Why didn’t Neil Olshey, Blazers re-sign Ed Davis?

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Ed Davis is no longer a member of the Portland Trail Blazers after signing a $4.4 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. Meanwhile, the Blazers are still $9 million over the salary cap, and with looming deals for Jusuf Nurkic and a sizable trade exception that expires at the end of July, the team is likely headed over the luxury tax line of $123.7 million before the summer is over.

So the question is, why would Portland get rid of Davis if they are already headed toward the luxury tax?

Damian Lillard made headlines this past season when he requested a meeting with Portland owner Paul Allen to talk about the direction of the team, and for good reason. Olshey’s tenure at the helm as been a mixed bag, and the Blazers haven’t yet solidified their position in the tier below Houston and Golden State in the West. There is also some doubt externally whether the Lillard-CJ McCollum pairing can work long-term, but the elephant in the room is that salary tax line — threatened each offseason by the contracts of Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and to a lesser extent, Moe Harkless.

All three were given massive new deals in the summer of 2016 — along with the departed Allen Crabbe — totaling nearly $35 million per season. None have played up to their potential (although Harkless has in spurts) and the culmination of that summer was a sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs this year.

All of this is to say that Portland has pressure to succeed during Lillard’s prime, and not necessarily against the Golden States and Houstons of the world. The rest of the Western Conference keeps getting better — LeBron James is now with the Lakers — and free agent spending has apparently not been limited by the worry that battling the Warriors is all but hopeless.

Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has already spent himself into a hole, and the likes of Turner and Leonard are sunk costs. The only counteraction of which is to continue to make smart basketball decisions, with luxury tax payment concern coming secondary.

Spend money effectively in the future because you can’t change the past.

That brings us back to the question of Davis, whose contract was something at first glance that the Blazers could have easily swallowed. But if we consider the absence of a Davis contract as an indication of Olshey’s intentions, it might give us a better look at where Portland is going.

Some quick back-of-napkin math puts the Trail Blazers at around $121 million salary figure after an estimated $12 million Nurkic RFA match and Nik Stauskasminimum salary contract. That keeps Portland under the 2018-19 salary tax line of $123.7 million. Rotationally, this roster would be extremely soft up front, but it would avoid penalties.

But let’s say we assume a scenario where Olshey uses both the full $13 million trade exception from the Crabbe swap and his $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception. In that case, the cost of Davis’ contract becomes exorbitant. Portland’s salary figure jumps to around $139.2 million before factoring $4.4 million Davis earned from Brooklyn. Thanks to the graduated penalties of the luxury tax, Portland would incur about $30 million in tax.

After adding Davis into the mix — and crossing another graduated tax threshold — Portland would pay a whopping $46.25 million in tax.

Put it this way: after Nurkic, the taxpayer exception, and the Crabbe trade exception, you could account signing Davis for one season at a total cost of $20 million for one year. It doesn’t work that way, of course — salary is cumulative and luxury tax isn’t tied to one specific player — but the Blazers might have seen Davis’ contract this way.

Since the front office in Portland is notoriously tight-lipped (not to mention defensive) we can only speculate about the direction the Blazers are planning to take. Lillard and McCollum quickly voiced their displeasure with the decision. Portland has given up rotational stability as well as significant cultural favor by not re-signing Davis, a fan favorite. Zach Collins, Davis’ de facto replacement, struggled last year in long stretches without the veteran from North Carolina. So Olshey has perhaps tipped his hand, or created an expectation that he is going to use those exceptions and the matching of a Nurkic RFA contract to bolster the team while reducing or eliminating their luxury tax bill.

Of course, the gambit with this strategy is that Olshey must now act, and he can’t miss. Failing to find a suitor for that trade exception, or falling through on one of these other proposed ways to strengthen the roster would be a dramatic failure in the face of losing Davis so cheaply to the Nets. That is a big ask considering Olshey doesn’t have the best free agent track record outside of Al-Farouq Aminu, and just how important Davis was to the team.

The Blazers have famously struck out on big name free agents, and during Olshey’s time with the team some of the rumored targets — the Dwight Howards and your Pau Gasols of the world — have seemed like odd fits.

The Blazers are a good team who caught a bad break during the playoffs last year. They will still be competitive and fun to watch over the course of Lillard and McCollum’s careers, and contention for a championship during the era of the Warriors is going to be hard to obtain. But staying competitive while the rest of the West adds stars means Portland and Olshey can’t sit tight.

Passing on Davis perhaps signals that Neil Olshey is ready to take yet another big swing. Whether he makes contact or strikes out like he did in the summer of 2016 is yet to be seen.

Timberwolves win first road game in 52 days, top Heat (video)

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MIAMI — Jordan McLaughlin’s layup with just under nine seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good, D’Angelo Russell led all scorers with 27 points and the Timberwolves added to Miami’s late-season stagger by beating the Heat 129-126 on Wednesday night.

Malik Beasley scored 21 points, Juancho Hernangomez tied a season-high with 17 and McLaughlin added 13 for Minnesota. The Timberwolves were down by 12 with 3:59 left, then closed on a 20-5 run to get just their second victory in 20 games.

Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with 13.8 seconds left put Miami up 126-125, but McLaughlin’s layup on the next Minnesota possession put the Timberwolves on top to stay. Butler’s layup with 3.2 seconds left got blocked by Russell, and the Wolves held on.

Minnesota snapped a nine-game road losing streak, getting its first road victory since beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 5.

Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 24 points. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Butler — back after a two-game absence for personal reasons — had 18 for Miami. The Heat fell to 23-4 at home and have dropped seven of their last nine overall.

The Heat stayed a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia lost in Cleveland earlier Wednesday, a game where 76ers star Joel Embiid departed early because of a shoulder injury.

The Heat have had major trouble closing games of late — a 22-point lead late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Monday was frittered away in what probably was the worst loss of the season, until now anyway — and a long film session and meeting on Tuesday clearly didn’t solve the issue.

They were up 121-109 with 3:59 left, and 123-112 after a layup by Butler 24 seconds later.

And Minnesota — a team that came into the night with one win in a span of 48 days — still wasn’t finished off. The Timberwolves scored the next 11 points to tie the game, getting five of those points from Beasley and a tying free throw from McLaughlin with 46 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota’s 27 attempts from 3-point range in the first two quarters was a first-half franchise record. … The Wolves are 4-0 in road games against Southeast Division teams this season, and 6-19 in all other road contests.

Heat: Adebayo played through a sprained right ankle, pushing his consecutive-game streak to 144 — extending the fourth-longest such streak in team history. … Goran Dragic’s first basket was a 3-pointer, and that pushed him one point past Grant Long (5,473) for 10th on the Heat career scoring list. … Nunn got his third consecutive rookie of the month trophy in a brief halftime ceremony.

JOHNSON RETURNS

Wednesday marked James Johnson’s first game back in Miami since the trade that sent him to Minnesota earlier this month, a move that sent Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami from Memphis. “I think Minnesota is seeing what kind of versatility he can bring to the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

LOOKING AHEAD

A large contingent of fans from Slovenia were in attendance Wednesday — and more are coming Friday, when the Heat play host to the Dallas Mavericks. At last season’s Dallas-at-Miami game, more than 2,000 Slovenians were in attendance to watch their nation’s two best NBA players, Dragic and Dallas star Luka Doncic, go head-to-head.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At Orlando on Friday night.

Heat: Host Dallas on Friday night.

Trae Young blocks 7-foot Mo Bamba at rim (video)

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Trae Young might be the NBA’s worst defender.

He’s small (6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan). His athleticism is far from imposing. He also carries a massive load for the Hawks offensively, leaving little energy for defense.

But he still blocked 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba at the rim.

Not a great moment for Bamba.

Joel Embiid leaves 76ers game with shoulder injury (video)

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Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?

The debate has gained attention this season after the 76ers spent years retooling around their stars. The answer clearly isn’t neither. But that’s what Philadelphia now faces.

With Simmons already injured, Embiid got hurt in the 76ers’ game against the Cavaliers tonight.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Losing Embiid for an extended period would be a huge blow to Philadelphia, especially with Simmons already out. The 76ers (fifth place, half a game out of fourth) are right on the edge of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Embiid had been playing so well lately. This is an especially tough time for a setback.

At least Philadelphia has depth to cope. Al Horford can easily slide from power forward to center. Tobias Harris might be better off at power forward than small forward, anyway. This is where Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, acquired just before the trade deadline, come in handy as additional wing options. Kyle O'Quinn can also play behind Horford.

But the loss of talent is the biggest development, and there’s no overcoming that until Embiid and Simmons get healthy.

Zach LaVine: Trash talk directed at Dennis Schroder, not Bulls coach Jim Boylen

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During the Bulls’ loss to the Thunder yesterday, Zach LaVine appeared to say, “I have f—ing 40 points!”

Many assumed LaVine was snapping at Chicago coach Jim Boylen. But LaVine clarified his target was Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder.

Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

I take LaVine at his word.

Want to make a case LaVine dislikes Boylen? You’ll just have to point to all the other evidence.