The Trail Blazers made several trades before the clock struck noon in Portland on Thursday. In addition to a lottery-protected 1st round pick via the New York Knicks and several 2nd round picks, the Blazers added Cam Reddish, Matisse Thybulle, Kevin Knox, and Ryan Arcidiacono to their roster. They sent Josh Hart to the Knicks. Gary Payton II was jettisoned back to the Warriors, who he won a championship with last season. Finally, Greg Brown III was a roster casualty as Portland had to make a cut from their roster in order to make the trades official.
General Manager Joe Cronin has said it takes time to build a contender after tearing down the roster at the trade deadline last season for flexibility in the off season. The previous man in charge, Neil Olshey, certainly deserved some of the blame for the roster he left behind after he was fired for workplace misconduct in December of 2021. However, fast-forward 14 months and Cronin has now been directly responsible for all 17 players being a part of the team. 12 of the current 17 players he has traded for, drafted, or signed in free agency. A 13th player out of those 17, Trendon Watford, was promoted by Cronin to the roster last year from being a two-way contract. Damian Lillard and Nassir Little received contract extensions in the 2022 off season. That leaves Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, who Cronin chose to re-sign and give contracts to in free agency.
So with Lillard having a phenomenal season at 32-years old, why does it seem like Cronin decided to punt on the season while a plethora of players that could’ve helped make this team better got traded to other teams? Why was Cronin searching the bargain bins looking for reclamation projects instead of securing some bona fide help for his loyal star player?
To answer those questions, we have to first talk about the luxury tax. Paul Allen passed away just 3 days before the start of the 2018-19 season, leaving his sister Jody Allen as the head of his trust and de facto owner of the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks. The Blazers already had their roster intact and were deep into the luxury tax at the time of his death. That season was their best in nearly two decades, making a run all the way to the Western Conference Finals. That made paying the tax a lot easier to swallow. The following season the Blazers were once again a tax team and had the highest payroll in the entire NBA.
In the 3 seasons to follow, the Blazers have avoided being in the luxury tax completely. One could argue that the lack of success in those three seasons makes it justified for Allen to not want to pay the tax. You could also argue that toeing a line that is an uncrossable demand hurts flexibility in roster moves and ultimately could prevent a team from being the best possible version it could.
After jumping off to a 10-4 record this season, it would have certainly been interesting had the success continued if Allen would’ve been willing to let Cronin go into the tax to solidify the rotation of a top seed. A tumble down the standings to possibly missing the playoffs altogether shut down any chance of finding that out. The Blazers wouldn’t have been able to go very far into the tax anyway, because they triggered the hard cap when they signed Gary Payton II, limiting how far into the tax they could go.
With being hard capped, the team was forced to waive Eric Bledsoe who stood to make $19 million if retained. The Blazers still had to pay him $3.9 million to go away, which they were able to use the stretch provision to have that split up against their salary cap over 3 seasons. There isn’t a single person around that thinks Bledsoe was worth a roster spot and $19 million, however having a $19 million expiring contract could’ve been used to facilitate a bigger trade in the off season if an owner was truly willing to go all-in and do what it took to build around Lillard. Again, justifiable to not go that extreme route, it’s just an example of something a more dedicated to winning approach might’ve led a different owner to consider.
After all the moves were completed in the summer, the Blazers headed into the season a mere $67,000 below the tax line. Being that close to the tax meant they couldn’t add salary for any reason and still avoid the tax. They had an open roster spot that could’ve been used for example to maybe claim Isaiah Joe off of waivers from the Philadelphia 76ers when they cut him to trim their roster down. Joe signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder and is shooting 44.8% from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game. For a bench that has had shooting and spacing issues, Joe certainly would’ve helped solve some of those, but I digress. When there were multiple injuries at the same time and the Blazers started losing games due to exhaustion of the available players, there was no thought to go into the tax to give this team some helpful depth by signing another body.
Even if they did go slightly into the tax, they could’ve made moves up until the deadline to go back under and it wouldn’t have counted, because all that matters is where you finish. When the dust settled after the trade deadline this year, the Blazers found themselves over $6 million under the tax line. Last year, the Blazers not only ducked the tax but finished a whopping $14.5 million under. If ownership had full trust in their general manager, they could’ve allowed Cronin to go into the tax to help out earlier in the year with the demand that he still has to get them out when all is said and done. The fact this option didn’t happen leads to the conclusion that it indeed never was an option.
Was avoiding the luxury tax the reason for the lackluster moves at the deadline? It’s a big part of the equation, but the truth is a little more complex and troublesome. There’s been speculation that maybe the Blazers just don’t want to be the villains that traded Lillard. Could they be purposely sabotaging their relationship with their star so he gets so fed up and asks out, which lets the front office off the hook from making that decision themselves? No, that’s not actually what’s going on. Although, as a byproduct of what they’re doing it is taking advantage of Lillard’s loyalty, which is a shame in itself to seemingly test the extreme limits of him staying in Portland his whole career.
We’ve finally reached the real motivation behind all of their moves. They want Damian Lillard to be a Blazer, he keeps them relevant, but they’re not willing to put their money where their mouth is to do whatever it takes to win with him. It’s not just avoiding the tax in the present season, it’s also not doing anything that could make it more difficult to avoid the tax in subsequent years. This means that every move they make is done with the intention of making sure it doesn’t lead to them being in a position that several contenders find themselves in where it’s simply up to Allen how much money she’s willing to spend with each subsequent move.
Basically the goal is to build the best possible roster by not only staying out of the tax, but to actually not put Allen in a position where she looks bad for not retaining a free agent. For example, Josh Hart was going to command a decent payday this summer and combining that with a potential big payday for Jerami Grant would’ve pretty much guaranteed the Blazers would be deep in the tax. However, it wouldn’t end there. They’d still have the Tax-MLE they could use if Allen let them, pushing them deeper into the tax. What if on top of that there’s injuries next year and what’s the harm in signing a replacement since they’re in the tax anyway? Then at the trade deadline they potentially have a great move but it would add a significant amount to that tax payment. That’s exactly the situation Jody Allen doesn’t want and won’t allow.
Think about this, what do all four acquisitions at the deadline have in common? All four are free agents after this season. Technically Knox has a team option for $3 million, which is low enough to where they could keep him if they wanted to, but that’s not the point. Before you get too attached to any of these new guys, don’t be surprised if the Blazers just let all four walk in free agency, unless they’re willing to re-sign at bargain prices. This is because of Grant’s looming contract. Let’s say the Blazers sign Grant for around $30 million per season. That would put them over the salary cap with approximately $16 million or so in room under the tax line. If they end up with their own 1st round pick in the 2023 Draft or the lottery-protected 1st from the Knicks, those eat into that $16 million depending on what picks they are. Sign a couple of free agents or re-sign any of their own free agents and all of a sudden boom, they’re basically fighting the tax yet again.
These moves on Thursday though made it so Allen can dump the tax again, while also still kind of showing that by keeping Grant they’re still dedicated to Lillard, but not having to fully be all-in. They dumped Gary Payton II’s money for next year. In negotiations with Golden State alone, Cronin could’ve gotten James Wiseman, a big center who was the #2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The problem with Wiseman? He is under contract next season for a little over $12 million, making it difficult to stay out of the tax once again. They literally got handed an opportunity to land one of the most talented reclamation projects available and passed because of next season’s implications. Same thing goes for another talented wing that could’ve been a nice addition in Saddiq Bey, who also could’ve been had at one point in the discussions after turning down Wiseman. Bey is going to make about $4.5 million next year. Apparently, the Blazers turned down certain players in other trades because of their contracts going past this season as well.
It is smart to be financially responsible when it comes to the salary cap and contracts and all that, but when you’re handicapping yourself in trades by taking lesser talent because it might cost you more money next season, are Jody Allen and Joe Cronin really giving Damian Lillard the best chance to win? No, they’re not. The Phoenix Suns recently got a new owner, Matt Ishbia, who within his first few days at the helm made a huge splash by adding Kevin Durant, which added to their high payroll. Ishbia didn’t care, he wanted to go for it and saw an opportunity to do so. A new owner in Portland could maybe give Damian Lillard a legit chance to actually win a ring. Unfortunately, Blazers fans might forever be wondering what could’ve been if ownership and the front office strictly made decisions based on putting the best talent around him instead of worrying about ducking the tax a year from now.
The Blazers have shown their hand. They want you to keep believing their moves are setting the table up for something big next time. If as a fan you want to continue to remain hopeful that next time it will be different, go ahead and dream of acquiring OG Anunoby, Mikal Bridges, or whatever big name player you covet this summer. Work those trade machines from now until the off season. When their moves underwhelm again, feel free to buy the excuse that the next trade deadline is where they’ll really make their move! I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t still have hope. This doesn’t mean the team itself is doomed. Shaedon Sharpe has out of this world talent. Anfernee Simons has become one of the better young guards in the league. They could hit on another draft pick or stumble into a trade for a player that blossoms here in Portland without having to break the bank. As long as Damian Lillard sticks around, I’ll never count them out. I’m just done buying the flexibility line that the organization will eventually do what it takes until they prove otherwise.