July 2, 2018, 5:12 pm
The fate of Ed Davis‘ free agency was never going to make or break the Portland Trail Blazers’ summer.
Davis was indeed a revelation last season, fully healthy after his second campaign with Portland was cut short by a nagging shoulder injury that finally required season-ending surgery in March. He returned stronger, quicker and far more explosive, supplying the Blazers with contagious energy and physicality every time he stepped on the floor, revving up a career that had previously seemed stalled. Davis emerged as something close to a cult-like figure among Portland fans as a result, a development sparked by Damian Lillard‘s public plea for Portland to keep him when rumors were swirling leading up to the trade deadline.
“Look man, for me, the same way D-Wade was in Miami all those years and Udonis Haslem was there because he brought something to the team nobody else had…that’s how I feel about Ed,’’ Lillard told NBC Sports’ Jason Quick in late January. “I always want Ed to be on my team. That’s the best way I can put it. I always want him on my team.’’
At 29, eight years and three teams removed from the lottery, Davis finally had a home – or at least that’s how it seemed. He has a new one across the country now, though, after agreeing to a one-year, $4.4 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets less than two hours into the start of free agency. That’s not only an extremely fair price for one of the most reliable backup big men in basketball, but Davis apparently preferred putting down roots in Portland, too.
“I said I wanted to come back,” he told NBC Sports shortly after news of his departure broke. Lillard and C.J. McCollum hardly hid their disappointment, either.
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) July 1, 2018
🤝 lost a real one https://t.co/7XTotNgIZX
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) July 1, 2018
Realities of the Blazers’ financial situation always ensured Neil Olshey would have to make some onerous choices this summer. The first one came on Friday, when it was reported they opted against extending qualifying offers to Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton, success stories of the team’s player-development tract who would thus become unrestricted free agents – and erase about $9 million worth of cap holds from Portland’s books in the process.
Ramifications of the 2016 free-agency spending spree are being felt throughout the league, but perhaps for no other team more than the Blazers. They entered free agency with approximately $111 million in committed salary for 2018-19, putting them both comfortably over the cap and comfortably below the luxury-tax threshold. That number doesn’t account for Nurkic’s nearly $9 million cap hold, nor the one-year, $4.8 million qualifying offer Portland probably hopes he signs or the eight-figure salary it might be forced to match if he inks an expensive offer sheet from a competitor.
It was no secret the Blazers would likely have to choose between Davis and Nurkic this offseason. Zach Collins waits in the wings, ready to be starting center of the present and future once his frame fills out, and bringing back just one of Davis and Nurkic is the surest means of the Blazers paying lesser tax penalties without gutting their roster of worthwhile contributors. Meyers Leonard is still being paid over $10 million a year to play for Portland, too, and Olshey last year used one of his few team-building assets on Caleb Swanigan in the first round of the draft. Davis and Nurkic were very valuable for the Blazers last season in their own respective ways, but not to the extent Olshey can justify asking Paul Allen to pony up extra millions upon millions in luxury tax payments.
Remember, Portland still has a $13 million exception from the Allen Crabbe trade and $3.5 million exception from dealing Noah Vonleh at the deadline – cost-cutting moves directly related to 2016, of course – to target high-priced players on the trade market, and Olshey has been adamant since the season ended that he views them as crucial chips to upgrade the roster. It’s also still unclear what type of contract Nurkic may receive from opposing teams, though Derrick Favors‘ two-year, $36 million agreement with the Utah Jazz certainly casts doubt on the notion he could be re-signed at a bargain bin price.
Even if Nurkic ends up taking the qualifying offer, using just those trade exceptions and the $5.3 million tax-payer mid-level exception would vault Portland past the tax line and the apron, all the way up to approximately $137 million in salary. How much would adding Davis’ new $4.4 million salary with the Nets to the mix cost in that scenario? Upwards of $17 million in tax payouts just by itself, all for a player stuck behind Nurkic, who would also limit the chance for Collins to gain experience playing the five.
Not worth it, right? From a purely financial perspective, assuming Nurkic is still in the team’s plans, the Blazers clearly made the right decision to let Davis walk. But personnel decision-making is never about dollars and cents alone.
Davis was a driving force behind the culture that propelled Portland to the three-seed last season, a reality Lillard clearly understood just as much if not more than anyone else within the organization. Two weeks after using a first-round pick on a teenager who plays his position, Portland’s franchise player lost his most trusted teammate due to nothing more than the never-ending ripples of Olshey’s overzealous spending bonanza two years ago. Think that might come up next season whenever Lillard, still stubbornly loyal, deems it necessary to have another clandestine meeting with Allen concerning the direction of this organization?
Perhaps the reaction to Davis’ departure will blow over. His role would have been diminished in 2018-19 if Nurkic is still with the Blazers anyway. Maybe sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, signed for the minimum in the wake of Davis leaving for Brooklyn, becomes a new fan favorite, or Collins’ growth is so rapid it becomes impossible for Terry Stotts to keep him off the floor. Perhaps Olshey pulls a 3-and-D rabbit out of his hat with the Crabbe trade exception.
Regardless, essentially being forced to let Davis walk is the kind of contextual mistake that quickly erodes player trust in a franchise. It’s already apparent how Lillard, not to mention McCollum, feels about this turn of events. Here’s hoping Portland improves enough going forward to the point his frustration gleaned from Davis’ exit is largely forgotten. Otherwise, it could be another event that makes Lillard one step closer to re-considering his future with the team he hopes to play for forever.