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.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.