This Thursday at 3 p.m. (6 p.m. on the east coast), the NBA’s yearly moratorium goes into effect. What this means ostensibly is that most official NBA business, such as trades and signing free agents, cannot be conducted until the after the moratorium expires the morning of July 6.
But what the moratorium really signals is the start of free agency. While teams and free agents cannot enter into official agreements until after the moratorium, mutually-interested parties can negotiate terms with the intent of officially signing when business is allowed to resume a week later. Teams are also severely limited in what public comments they’re allowed to make during the moratorium, though players (and their agents) generally have no such restrictions.
Are these rules actually followed? Not all of them, though the league negating trades and issuing penalties due to violations of various moratorium rules last year might keep teams in line this time around. But we here at Trailblazers.com honor and respect the NBA’s edicts, so you’ll read no discussion of free agency in these parts until after July 6.
But we can look at where the Trail Blazers stand in terms of their own players who are entering free agency. There’s been plenty of consideration of Anfernee Simons being a restricted free agent -- meaning the Trail Blazers have the right to match any offer another team tenders -- and Jusuf Nurkic hitting unrestricted free agency, but Portland actually has six players (eight if you include two-way players, which, for this discussion, we are not) who will be free agents and a few who are also eligible for extensions come Thursday night.
Three players -- Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe and Nassir Little -- are eligible for contract extensions. The team can offer Lillard, who is currently under contract through the 2024-25 season (with the last season being a player option), a two-year extension worth upwards of $100 million, and there’s no reason to think they won’t (and some reporting says they will).
It’s pretty much the opposite for Bledsoe. There has been no indication the team will look to extend the 12th-year guard, who was acquired as a part of the trade that sent Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers, and with just $3.9 million of his salary guaranteed if he’s waived by the end of the moratorium, the likelihood of an extension seems incredibly remote.
As for Little, it’s certainly possible he and the team come to an agreement on an extension, though after playing 48, 48 and 42 games in his first three seasons, it seems both parties likely have cause to take a wait-and-see approach. For what it’s worth, that is the tact the team took with Anfernee Simons.
Before we get to the free agents currently on Portland’s roster, we need to quickly consider the state of the team’s financials. Without getting into too great of detail, the Trail Blazers are over the cap, which will reportedly be somewhere around $123 million, for the 2022-23 season but are under the luxury tax, expected to come in somewhere around $150 million.
So that means the Trail Blazers technically have no “cap space” with which to sign free agents. But this is where tools such as exceptions and bird rights come into play.
By being over the cap but under the tax, the Trail Blazers can utilize the midlevel exception, which is expected to be worth somewhere between $10.5 and $11 million per season, making it by far Portland’s most useful tool in bringing in a free agent not currently on the roster. However, they also have the biannual exception, which is expected to be worth in the neighborhood of $4 million for the upcoming season. So even though they don’t have cap space, they do have two exceptions with which to sign free agents. Those exceptions can be split up among multiple contracts and do not have to be used in full.
They also have another tool for keeping the free agents who are currently on their roster. In an effort to help teams retain their own players, the NBA allows team to re-sign players, dependent on the length of their previous contract, even if they don't have the requisite cap space do to so, a privilege known as "bird rights." Bird rights are given to players who have been on the team for at least two years (which are known as “partial” bird rights) or longer (which typically would give a team “full” bird rights). Worth pointing out here that bird rights are usually transferred in trades and only go away when a player is waived. So for instance, even though Joe Ingles has only been a Trail Blazer since February, Portland owns his full bird rights since his current contract, originally signed with the Jazz, was for four years.
So with all that said, here’s the current status of Portland’s free agents to be going into the moratorium.
Jusuf Nurkic: Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is an unrestricted free agent, though the Trail Blazers have full bird rights, allowing them to generally go over the cap in order to sign the Bosnian center to a new contract. Trail Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin has noted on multiple occasions that the team values Nurkic, so most expect he will be back in Portland next season.
Anfernee Simons: The Trail Blazers extended the qualifying offer to Anfernee Simons Wednesday morning, making the 6-3 guard a restricted free agent. Like Nurkic, the Trail Blazers own Simons’ full bird rights and the team has made it very clear that they consider him an integral part of their plans going forward, so all indications are Simons will be back next season. And not for nothing, Simons has already stated his desire to return.
Joe Ingles: The veteran guard/forward out of Australia will be an unrestricted free agent, though as previously mentioned, the Trail Blazers own his bird rights, something Joe Cronin mentioned specifically after the trade. And for his part, Ingles has stated interest in returning.
Ben McLemore: After signing a one-year contract with the Trail Blazers for the 2021-22 season, veteran guard Ben McLemore will be an unrestricted free agent. Portland does not own his bird rights since he was on a one-year contract.
CJ Elleby: Portland signed CJ Elleby to a two-year contract after selecting the guard/forward in the second round of the 2020 Draft. As far as I know, the team has not extended a qualifying offer to Elleby (this is probably moot anyway), though the Blazers own partial bird rights, allowing them to go over the cap to re-sign him, but at limited amounts and for at least two seasons. If Elleby does come back, one would assume it would be on a new, minimum contract rather than utilizing his early bird rights.
Elijah Hughes: Trail Blazers guard Elijah Hughes, who Portland acquired at the 2022 trade deadline, will be an unrestricted free agent, though the Trail Blazers own partial bird rights. Assumption here is the same as with Elleby.