore played better for the Kings than he did in Portland.

The Blazers’ most significant change in salary will be Hassan Whiteside coming off the books after earning a tick over $27 million in the 2019/20 season. Though some fans were disappointed that Olshey didn’t use Whiteside’s big salary to bring in a difference-maker for the future, it was almost impossible to make a trade that would be legal under the CBA rules while also bringing back a starting center.

Because there was no backup center on the roster, it meant that they had to bring another center back in a deal to start, if they were to move Whiteside.

So he finished the Blazers season, as did Ariza, and the future of these two players are now the biggest questions entering the 2020 free agency period.

Whiteside will earn nowhere near the salary he did previously, and I think that regardless of his reduced market, the Blazers should let him walk. Backup centers are cheap, and there is no point giving Whiteside an inflated salary to play 14 – 18 minutes a night.

This greatly reduces the salary obligation and means the total salary will sit at around $100 million. The second decision, around Ariza, is a question of his contract.

Ariza has a non-guaranteed contract for the 2020/21 season. His total amount is $12.8 million. If the Blazers choose to keep him for the 2021 season, they will guarantee this amount, and he will receive the entire $12.8 million. If they decide to cut him, they will still have to pay $1.8 million, but they would be paying him this to leave.

I think this is a straight forward decision for Olshey – they have to keep Ariza. He was great in the 21 games he played in 2019/20; if management let Ariza walk, they have to spend the only remaining funds they have, replacing them. This doesn’t make any sense.

I think Olshey guarantees this contract, and Ariza will play a significant role in the 2021 season.

This would take the Blazers payroll to around $112 million, assuming that both Mario Hezonja and Rodney Hood pick up their player options.

Both of these decisions are very straight forward.

Hezonja doesn’t have a market in free agency, so he would likely be out of the league if he opted out. He had a rough 2019/20 and needs to salvage his career on the Blazers in 2021.

For Hood, his injury means that he would be hard-pressed to find a $6 million deal in free agency. I’m certain that he will opt-in.

Letting Whiteside walk, combined with these other decisions, would mean that the Blazers have a certain set of finances to improve. The below numbers are dependent on the cap staying at around $109 million.

  1. Mid-Level Exception
  2. Bi-Annual Exception
  3. Veteran’s minimum Exception

Firstly, the Mid-level is likely to be around $9 million. This can be used for a single year deal or for up to four years. I’ve touched on players that can be signed with this; it’s probably best they use this on a backup forward.

The Bi-Annual exception is worth around $3.5 million. If the Blazers used the mid-level to sign a defensive forward, I would use the Bi-Annual to sign a back up big man who could play the four and the five.

Finally, the Veteran’s minimum is based on years of service in the league and is around $2 million. This can be used to sign backups or end of bench guys.

Letting Whiteside walk and then spending wisely on the above exceptions would mean that the Blazers could stay under the luxury tax. I know that fans probably want to see ownership blow this out and go deep into the tax, but at the moment, that makes no sense.

Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Trent Jr. will need new deals soon, and then Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s new deals will kick in as well. This team has massive salary commitments upcoming, so there is no need to delve into the tax now.

I’m confident in Olshey making the above moves and staying under the tax. I think ownership would like to save some money by not being in the luxury tax. With the uncertainty in the COVID world and the potential of no fans in arenas, this team can be better than they were last year, but with $20 million less on the payroll.