Portland Trail Blazers: 4 Trade Deadline Week Rumors

Feb 15, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Dante Exum (11) and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) go for the loos ball in the third quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Utah Jazz defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 111-88. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

An active trade season has sent rumors flying across the NBA. Here are four involving a Portland Trail Blazers team looking to make financial adjustments while trying to remain competitive on the floor.

On Sunday, Feb. 13, the Portland Trail Blazers acquired center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round draft pick from the Denver Nuggets. In exchange, the Blazers sent away center Mason Plumlee, a 2018 second round draft pick, and cash.

That trade put the Blazers on the board in what is shaping up to be a very active trade season.

Even in the wake of the trade, general manager Neil Olshey told Trail Blazers television reporter Brooke Olzendam (which was later transcribed by The Oregonian) that the team was still seeking deals.

“Well, we’re active. You know I think this roster was always going to be a work in progress. We have the benefit of having Paul Allen as an owner. He let us retain all of our players. It wasn’t realistic to think we could manage that cap going forward. But what it did do is it put us in a position to keep as much as possible, give ourselves a chance to compete, but knowing at some point we’re going to have to make some moves.

“I think Mason is an example of that. It’s not a player we wanted to lose. But the reality is from a cap standpoint we needed to go average down the salary but maintain our ability to compete, you know, now and in the future with not losing someone at that position.”

The Blazers find themselves in an interesting position. Their 23-33 record puts them 10th in the Western Conference, two games behind the eighth place Nuggets. Portland is well in contention to make a run at one of the final Western Conference playoff spots.

However, the road to the postseason may have gotten tougher. The Sacramento Kings, the team sitting half a game ahead of Portland, just dealt their franchise cornerstone center DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, the team a half-game behind the Blazers.

One has to wonder if Portland currently has enough to compete with a team in Denver that has rising stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, or a team in New Orleans that now has a frontcourt of veteran all-stars Cousins and Anthony Davis.

But the Blazers are in an intriguing position because they still have three first round picks that can be used to improve the team. They could use those picks in a trade that could bring a difference-maker that helps Portland’s postseason chances.

If they miss the playoffs, they could theoretically use all three in what is looking to be a deep draft to develop a younger, cheaper roster.

There are numerous possibilities for the Portland Trail Blazers leading up to the Feb. 23 trade deadline. Here are five trade rumblings involving the team.

Feb 15, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) looks to drive to the basket against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) int he second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Quest To Clear Payroll

The Portland Trail Blazers are well within the playoff picture. General manager Neil Olshey knows that and does not want to compromise that with any deal he makes.

At the same time, Portland is doing what it can to avoid the luxury tax line. The luxury tax line is the most a team can spend on their player payroll before a surcharge is added to every dollar a team goes over the line. The line is set at $113.3 million for 2017.

According to The Vertical, the Blazers are currently at $112.9 million, the third-highest payroll in the league.

The team’s motivation was apparent in the Plumlee-Nurkic trade. Mason Plumlee was in the final year of his rookie contract, making $2.3 million and going to restricted free agency this summer. The qualifying offer would have been $3.4 million.

Acquiring Nurkic gives them a player that is only making $1.9 million this season, the penultimate of his rookie contract. Next year he’ll make $2.9 million before commanding a $4.1 million qualifying offer in restricted free agency in summer 2018.

But the acquisition didn’t just bring savings. It also brought an inside presence that can both protect the rim and post-up on offense, and he’s also young enough to grow his game even more.

The Blazers are doing what they can to have it both ways. It’s going to take a lot of shrewd dealing to be able to do so. But if Portland is successful in their quest, Olshey and the Blazers’ front office will look like magicians in the end.

Portland Trail Blazers

Jan 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor (8) scores past Portland Trail Blazers center Ed Davis (17) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

2. Almost Had Okafor

The Philadelphia 76ers are trending up in their Process to become a future championship-contending team. The team that went 10-72 last season is currently 21-35 at the All-Star Break.

The Sixers have received strong performances from frontcourt players Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel. The odd man out in this improvement has been center Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, is averaging 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per game. This is a drop from averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game last season.

People were wondering on the night Okafor was drafted if having three starting-caliber centers was sustainable. Now, the team is shopping him around to other franchises across the league.

Trade talks for Okafor were so heavy that the Sixers sat him for two games, leading people to believe he was on his way out. According to Hall of Fame reporter David Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers were the possible destination.

But, obviously, it didn’t come to pass.

Nurkic offers a lot of what Jahlil Okafor does, but for a lower cost. Okafor is being paid $4.8 million this year. He would be owed $5 million in 2017-18. That could be a hefty price to pay for a center, depending on what players were heading to Philadelphia in return.

Okafor eventually returned to the Sixers’ lineup for their last game before the All-Star Break against the Boston Celtics. The Philadelphia front office will have to seek new suitors to take the big man off of their hands.

Dec 20, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Festus Ezeli (31) poses for a photo against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

3. Ending The Ezeli Experiment

Portland looked to have made a solid signing when center Festus Ezeli signed a partially-guaranteed two-year, $15.13 million contract this past July.

The former Golden State Warriors big man won a championship with the team in 2015. He was also a key reserve for the 73-9 team that fell a game short of repeating in 2015-16.

In Portland, he was going to be a major rim protector and rebounder for a team that really needs it. He was going to be a veteran leader that would bring his championship pedigree to the locker room.

However, those hopes were dashed during training camp when Ezeli was held out due to recurring left knee problems. He’s been sidelined ever since and is still considering season-ending surgery.

With Portland unable to use Ezeli’s rebounding and rim protection, his championship pedigree wore thin with the team as well.

According to an ESPN.com article by Chris Haynes, frustration spilled over during a December road trip.

“After suffering a challenging, 115-107 loss to Milwaukee, Ezeli, in street clothes, addressed the team in the locker room with a stern speech centered on playing with urgency, sources told ESPN. Then two games later, after a crushing defeat in Memphis, Ezeli once again started giving a team speech, but he was cut short.

“McCollum interrupted Ezeli in midsentence and told him that was enough, sources told ESPN. Portland was in the midst of an emotionally draining December, losing 11 of 13 games. Players were desperately pouring out every ounce of effort trying to change the trajectory of the season, and being lectured by someone who wasn’t even playing wasn’t received favorably.”

Things seem to have been patched up since then, but Ezeli still hasn’t been on the court for Portland this season. ESPN’s Marc Stein wrote that the Blazers were shopping Ezeli around to teams that are below the salary floor and need an extra contract to reach it. Stein indicates that the Nuggets, 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets are the three teams furthest under the $84.7 million floor.

A deal for Ezeli will fall under the radar. But it will free up some salary and most likely return at least a draft pick or two.

Apr 23, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and guard C.J. McCollum (3) congratulate each other after a 96-88 win over Los Angeles Clippers in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

4. Can’t Break Up The Duo

There’s a lot of moving parts in the Rose City. However, the two players that are presumably untouchable are the duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Damian Lillard signed a five-year, $120 million contract extension last summer. He’s making $24.3 million in this first year of the extension. The incremental pay raises will see him make $31.6 million in 2020-21, the last year of the extension.

Meanwhile, C.J. McCollum signed a four-year, $106 million contract extension this summer. He’s making $3.2 million in the final year of his rookie deal. He’s going to make nearly $24 million in 2017-18.

No contract is unmovable, but it’s unlikely that Portland will ship either of these two after just committing that much money to them. They’re both players that Portland should be building around instead of shipping away.

Neil Olshey is instead looking to clear space by moving the guys around them. The team is looking to avoid the luxury tax line for the next two seasons.

According to The Vertical, Portland has $142.6 million on their books for the 2017-18 season. McCollum’s extension alone will be a nearly $20.7 million hit to the payroll next year. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote in July that the NBA dropped their luxury tax line projection for 2017-18 from  $127 million to $122 million.

Portland would be in a rough spot if they end up being a small-market team that’s over the salary cap but paying the luxury tax either this year or next year.

Neil Olshey is cognizant of these stakes, so there should be more movement from the Trail Blazers this week. If any transactions are made, there’s a good chance they won’t involve the team’s two most valuable players.

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