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Boys, Bye: How Do the Trail Blazers Take the Next Step?

Portland broke through this postseason, but after hitting a wall in the Western Conference finals, it will now hit its salary cap ceiling this summer. Who should it bring back this offseason? We look at the three biggest questions.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Trail Blazers had more iconic moments in this postseason than the previous two combined. Dame hit a shot to clinch the first-round series against the Thunder. CJ McCollum dropped 41 points in Game 3 of its second-round series against the Nuggets. Really, all of Game 3—the first four-overtime playoff game since 1953—was a highlight. Believing in a talented regular-season Blazers squad has burnt fans before. But these playoffs, in which Portland not only got out of the first round, but all the way to the Western Conference finals, were reason to trust again. Maybe they won’t hurt you.

A 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Warriors in the third round rather than another series loss in the first—the Blazers were swept by the Pelicans in the first round in 2017-18, and swept by the Warriors in the first round before that in 2016-17—isn’t enough to completely snuff out the ever-present idea that Portland should break up Damian Lillard and McCollum and rebuild. But for the first time in a long time, the organization can enter the offseason with a little pep in its step, even if it loses parts of its postseason roster. The right moves this summer could make up the difference.

How much reconfiguring can be done to the roster?

The bad news is that yes, Portland is likely on the books for $129.5 million this upcoming season. The good news is that, after three years of repenting and regretting and having to look at Evan Turner, the 2019-20 season is the last one the front office will have to pay for its sins from the summer of 2016. (A brief recap: That summer, Portland signed Turner, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless to four-year deals worth a combined $228 million after also extending McCollum for four years and $107 million.) (Portland, I swear to you, this is one of the last times I’ll ever have to bring this up. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And liable for luxury taxes.)

The projected salary cap for next season is $109 million, making the taxpayer midlevel exception about $5.7 million. Because of the tight situation Portland is in, that $5.7 million is really its only easy path to adding to the roster outside of a trade. Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and Al-Farouq Aminu will all hit unrestricted free agency, and third-year player Jake Layman will also become a restricted free agent if the Blazers extend him a qualifying offer.

Losing new additions Kanter, Curry, and Hood, all of whom played a pivotal role for Portland in the playoffs, feels like one step forward and two steps back. It was good for the Blazers, but better for the free agents; it’s possible they’ll get larger offers than $5.7 million from other franchises this summer.

Portland has Aminu’s Bird rights, meaning it can go over the salary cap to re-sign him. But, as Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge explains, because the Blazers are so close to the luxury-tax apron, they can’t re-sign him and use the midlevel exception; using the taxpayer MLE triggers a hard cap of $138 million, and an Aminu deal alone would likely push them over that amount. When you’re in as deep as Portland is, there are even exceptions to the exception.

OK, so which of the four players should be prioritized?

The case for Aminu is the most clear. He’s one of Terry Stotts’s best defenders and as a starter. (This is true even after the sour note Aminu went out on, shooting well under 40 percent from the field in the playoffs.) Aminu’s been a good sport through his four-year, $30 million contract, a bargain that leveled some of the Blazers’ more lamentable investments, and may be expecting more. But even a humble raise fattens the luxury bill, and at 28, Aminu knows that this is his best chance to cash in. He may simply be too rich for Portland at this point.

At the same time, the Kanter signing saved the frontcourt—and, to some degree, Portland’s playoffs—after Jusuf Nurkic’s injury. The Blazers are seeing return on their investment in sophomore Zach Collins but are far from the interior stability of the LaMarcus Aldridge days. Kanter swapped out his old nickname for a new one—Can Play Kanter—at times this postseason, but for the most part, we know his ceiling as a stable double-double guy. Kanter probably can’t be bought with $5.7 million. Curry, though two years older than Kanter at 28, is coming off the best shooting season of his career, and Hood, 26, is once again acting like the playmaker who was a steal in the 2014 draft on a team thirsty for a wing. (Beware of getting too high on Hood; the comedown, as the Jazz, LeBron James, and multiple Ringer staff writers will tell you, is a grave experience.)

What if Portland can’t re-sign anyone?

It’d feel wrong for this to be the postseason that finally triggers the front office to trade Lillard or McCollum. Portland has stayed the course for years, clinging to its core as other franchises either blew it up or swapped superstars. The Blazers got street smart, buying low on guys like Kanter and Hood (traded after signing a qualifying offer) because it was all they could afford, and patiently waited for their draft picks and former acquisitions to blossom. It came together this season, or as together as it ever had been, just in time to unravel again in free agency. For a team that’s been a nonfactor in the last couple free agencies, it’s a cruel irony.

Portland will largely be a nonfactor again. If Kanter, Hood, Curry, and Aminu all opt for more than the Blazers can give them, there’s $5.7 million and the recruiting skills of Lillard and McCollum to sign a free agent—a wing, preferably. Portland owns its first-round draft pick, 25th overall, but will send its second-rounder to the Clippers. After a breakthrough postseason, the Blazers might be forced back to their moratorium. Estimated wait time: one year.