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.

Short offseason, uncertain financial outlook may mean fewer coaches fired

76ers coach Brett Brown
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Already this season, Kenny Atkinson was out in Brooklyn, the New York Knicks fired coach David Fizdale, and John Beilein was shown the door in Cleveland (with J.B. Bickerstaff hired to replace him). That was just the tip of the iceberg in expected NBA coaching changes this offseason, the buzz around the league was between four and up to 10 more coaches would be fired.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Now those same teams are looking at a shortened offseason, while at the same time the owners have taken a financial hit and aren’t thrilled about paying two coaches at once, and suddenly it looks like a lot more coaches are safe. Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps touched on that in their story about next season at ESPN.

After much chatter before the stoppage of changes in the coaching ranks, several league executives told ESPN that teams might be more likely to hang on to coaching staffs longer than planned to avoid paying out millions to coaches fired in current market conditions.

A lot of people around the NBA are saying the same thing.

Expect a few changes. Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up in Houston and few around the league expect him to return next season. Jim Boylen is considered the walking dead in Chicago where there is a new front-office regime. New York and Brooklyn still have to hire their guys.

However, other guys considered almost certainly gone — Brett Brown in Philadelphia or Scott Brooks in Washington, for example — may keep their gig another year because of the uncertain waters of the NBA right now. Maybe not, there could be firings, but don’t expect the tidal wave of coaching changes to wash over the NBA that everyone expected back in February.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.