Trail Blazers Seek Flexibility And Balance In Trade With Clippers

Trail Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin has stated multiple times since assuming the role back in December that he was willing to take some steps back in the present in order to take steps forward in the future.

The trade he executed on Friday, a little less than a week before the deadline, does just that.

In the first salvo of what will likely be an extended process, the Trail Blazers sent Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson and a 2025 second round pick. It’s a move that won’t make the Trail Blazers better on the court this season, though the hope is that it will help put them on a path to contention in the not-too-distant future.

In short, the trade is about flexibility, both in terms of the salary cap and the roster.

“Today, we lost some good players obviously that are really loved around here that you’ll miss, but it’s just all a part of it,” said head coach Chauncey Billups. “It’s the business of it. I think today we took some necessary steps to have some flexibility that we’re going to need.”

First and foremost, by sending out more contract dollars than they’re taking back, it gets the Trail Blazers out of the luxury tax, which serves multiple purposes in terms of roster building. By getting under the tax threshold this year, it resets the clock on the dreaded “repeater tax,” which multiplies the penalty teams pay for being in the luxury tax for consecutive season. While saving he organization money isn’t something fans should really concern themselves with, the reality is that the prohibitive nature of the repeater tax makes it difficult for a team to add talent when every signing costs two, three or even four times as much in real dollars as the contract itself.

Getting under the tax also opens up the prospect of using the full mid-level exception, which will likely come in somewhere between 10 and 12 million per season, rather than the much smaller taxpayer midlevel. What’s more, if Portland were still in the tax they’d be unlikely to utilize even the taxpayer midlevel, as it would have cost up to four times the amount of the contract in real dollars.

Which is also an issue, or at least it would have been, when re-signing current players. Retaining Anfernee Simons, one of the most improved players in the NBA in his fourth season, has become one of the team’s priorities, so getting out of the tax and the next four years of Norman Powell’s contract gives the Trail Blazers the ability to keep the 6-3 guard out of IMG Academy. Much of the same can be said for retaining Jusuf Nurkic, who is also an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

"It's always a good feeling knowing management believes in you this much, believes in what I can do," said Simons. "So continue to try and get better each and every game, keep learning and continue to grow as a player. I think that's all I can do at this point." 

The move also starts the much-needed process of balancing the roster from a position perspective. With Powell, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum all under contract and Simons up for a lucrative deal as a soon-to-be free agent, Portland simply had too many starting caliber players at one position.

“Before Ant even took off, we were already guard heavy, so we already had that issue,” said Billups. “And then Ant’s explosion kind of validated (the trade)... Those young boys kind of blowing up, that changes things for you sometimes.”

Granted, both Bledsoe and Johnson are also guards, but the former is unlikely to be on the team next season while the latter, at 19 years of age, is likely a season or two away from being a regular contributor. However, both players, along with Winslow, are expected to suit up and play for the Trail Blazers as early as next week.

Their record this season was already all the indication needed, but Friday’s trade is also an admission that the Trail Blazers, as currently constructed, do not have enough talent to compete for a championship. The core might very well be good enough if surrounded by the right talent, but that talent cannot be acquired via veteran minimum contracts, which has been Portland’s approach for the last few seasons.

But with this trade, and perhaps a few additional transactions, the Trail Blazers are optimistic they’ll have the flexibility going forward to add the talent they’ll need in order to take the next step.