The Portland Trail Blazers have won five consecutive games with Enes Kanter in the lineup, after signing the Turkish center to veteran minimum contract shortly before the All-Star break.
The team’s recent 6-1 surge, including a stretch of four consecutive road wins, has pushed the Blazers up to a 51-win pace — the Blazers haven’t won 50 games since LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland in 2015.
If they continue winning at this clip, nobody will be happier than starting center Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian big man signed a new 4-year, $48 million contract this summer, which included a $1.25 million bonus if Nurkic plays 70 games and the team wins 50 or more, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. He has only missed one game so far this season, so the bonus will depend on Portland’s success over the last 20 games of the season.
What about Maurice Harkless’ bonus?
Nurkic is not the only Blazer with a bonus pending for this season. Forward Maurice Harkless will also receive $500,000 if he finishes the season shooting 35 percent or better on 3-pointers. Harkless is currently shooting only 28 percent on 3s so it’s unlikely he’ll receive the bonus this year. Harkless did hit that incentive the last two seasons, infamously avoiding 3s at the end of the 2016-17 season to protect his percentage.
How do these bonuses impact the Blazers this season?
After signing Kanter to a $487,000 contract to finish out the season, the Blazers payroll sits at $132,346,020. Since Harkless hit his incentive last season that bonus is classified as likely and already included in their cap estimate, while Nurkic’s is currently classified as unlikely and not included since the Blazers did not win 50 games last season.
Assuming Portland does finish with 50 or more wins, and Harkless does not go on a crazy shooting tear, the net effect of salary incentives will add $750,000 to the team’s cap figure (add Nurkic’s $1.25 million, but subtract Harkless’ $500,000), bringing it up to $133,096,020.
The Blazers are well in excess of the $123.7 million luxury tax line, so they will pay a $1.75 tax per dollar for the additional overage added by Nurkic’s increased contract — $1.31 million in total.
The Blazers luxury tax bill will increase from $13.8 million to $15.1 million, fourth in the NBA behind the Thunder, Warriors, and Raptors
How do these bonuses impact the Blazers in the future?
Assuming the above scenario holds, Nurkic’s bonus will convert to likely next season and be added to the Blazers cap projection for the 2019-20 season on July 1, while Harkless’ will convert to unlikely and be removed from the projection.
The Blazers are already well over the projected $109 million salary cap for next season, with about $129 million committed to 12 players via guaranteed salaries, a first round draft pick, and a likely qualifying offer for Jake Layman. This does not include Al-Farouq Aminu’s cap hold. In other words, adding $750,000 does not immediately hinder flexibility.
However, the Blazers do not hold Bird Rights for free agents Kanter, Rodney Hood, or Seth Curry. As a team over the cap, that means the Blazers must use an exception if they wish to re-sign any of these players. General Manager Neil Olshey will probably be fine letting Curry and/or Hood walk.
Kanter might be a different story. Portland’s best bet to keep their new backup center on the roster will likely be using the full midlevel exception of about $9.1 million.
To do that they must finish all roster transactions, including using the $9.1 million midlevel exception and negotiating Layman’s new contract, below the salary apron of $138 million — remember they’ve already committed $129 million to 12 players before even opening talks with Layman.
If the Blazers can’t finish below $138 million, they will only be able to offer Kanter the taxpayer mid-level exception for roughly $5.7 million, which he is unlikely to accept.
In short, if Olshey does want to retain Kanter he will need cut significant salary. A task made every so slightly more difficult by the extra $750,000 the Nurkic bonus will add to the payroll this offseason. Ironically, adding Kanter has given the Blazers an on-court boost, but the extra wins will make it more difficult to retain the team’s best free agent signee in recent memory.