by Ben Golliver, CBSSports.com and BlazersEdge.com
The Portland Trail Blazers Rise With Us marketing slogan wore out its welcome in recent years, as the win totals dwindled, postseason progress stalled and quality knee cartilage became harder and harder to find. In its major system reforms, the NBAs new Collective Bargaining Agreement promises a new chapter for all 30 of its teams. But are the Portland Trail Blazers completely ready for that?
Portlands firm pieces at least for the upcoming, abbreviated 2011-2012 season include LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Nolan Smith and Chris Johnson, with sophomores Elliot Williams, Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson lurking on the fringes, hoping to be rotation contributors. Its a solid but unspectacular rotation that needs added depth and skill at the two and five positions to make any real noise.
The ideal pegs for those holes would be guard Brandon Roy and center Greg Oden, but both were virtually invisible during the extended lockout thanks to ongoing injury issues and each therefore faces a murky future in Portland. The Blazers have managed to get by in Odens many absences over the last four seasons; theyve struggled to shine, especially in big moments, without Roy as the star.
The NBAs new Collective Bargaining Agreement has an Amnesty Clause provision that allows each NBA team the right to waive one player who is currently under contract before any of the next six seasons, with the players salary being removed from the teams overall salary number and their luxury tax bill. For the Blazers and Roy, this would mean significant cap space down the road and the potential for millions and millions of dollars in tax savings, as waiving his 15 million contract in 2011-2012 would keep them out of the luxury tax in almost any scenario. It would also mean additional unknown cap savings this year, according to an SBNation.com report, depending on how much another NBA team decided to pay him during the claim process. Waiving Roy would be step one on the franchise rebuilding path.
Waived or not, Roy will receive his salary, giving billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen two options: Pay a lot for nothing or pay a lot a lot for whatever Roy can give you in 2011-2012. But what exactly is the cost of bringing back Roy for another season?
As you might expect, its millions and millions of dollars. But consider this: the new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes a much harsher luxury tax system that has escalating penalties for teams that vastly exceed the luxury tax line, as Portland likely would by keeping Roy. However, those escalating penalties dont kick in for two years. For now, keeping Roy would only draw the same old dollar-for-dollar penalty that was in the previous agreement.
Why does that matter?
By one estimate, the Blazers could have potentially paid almost 39 million in tax penalties if the escalating costs went into effect immediately. That massive tax bill wouldnt have even been that hard to achieve. The Blazers would simply have had to keep Roy, re-sign Oden and use their Mid-Level Exception to fill out the frontcourt. To put that in perspective, in this scenario, the Blazers would have paid more in tax penalties than they pay for LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews combined.
Under the new system, though, if Portland retains Roy, signs Oden to his qualifying offer and uses the Mid-Level Exception that will be available to them as a taxpaying team (its smaller than the normal Mid-Level), the Blazers would expect to pay less than 13 million in luxury tax penalties, approximately one-third of the other potential worst-case scenario.
To boil this down: cutting Roy and getting nothing out of him could cost up to 68 million: up to 63 million in Roys future salary plus whatever it costs to bring in a replacement (5 million per year if the Blazers waived Roy and then used their full Mid-Level). Keeping Roy for this season and cutting him prior to the 2012-2013 season could cost 76 million: 63 million in his future salary plus 13 million in luxury tax payments. That luxury tax number could be smaller potentially much smaller if the Blazers decided to part with one of their other higher-salary players, such as Wallace, Camby or even Oden, in an effort to trim their payroll significantly or decided not to use the Mid-Level Exception available to them.
In other words, the extra cost to give Roy a test year could pencil out to be just 8 million if the money saved by waiving him was fully allocated to acquire a guard replacement.
8 million sounds like a lot because it is a lot. But its not 39 million and its not necessarily a sum that will make Allen blink.
But theres more than just the cap money to consider.
Sending Roy packing now virtually guarantees a one-and-done playoff exit at best. AldridgeBatumMatthews is a solid core trio long-term but its unlikely to deliver a series win in 2011-2012, something Allen has been anxious to see for years. Matthews, who consistently played better than Roy last season, would be required to log ridiculously heavy minutes unless a third quality guard was found in free agency, a move that would in turn force Portland to fill out its frontcourt with minimum-salary stiffs, something that would leave Portland susceptible to frontcourt injuries. Sound familiar?
A test year for Roy would give the once-vaunted RoyAldridgeOden trio one last shot at playoff success, delaying the roster explosion decision until next fall. It could allow the Blazers to focus their short-term free agency efforts on adding better-than-minimum quality to their frontcourt and would help keep the all-important chemistry and continuity from last season despite all the lockout turmoil. Roy sells tickets, captures imaginations and has been the face of the franchise for roughly four years. A fast, clean break will not come without significant public relations costs; cutting ties means killing hope, however unlikely, for a return to All-Star form. If its your job to sell tickets and court sponsors, arent you pitching Allen that the extra 8 million will produce some bottom-line benefits?
With either path, A-list free agent big men like Tyson Chandler, Nene Hilario and others will be way out of Portlands price range. Fighting for guys like Jeff Foster and Kwame Brown or worse -- could be the ugly reality in a weak free agent class.
Also: here are the top two guard free agents currently on the market: Jason Richardson, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Barea, Marcus Thornton, Arron Afflalo, Nick Young and Marco Belinelli. In terms of rotation fit and plausibility of actually signing, Crawford is probably the best match, but he will compete with Richardson and Afflalo to receive the most interest from other teams around the league. Its certainly possible that a team that is under the cap will offer him far more money than the Blazers would be legally allowed to pay him, even if they waived Roy. And, remember, using the full Mid-Level on Crawford would leave Portland with a frontline rotation of Aldridge, Wallace, Camby and Johnson with Odens status unknown. Thats less than ideal and would require Aldridge to log significant minutes at center.
If Roy is waived immediately, well know that the reports that Allen has taken on a new role as a hardline owner looking to revamp his financial lot in the league were true. But if Allen is truly focused on winning now, a test year for Roy is a costly but not crippling or handcuffing band-aid solution that might just wind up paying dividends. If the strategy fails, the plug can always be pulled next summer.