February 8, 2018, 6:53 pm
A move of this minimal magnitude was always most likely for the Portland Trail Blazers by Thursday’s trade deadline. Capped out both now and in the foreseeable future, with incumbent players to pay this summer, Neil Olshey never had the financial flexibility to pull off the type of blockbuster deal that might have made his team a sub-contender and placated a vocal group of fans frustrated with the status quo. Any expectation otherwise was setting yourself up for disappointment.
Noah Vonleh is gone to the Chicago Bulls, and with him any concerns about paying the luxury tax this season. Portland was approximately $2.9 million over the luxury tax before the trade, and moves just less than $600,000 below it by offloading Vonleh’s $3.5 million salary. The Blazers’ bill in 2017-18, including dead money owed to Andrew Nicholson, Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli, now sits at $118.7 million.
The importance of getting below the $119.2 million luxury tax threshold can’t be discounted. Portland is set to blow past that total next season, given scheduled raises for those in-house and potential new deals for restricted free agents Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier. Terry Stotts, Damian Lillard and the Rip City faithful undoubtedly want to bring back Ed Davis, too, who’s an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Blazers won’t re-sign all three of those guys, obviously. Doing so wouldn’t only hamstring the team’s flexibility by triggering a hard cap, but also incur a tax payout of more than $50 million given modest, open-market deals for Nurkic, Napier and Davis.
Now just imagine if Portland faced that prospect this summer while also having paid the tax this season. As a repeating taxpayer, the Blazers would be subject to paying an additional dollar on top of the existing penalty for every dollar it exceeds the tax threshold. Paul Allen has deep pockets, and those in the know stress that he’d be willing to pay pretty much whatever it takes for his organization to field a legitimate contender. But that’s certainly not what Portland is today, nor what it would be a year from now given new deals for Nurkic, Napier and Davis barring some stunning and unforeseen internal improvement.
That reality, combined with the debilitating nature of paying the luxury tax in successive years and the limited availability of meaningful salary-cap exceptions afforded to teams over the apron, always ensured this trade deadline would be more about cleaning the books for the Blazers than reshaping their roster.
Moving Vonleh without taking any money back, to be fair, was the smallest of the potential moves Portland could have made before Thursday afternoon. Trading Maurice Harkless or Meyers Leonard, both due eight-figure salaries through 2018-19, would have given Olshey and company more room to maneuver below the luxury tax in the future. Players who legitimately move the needle are pricey, and there’s no telling when they could become available on the trade market. Shedding an $11 million salary with legs certainly better accomplishes the goal of getting as far below the luxury tax as possible – think of the possibilities! – better than shedding Vonleh’s expiring deal does.
But the deterioration of Harkless’ and Leonard’s role with Portland made trading them difficult, and the lack of available salary cap space across the league made doing so almost impossible – at least if Olshey was intent on not including a draft-pick sweetener just to clear money and skirt the tax. That was the right call. The Blazers’ cache of picks is hardly impressive compared to many throughout the league, but its contents still qualifies as the only tradable asset in hand if front office honchos want to keep the core of this group together. McCollum was never made readily available at the deadline, by the way, and it would have taken a franchise-altering deal for Portland to trade Zach Collins.
It’s been said ad nauseam, but bears repeating again: The Blazers spent themselves into a corner two summers ago. That second major cap spike never came. Seemingly exorbitant contracts doled out to players like Harkless, Leonard and Evan Turner that many decision-makers insisted represented the new normal have indeed proven outliers. So much consternation about all that financial weight being paid to end-of-bench players and a clearly underqualified starter makes it easy to forget that Allen Crabbe‘s contract might have been the worst of the lot. Just imagine the financial bind Portland would be in financially if Olshey didn’t dump Crabbe on the Brooklyn Nets in July.
That trade also cost the Blazers nothing more than a player whose financial situation made him a net negative, despite positive on-court contributions. Unfortunately, not even the latter can be said for Vonleh. Perhaps there’s still a quality rotation player in there somewhere, but the arrival of Collins, effectiveness of Davis and even the selection of Caleb Swanigan late in the first round last summer signaled that Portland had tired of waiting for Vonleh to find himself.
A very loud contingent of Blazers fans feel a similar way about their team today. Portland isn’t tangibly closer to winning a first-round series come April, let alone its first championship since 1977. But margins matters in the NBA, and the Blazers saved some crucial wiggle room by offloading a player who was unlikely to ever help them win.
That’s what makes trading Vonleh an objective win for Portland, no matter the extent of that success nor if anyone but league obsessives notice it.