The hidden factor behind Trail Blazers’ pursuit of a second star

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

Ahead of the 2023 NBA Draft, reports indicate that the Portland Trail Blazers are willing to trade the third pick in exchange for an elite forward to build a contender around Damian Lillard.

In the past couple weeks, three names—Paul George, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson—have surfaced as potential stars Portland could target with the third pick. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote that, if he ran the Clippers, he would trade George for the third pick “in a heartbeat.”

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the New Orleans Pelicans are attempting to trade for a top-three pick to draft Scoot Henderson.

The Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans face similar long-term financial concerns that reveal a hidden factor behind Portland’s pursuit of an elite forward: the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement.

The new CBA, ratified in April and scheduled to take effect on July 1, levies new restrictions on teams that dip deep into the tax. Under the previous CBA, the luxury tax apron functioned as a hard cap that could be triggered by the use of a particular team-building tool, such as the non-taxpayer mid-level exception or a sign-and-trade.

The new CBA adds a second luxury tax apron $17.5 million over the tax line, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Surpassing the second apron triggers a set of restrictions on team-building far more draconian than any present in the previous CBA.

Among the restrictions include losing the ability to access any mid-level exception, utilizing cash in trades, aggregating salaries in trades, and signing any players on the buyout market, Wojnarowski reported.

As currently constituted, the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers’ payrolls put them in danger of exceeding the second apron. If either team makes it a long-term goal to avoid the second apron, an opportunity could open up for Portland in the trade market.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ salary cap outlook

The Pelicans’ payroll is saddled by the three large contracts of CJ McCollum, Ingram, and Williamson. McCollum’s two-year, $64 million extension kicks in at the start of the 2024-2025 season. Williamson’s designated rookie extension kicks in this season, which guarantees him at least 25 percent of his team’s salary cap for the next five seasons.

Ingram, whose max extension ends in two years, is due for a big payday in 2025. Re-signing him could make it challenging for the Pelicans to retain youngsters Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III while staying below the second apron comfortably enough to continue adding veteran talent.

New Orleans’ young core has shown promise: In early December of last season, the Pelicans surged to the first seed in the Western Conference, led by a healthy Williamson. However, Williamson’s hamstring injury derailed the Pelicans’ season, exposing how the inability of its franchise player to stay on the court and the limitations of Ingram and McCollum may force the organization to change course.

Dipping into the second apron and, consequently, losing a host of team-building mechanisms, will only be worth it for teams confident that they have a championship-caliber roster. Williamson’s Pelicans have yet to inspire that level of confidence.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ salary cap outlook

Although the Clippers possess more proven talent than the Pelicans, the team is saddled by similar injury concerns. Injuries and load management have kept George and Kawhi Leonard off the court, impeding the team from building continuity and chemistry.

If the Clippers hope to improve their championship odds by adding more talent, the new CBA presents a major obstacle. The team is projected to exceed the second apron by roughly $22 million, although it could still duck below by waiving Eric Gordon’s non-guaranteed contract.

By the 2024-2025 season, George and Leonard’s salaries will total almost $100 million. Norman Powell, Ivica Zubac, and Terance Mann still have multiple years left on their respective deals, keeping LA within striking distance of the second apron through the 2024-2025 season.

Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer’s championship hopes are likely strong enough to keep the team’s core intact. However, the new CBA should increase the incentive for the its front office to at least consider transitioning to the post-Leonard-and-George era before the new tax apron stifles the Clippers’ cap flexibility.

What this means for the Trail Blazers

As currently constructed, Portland isn’t in danger of triggering the second apron. Assuming that Jerami Grant’s contract starts at $30 million, slightly more than the extension he was offered during the season, according to The Athletic‘s Jason Quick, and Matisse Thybulle receives a modest pay bump, Portland will still remain under the luxury tax enough to access the full taxpayer mid-level exception.

Portland’s room under the luxury tax allows for the possibility to flip Anfernee Simons for a more expensive star without immediately risking the second apron. However, several players linked to Portland—including Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, and OG Anunoby—are on expiring deals or could opt out after one year. Thus, signing any of them to a long-term deal could push the team closer to the second apron.

Take Siakam for example, who’s currently making $37.9 million in the final year of his deal. If Portland flips Simons and filler salary for Siakam, re-signing him after a year would likely require a maximum contract, which starts at no less than $40 million for a player with his experience.

That means Portland would be committing almost $140 million to a core of Lillard, Siakam, Grant, and Jusuf Nurkic, leaving the team with roughly $50 million in room below the second apron to fill out the rest of its roster.

In other words, the cap mechanics of signing Siakam to a long-term deal would work, but there wouldn’t be much more flexibility to elevate the roster from playoff-caliber to championship-caliber.

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If Portland does trade the third pick on draft night for a star, it probably wouldn’t be George, considering the Clippers’ championship aspirations, although recent reports have surfaced that LA could contemplate the idea.

Ingram or Williamson might not even be attainable if Charlotte ends up snatching the Pelicans’ target of Henderson (though Brandon Miller is reportedly the Hornets’ desire at No. 2). But perhaps a mystery player emerges due to the looming question of how teams will manage the spending restrictions enacted by the new CBA.