The 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers season has ended.
After an injury-plagued season, the Blazers will look ahead to the 2020-21 NBA season with aspirations of repeating the deep playoff run from the 2019 postseason when Portland made the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years.
It's easy to envision this team coming back next season healthy. The most lingering injury the Trail Blazers face is the one to Rodney Hood's Achilles, which will take time to get back to 100%. But the season won't begin until as early as December, which would make it a year since Hood tore his Achilles. That would mean Hood wouldn't miss much of next season, if any.
Hood has a player option but told reporters during the NBA's hiatus he plans to be a Trail Blazer next season.
Beyond health, what options do the Blazers have to get better during free agency?
The answer is not much...
Due to cap holds, it seems unlikely the Blazers will have any useful cap flexibility this offseason. They do have one asset that can prove to be immensely valuable: Trevor Ariza.
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Why would a 35-year old small forward be such a valuable asset? Well, although Ariza played well as a Trail Blazer last season, his contract and current time left on it makes him a valuable trade asset this summer. Ariza has an $11 million non-guarantee with a decision date of October 18, 2020.
That is when free agency is scheduled to begin. But with the 2019-20 NBA season undergoing a suspension, perhaps that date can be pushed back in negotiations.
If so, Ariza becomes a trade target for any team looking to duck the luxury tax since they can trade for him sending out salary to match his $12.8 million salary and then waive Ariza and eliminate $11 million off their books for this season.
With the COVID-19 pandemic heavily altering the league's finances, the luxury tax and salary cap thresholds can be much lower than expected if not negotiated to be changed by the NBA and NBAPA. What terms they agree to remain to be seen but it's highly possible that if the salary cap lowers, then so does the luxury tax threshold and teams that may not want to pay the tax could be in danger.
For example, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has a history of refusing to pay the luxury tax, hence the reason the Rockets did not re-sign Ariza after losing to Golden State in the 2018 Western Conference Finals.
Per Spotrac, the Rockets appear to only be $7 million below the projected luxury tax line of $139 million for next season. Given the league has lost billions of projected revenue, the luxury tax can easily be below that number and if Fertitta refuses to pay the bill, then GM Darryl Morrey will need to shed salary.
One candidate would be small forward Robert Covington, whose salary matches Ariza's in a trade at $12.1 million. Now, if the team wants to win a Championship next season, Houston would not make this deal. But if Fertitta cares more about saving money than winning, it has to be on the deal. Perhaps the Blazers can send their 2020 first-round pick out to entice Houston.
Covington would be just one potential candidate for Portland. If this doomsday scenario of a lowered luxury tax threshold happens, many NBA owners will likely want to shred salary to avoid paying a higher luxury tax bill during a pandemic.
If the Blazers cannot find a good deal for Ariza, they can easily just keep him on the roster as their starting small forward like last season. In 21 games, as a Trail Blazer, Ariza averaged 11.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 40% from three.
It'll take an upgrade at the position for the Blazers to depart with him.
There's a lot of decisions to be made. Let the chess match begin!
Why Trevor Ariza could be the key to the Trail Blazers offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Northwest