Here are the decision points and the order in which they come.
NBA Free Agency 2023 opens tomorrow at 6 p.m. Eastern. At that point, the Portland Trail Blazers, along with the rest of the league, will be able to sign free agents and make trades, governed by the new year’s salary cap and at least partial implementation of a new set of CBA rules.
While we anticipate the big change, let’s look forward to the moves and decisions the Blazers will have to make over the next few weeks.
Re-signs Jerami Grant
The biggest item on Portland’s free agency list is also their first. Forward Jerami Grant is an unrestricted free agent. By using Bird rights and an extra year on his contract that no one else can offer, the Blazers will be able to give him more money than any other team. They also have a significant incentive to.
Portland’s need for Grant goes beyond his 20.5 points per game. battle and their complete lack of frontcourt depth. The Blazers will be over the salary cap whether Grant stays or not. That he left would remove the danger of exceeding the luxury tax threshold, but that is the only benefit. They wouldn’t shell out any money to sign other free agents, essentially losing him for nothing. They can’t do that with a straight face if they pretend to improve next season. They would also lose the opportunity to trade him later and remove a potentially valuable future asset.
Grant turned down a mandatory extension offer from the Blazers last year. It was so he could reach this moment and get the most years and dollars on his contract that he could reasonably expect. This is the opportunity he and the team have been waiting for.
News that Grant and the Blazers reached an agreement should be almost immediate. Significant delay would mean one of two things:
A. He’s considering signing with another team and leaving Portland in the lurch.
B. The Blazers are not considering re-signing him, which would send the signal that they are going into rebuild mode. At that point, you can expect a trade off of all the veterans on the team. And yes, that includes You-Know-Who, as that would give the lie to Portland’s promise of building a contending team.
Since none of these options are good, Blazers fans should look for Grant news to break out as soon as possible.
Cut and cut
Who the Blazers don’t bring back will show as much about their intentions as who they are. We received news yesterday that they will not make a qualifying offer to pass on Cam Reddish while extending one to protect Matisse Thybulle.
These decisions are strategic. In a perfect world, the Blazers would have kept both. As it is, they’ll be near the luxury tax line, a spot they’ll likely occupy for several years as Damian Lillard’s contract matures. Adding even a small amount to salary can have big consequences for them. Therefore, they had to choose between their young restricted free agents in the waiting period. Thybulle was more valuable to them than reddish. They weren’t willing to spend the $14 million minimum to keep both.
Kevin Knox II has a team option for $3 million next season. Trendon Watford’s $1.8 million for next year is not guaranteed. Jabari Walker’s $1.7 million is only partially guaranteed. Those numbers are low, but Portland’s margins could be razor sharp depending on what moves they make.
Understand that, and you’ll also understand Portland’s use of cap waivers. The largest is a mid-level that, if they stay below the tax threshold, should be worth about $12.5 million. That’s enough to entice a decent free agent. The Blazers need one too.
Portland also has a semi-annual exception of $4.5 million and two trade exceptions of $8.3 and $2.6 million. The former can be used to sign free agents, the latter two are used in trades.
The use of exemptions could bring the Blazers into the tax bracket, either this year or in future years. These exception contracts do not run for one season. Portland needs to plan two or three years down the road, incorporating future moves they’d like to make into the equation. They can’t keep accumulating contracts, only to be penalized later for what turned out to be a big stack of mid-major rotation players.
How and if the Blazers will use their waivers will be the most fascinating part of this year’s free agent process. These exceptions are the only way they have to sign players directly (except their own free agents, of course).
Going all-in is unlikely. The penalties for exceeding the tax are burdensome in the new CBA. Only the most masterful of championship teams could consider running up a huge bill. A back-to-back lottery team like the Blazers shouldn’t start a streak at all.
However, exceptions can be divided. The Blazers could offer a lower contract to a strategic free agent without spending the full deck. If they can find an attractive player at a cheap price, they will be able to bid.
You will notice that none of the above options improve the team dramatically. If they want to do that, the Blazers will have to engineer trades this summer. They were reportedly active in trade talks leading up to the draft. They chose to keep the third pick – and Scoot Henderson – instead.
The new year will bring new opportunities. Portland almost has to move one of the guard quartet of Henderson, Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe. They can’t play them all. Neither is the type to languish on the bench.
Using cap waivers will be the most intricate exercise in Portland this summer, but trade will be the most prominent. Until the trade shoe drops, neither we nor the team will know their future or their real pay book that goes into it. The Big Trade Move (or as big as it gets) will set the tone for the rest of their moves.