The Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings both had very good 2018-19 campaigns and opted to make major changes over the summer in order to try to push themselves to the next level.
Portland saw how their defense-only forwards were exploited in the playoffs and overhauled significant portions of their roster to amend that issue: Al-Farouq Aminu was not retained in free agency and Moe Harkless and Evan Turner were shipped out in trades. Their 2019-20 opening night rotation included eight players who did not feature for them in their 2018-19 opener; only stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained on the floor for them one year later.
Sacramento made similarly impactful changes, starting with the change from Dave Joerger to Luke Walton as the team’s head coach and extending throughout their offseason, when they used significant cap space on Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph, retained Harrison Barnes on a massive contract, and signed Richaun Holmes to the room exception. The retention of Barnes and the addition of multiple veterans was supposed to vault the Kings into the playoffs, but early injuries and some issues adapting to Walton’s system has them closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than a playoff berth.
With both teams well below internal expectations, the time was upon them to make a move, the news of which came down on Saturday afternoon. The full terms:
Portland will send to Sacramento Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, and two second-round picks, both their own, in 2024 and 2025.
Sacramento will send to Portland Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan, and Wenyen Gabriel.
Gabriel has a no-trade restriction that lifts on January 21, so this trade will not go through until then, despite it being agreed and publicly reported three days ahead of time.
Structurally, this trade is slightly different from each team’s point of view. The Trail Blazers will send out Bazemore straight up for Ariza to generate a $7.07 million traded player exception, then will trade Tolliver for nothing to generate a $1.62 million exception for his minimum salary. They can acquire Swanigan in the disabled player exception awarded in the wake of Rodney Hood’s season-ending injury, as Swanigan will be a free agent this summer, and Gabriel in the minimum exception. The Kings needed to send out all three of Ariza, Swanigan, and Gabriel in order to match salary on Bazemore’s $19.27 million for this season and took back Tolliver into the minimum exception.
Update: The trade was made official on January 21, as expected, but Portland did not structure it as I had presumed they would. Instead, they are trading Tolliver for Swanigan (which works in the trade math) and keeping the Hood disabled player exception for a later move. They won’t receive a traded player exception for Tolliver’s salary.
The most important facet of this deal for Portland is their proximity to the luxury tax. In total, the Trail Blazers will save roughly $12.79 million, assuming the trade does go down on the 21st as expected. More than $10 million of that savings comes in the form of a reduced luxury tax bill, which still may drop in the coming weeks as they make further moves. Under Paul Allen, the Blazers were always willing to pay the tax for a competitive team, but after his passing in 2018 and the start to their 2019-20 campaign, it makes sense that Jody Allen might look to cut costs for the current year, now that she’s taken control of the team. However, this deal does not portend for future cost-cutting measures, and in fact gives the team more flexibility to spend further for next year’s roster, should Allen approve a large enough budget for team salary.
Everybody in this deal is on an expiring contract, except for Trevor Ariza, who is slated to make $12.8 million next season, but only $1.8 million is guaranteed, with a late June trigger date for the remaining $11 million. Whether Portland picks up that guarantee or not may have less to do with Ariza’s on-court play and more to do with how well they can use his salary in a trade.
With Ariza in the fold at his full $12.8 million, they’d begin the summer about $28.81 million below the luxury tax threshold, depending on where that threshold lands and how expensive their 2020 first-round pick is. Keeping Ariza on his salary in order to essentially create a human trade exception for up to $17.8 million might be worthwhile to the Blazers, as they likely will not have other ways to add to their roster outside of the non-taxpayer mid-level and that $7.07 million TPE they generated for Bazemore. Ariza at that number is surely a negative-value contract, but he can be used as matching salary for a difference maker on the wing for Portland in the summer or at some point next season.
Counting their current roster with Ariza for next season, Portland would have $28.81 million to spend below the tax to fill four spots, assuming they keep all of Lillard, McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Ariza, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Mario Hezonja, Gary Trent, and their 2020 first-round pick. One of those four spots could be filled at the minimum (or close to it) using their second-round pick, leaving three spots for the mid-level exception, a sign-and-trade using the Bazemore TPE, and another minimum (or the bi-annual, if they find a good opportunity to use it).
Whether during the summer or during the season, they can then find a new home for Ariza and take back a player making up to $17.8 million, though doing so would put them right up against the tax again – within less than $1.5 million, which is just close enough to have to think about exactly where the tax threshold will come in and where their first-round pick will land.
On the other hand, they could save $11 million and cut Ariza loose, but for a team that’s trying to compete for championships while they have Lillard, McCollum, and (a hopefully healthy) Nurkic in their primes, holding onto Ariza explicitly for use in a trade next year would make some sense and may be part of why they targeted him in particular, in addition to the tax savings he represents for the current season.
They could have perhaps done the same thing with Kent Bazemore this summer, though that comes with more complications – they can’t sign him to a one-year deal, or else he would automatically have veto power in a trade, they wouldn’t have gotten the luxury tax savings this season, and they ran the risk of him walking away for nothing.
On the court, Portland was getting next to nothing out of Bazemore. He wanted to go to a contender after it was clear that he had lost his starting spot in Atlanta and he was given every opportunity to succeed with the Trail Blazers, but it just hasn’t worked out. He posted 47.5 percent true shooting and was a negative as a ball handler and playmaker compared to his previous work with the Hawks, while still turning the ball over as much as ever before. He remains a positive defensively, but not necessarily where the Trail Blazers need it – after parting with Harkless and Aminu over the summer, they need a forward defender and Bazemore is just too small to fill that role.
Ariza, on the other hand, should fit there nicely, though he’s been around so long that it’s worth wondering whether his reputation outstrips his actual value defensively these days. The all-in-one stats seem to like his output on that end of the floor this season and even if he’s not competing for an All-Defensive Team spot with the Trail Blazers the rest of the year, he’ll still be miles better than what they had at the forward spot throughout the season to this point.
Swanigan and Gabriel aren’t likely to do anything for Portland this season, but Gabriel can be made a restricted free agent this summer if they like what they see from him. Swanigan was their first-round pick in 2017, was traded to Sacramento a year ago, and now makes his triumphant (ish?) return. He may or may not stick around for the next few months, but it would surprise me if he was in the NBA in any capacity next season. Gabriel should get another shot, whether in Portland or elsewhere – he’s just 22 years old and has played well in the G League to the tune of 60 percent true shooting. He was a capable shooter in college, though his free throw shooting didn’t portend well for his move to the NBA line. So far, he’s hit 46-of-118 in a year and a half of G League play (39 percent) from beyond the arc, so perhaps he can continue to make that work as he carves out an NBA career.
Sacramento picks up a pair of future second-rounders to add to their stockpile of picks in the next several drafts – they’re slated for 14 second-round selections between now and 2026, in addition to all seven of their own first-rounders. When the time comes, they’ll cash some of those seconds in for somebody who can help them win games, but for the moment, stockpiling assets is a smart move. The deal also creates a roster spot for the Kings, who can use that in a future lopsided trade, perhaps involving Dewayne Dedmon, another of their 2019 signings who will likely be on the move in the next three weeks. It seems unlikely that Dedmon will have positive value on the market at this trade deadline, though they also don’t necessarily have to move off him immediately if the right move doesn’t present itself.
Looking to the summer, this move likely makes the Kings slightly worse than they were, which will help their lottery positioning. Along with Memphis, San Antonio, Portland, Phoenix, New Orleans, and Minnesota, Sacramento is one of seven teams vying for the final playoff spot in the West, all within 4.5 games of one another as of the time the trade was publicly reported. The Kings are already tied for last among that group, so getting a small head start on pushing the team in the opposite direction should help their lottery odds in May. The new lottery system is as much about limiting downside risk as it is netting the highest odds for the top pick, so the higher Sacramento climbs, the higher their floor when the ping pong balls are drawn.
The Kings likely have further trades in mind, but at this point, they’ll walk into the summer with about $31.61 million separating their team salary and the luxury tax. They may look to re-sign Bazemore on a team-friendly deal using his full Bird rights and will want to either re-sign Bogdan Bogdanovic or match a reasonable offer sheet he gets from another NBA team, so that $31.61 million may disappear somewhat quickly, but they also have some wiggle room with Nemanja Bjelica’s non-guaranteed salary and up to five draft picks to use this year on cheap incoming talent or to trade for another player on a cost-controlled deal.
Both Portland and Sacramento should have a move or two left to make before the deadline is through – the Trail Blazers seem to want to cut costs and doing another trade like this would save them quite a lot on their tax bill, while the Kings seem to understand where they are in the West’s pecking order and can pick up assets to rent out their remaining space below the 2019-20 luxury tax threshold, plus they still have a player in Dedmon who has publicly asked to be moved from the club.
In sum, I really like this trade for Portland. At the cost of two second-rounders, they’ve cut $12.8 million off their year-end costs and picked up two assets that can be used in future team-building moves: the TPE for Bazemore and the human TPE in Ariza, if they keep him. Sacramento also made out well enough in the deal: they only took on about $2.5 million in cash and picked up two second-rounders for their trouble, for three players who were no part of their future.