The Portland Trail Blazers recently inked Greg Brown III to a three-year/$4.3 million deal, dipping into their taxpayer MLE to tack on that third year. With Summer League wrapping up and training camp just over a month away, the start of the 2021-22 season is quickly approaching. The Blazers have had a fairly lowkey offseason, indicative of a small-market team whose owner’s main priority seems to be trying to save dollars rather than building a championship-winning team around disgruntled superstar Damian Lillard.
While that’s certainly not the sentiment Blazers fans want to hear—as there is more pressure than ever on Blazers management to show they are a franchise capable of contending for a championship or face the harsh reality of a Damian Lillard trade request—Portland’s offseason moves have hardly indicated otherwise. Ben McLemore, Tony Snell, and Cody Zeller, while solid additions, were all available to be signed on minimum deals for a reason and are hardly enough to convince the general public, or Lillard for that matter, that this team is capable of anything more than a gentleman’s sweep in a seven-game series against a legitimate title contender like the Los Angeles Lakers or the Brooklyn Nets. Heck, it’s unclear whether McLemore, Snell, or Zeller would have even been enough to change the outcome of June’s disheartening first-round series against the Denver Nuggets.
Improving the roster this off-season was always going to be difficult without a trade as a result of the Trail Blazers cap situation. Even before bringing Norman Powell back, the Blazers committed salaries for the 2021-22 season took them north of the $112.4 million salary-cap threshold meaning that their only avenues to improve the roster in free agency were to sign players to minimum level deals and/or by using an exception. For those wondering what an exception is, the best definition I could find online is from spotrac.com, “Exceptions are essentially ‘grants’ offering teams an additional way to sign players. Exceptions can be split up for multiple player signings, however only one of these exceptions may be used in a season and they cannot be combined.”
Greg Brown III’s newly inked contract with Portland Trail Blazers could be an indicator of Neil Olshey’s future plans for the 2021-2022 NBA season
Looking at the chart above, you can see that despite having access to the non-tax paying MLE (NTP-MLE: $9.5 million for the ’21-22 season), Portland decided instead to use a portion of the tax-paying MLE (TP-MLE: $5.9 million for the ’21-22 season) to sign their second-round pick, Greg Brown III, to a three-year contract. Why would a team use the lesser, TP-MLE when they could have used the more valuable NTP-MLE earlier in the offseason or even the full TP-MLE to acquire another reliable contributor.
The answer could lie in the fact that once a team uses the full NTP-MLE, they are no longer allowed to surpass the tax apron ($142,002,000) for the rest of the season. So, because the Blazers are using just a portion of their TP-MLE this season, they will not be required to remain under the tax apron if/when they make a trade this season.
The implications of this decision are quite clear. If the Blazers were to trade one of CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard, they would be able to acquire players whose salaries total up to 125% of McCollum or Lillard’s cap hits this season, the maximum amount of dollar-value a team can receive for one of their players. Had they used their NTP-MLE, the maximum return they could receive for McCollum or Lillard would be limited by the tax apron. Instead, by opting not to use their full NTP-MLE, the Blazers can operate above the apron with any future moves.
All in all, they are increasing the maximum possible return they can get for dealing either player by a couple million dollars – which might not sound like a lot given the values of today’s NBA contracts, but for a team that’s operating around the margins, a couple million dollars could realistically be the difference between trading CJ McCollum ($30,864,198) for Ben Simmons ($33,003,936) and Matisse Thybulle ($2,840,160) and trading CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons and Isaiah Joe ($1,517,981).
Okay, maybe that scenario is more dream than reality, but you get my point. I don’t think the Blazers are done making moves, and if I had to guess, I’d probably say that this decision increases the likelihood that one of Lillard of McCollum will be playing elsewhere before the end of the season.
Need further proof? Only the salaries of Lillard and McCollum, if traded, could fetch a return that could clear the $5 million buffer between the Blazers current salary cap and the luxury tax apron.
So even though it’s probably fair to be disappointed with the Blazers off-season moves up to this point, I don’t think Damian Lillard’s cries for help have fallen on deaf ears. This might just be the season where Neil Olshey makes the homerun trade Blazers fans have been asking him to make for years.