Through the first two preseason games for the Portland Trail Blazers, Dennis Smith Jr has distanced himself from the other three players he’s battling with for a roster spot on the team. Frankly, it hasn’t been close.
The Blazers are required to carry 14 players on their roster heading into the regular season. They currently sit at 13 players under contract. Technically they can have a maximum of 15 players on the roster. This means that theoretically they could sign two players still instead of just one, but according to Jason Quick of The Athletic, the Blazers appear to only want to carry 14 players to start the year.
Other than Smith Jr, the other three players competing to be signed to the team are Quinn Cook, Patrick Patterson, and Marquese Chriss. Smith Jr and Cook are both point guards, while Patterson is a power forward, and Chriss is a power forward/center. From an outside perspective, one would think that with the two possible spots available, the Blazers would sign one of the guards and one of the big men. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
So why would the Blazers only sign one of the four players? President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has mentioned in the past that he likes to keep one open roster spot for flexibility in trades or to be able to sign a player that is cut or bought out from another team. In this particular instance though, that flexibility doesn’t really make sense. The 15th player would likely be willing to sign a non-guaranteed contract. This means that the Blazers could waive that player anytime between now and when their contract would become fully guaranteed in January. Going this route would give the Blazers almost three more months to deem whether or not that player is worth keeping and if something else comes up during that time that they need to use that roster spot for, they simply waive that player.
If it’s not about flexibility, then it almost certainly has to be a financially based decision. Once they sign the one player they have to sign, the Blazers will be roughly $3 million into the NBA’s luxury tax. This would result in the Blazers having to pay about $4.5 million to the league at the end of the season. All the teams that are under the tax then divvy up the money from all the teams that paid the tax.
Usually the money from this disbursement isn’t a big payment, but this year there are several teams including the Warriors, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, and Jazz, that are going to be paying very steep tax bills. Instead of having to pay that $4.5 million, if the Blazers were able to get under the tax line they’d instead likely receive a payment of somewhere between $10-$25 million.
It’s difficult to see a scenario where the Blazers avoid a tax payment without downgrading their roster. It’s a possibility they could find themselves dumping Anfernee Simons at the trade deadline so they don’t have to pay him in free agency next year, but that seems highly unlikely to get rid of him for no player coming back. The same could be said about Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic, who are also free agents after this season.
If the Blazers signed a 15th player to a fully guaranteed contract, they’d find themselves about $4.7 million over the tax line. Their tax payment would be just over $7 million in that scenario. This would make it much harder to get under the tax line later in the season, which is why they probably won’t use that spot now just in case. There are also ramifications next season if they are in the tax both years with what is called the repeater tax. This would mean their tax bill would hit big multipliers in 2022-23 depending on how far into the tax they are.
This mostly comes down to whether or not Owner Jody Allen is being cheap or wants to win at any cost. If she demands the team save as much money as possible while trying to also win, then that hinders Olshey’s task of trying to field the best possible team. We’ve heard in the past that Allen has been willing to pay to trade for a significant salary but the actions of the front office seem to indicate otherwise. It could also be that Allen is taking a wait and see approach to this season. If the Blazers find themselves firmly in the playoff picture she might be willing to do what it takes to ensure success. If they find themselves fighting just to make the playoffs then she might be wanting to pull the chute and duck the tax, even if that means downgrading the roster.
With the assumption that the Blazers will only sign one player of the four, Dennis Smith Jr has to be that player. There is maybe an argument that big man depth is more of a need than another guard, but Smith Jr has played too well to let go. His stats look pretty good over the two games. In 19 minutes per game, he’s averaging 14 points, 2 rebounds, and 5 assists, while shooting 62.5% from the field.
Those stats are more than enough to win the job, but there are other reasons why Smith Jr is the clear choice of the four. On offense, he’s been a prototypical point guard by running the new system well and has a knack for being able to get into the lane for easy buckets or using that penetration to create an open shot for a teammate with pinpoint passing. On defense, he’s pestered opposing guards and may already be one of the best individual on-ball perimeter defenders on the team. These qualities are exactly what the Blazers have been missing off the bench in previous seasons.
On top of all that, the athletic Smith Jr still has considerable upside as a player. Most recruiting sites had him as a top-10 prospect out of high school. He was selected 9th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. He showed promise in his rookie season, earning All-Rookie 2nd Team honors in a loaded class. However, it’s been a struggle since that season to find his footing in the NBA. At the trade deadline of his second season, Dallas traded Smith Jr to the New York Knicks. While he finished off the season decently for New York, over the course of the next season and a half he barely got in many games. Eventually he was traded to the Detroit Pistons in the final year of his rookie contract. His career was fading fast.
In free agency he wasn’t offered a contract by the Pistons, or hardly any teams for that matter. The offers were so scarce he had to take a non-guaranteed training camp offer from the Blazers. New Head Coach Chauncey Billups probably sees a little bit of himself in the journey Smith Jr has taken thus far. Billups was drafted 3rd overall in the 1997 NBA Draft. After playing for four different teams in his first five seasons, most NBA people thought Billups would never live up to being such a high pick. In 2002, he signed with the Detroit Pistons. Eventually Billups learned to play the game the right way and would go on to win a championship as the leader of some very good Detroit teams.
It remains to be seen if Billups can help Smith Jr’s career the way coaches like Larry Brown did for him, but in just a couple weeks Smith Jr already looks much more comfortable on the court than he has since his rookie year. It’s extremely unlikely to have the same success Billups did, but hopefully if he learns to play the point guard position under the tutelage of Billups, he can at least become a serviceable rotation player. Minutes will be hard to come by on this roster, but Billups also seems willing to give players a chance to earn playing time. If Smith Jr proves to be a capable defender, while displaying playmaking ability on offense, then it might be hard for Billups to not at least play him a little bit.
Signing Smith Jr appears to be a lock at this point. It would be a surprise if the Blazers choose to sign Chriss, Patterson, or Cook over him. The Blazers may reach a point in the season where the question becomes how do they keep him long term if he plays well? Could having him develop make one of the other guards expendable in a trade? These are good problems to have and would be a positive sign overall for the team, the coaching, and for Dennis Smith Jr himself.