January 16, 2019
With the very real threat of losing their best player, Portland have opted not to commit to a core without him in it.

The Portland Trail Blazers are a team in flux – a reflection of the broader uncertainty that permeates the NBA waiting on the precipice of a leaping salary cap. With incumbent starters Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge all set for unrestricted free agency, and Nicolas Batum already jettisoned to the Charlotte Hornets, Portland’s core roster, once lauded for its stability, looks bare. A recently steady franchise is entering a vague state of roster ambiguity.

On the eve of the draft, in what was generally viewed as illustrative of the Blazers’ transition into rebuilding mode, Portland traded Batum to the Hornets in exchange for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson. A fiery general manager Neil Olshey went to great lengths to quell the development of such an inference, yet, on the face of things, it seems difficult to ignore the organizational direction this trade seems to indicate.

In the short term, the Blazers will suffer on the court. Despite an injury-riddled season, hampered by off-court drama that saw his output decline, Batum at his best is a more than useful wing player, offering a combination of creative secondary ball handling and competent shooting capable of keeping help defenders honest. Although generally overrated as a perimeter defender, Batum retains value through his versatility in a league increasingly cognizant of the power of defensive interchangeability. Charlotte is banking on a return to form.

The trade leaves a gaping whole at small forward. Although Henderson is a respectable two-way wing player, he lacks the ball handling ability, range shooting or physical versatility of Batum. Rather than replacing Batum, Henderson’s acquisition is a likely substitute for one of the Blazers’ two unrestricted free agent shooting guards, Matthews and Arron Afflalo.

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In a vacuum, Matthews is the superior player, regularly presented as part of the fabric of the franchise, making his retention a theoretical priority. With that in mind, his recovery from a customarily devastating Achilles tear would give reason for cautious negotiation on a new deal. When combined with the changing salary climate, pegging an appropriate contract or destination for Matthews is challenging. Afflalo, meanwhile, trailed off as the season closed and his potential fit looks to be supplanted by Henderson.

If the Blazers sold low on Batum, they bought low on Vonleh – a former lottery pick, fresh off a rookie campaign that saw him play only 259 minutes. Such a small sample makes it difficult to project Vonleh’s viability as an NBA player, but Portland were clearly fans of his broad, stretchy skill-set coming out of Indiana. Perhaps he offers some insurance for Aldridge and Lopez. Perhaps Vonleh is simply a 19 year old whose burgeoning skillset Portland values highly. But both of these things can be true at the same time. Treating trades as singularities is a dangerous practice – transactions need to be viewed in a web, with considerations for the long and short-term in order to gauge an overarching perspective of a team’s vision and its best alternative path.

From a salary perspective, the Blazers reduced their immediate payroll by about $3.6 million in the deal. Henderson has a modest expiring contract that is less inhibiting than Batum’s own expiring deal. Adding three years of Vonleh’s rookie-scale contract with a rising cap on the horizon is a nice bonus, particularly when considering that next summer, Batum will enter a free agency market flush with suitors keen to add spidery wing-types. Despite being only 26, if Batum was not seen as a part of the Blazers’ future, this type of deal is a reasonable response.

That sort of shuffling, with an overall eye towards maintaining flexibility, has become a signature of Olshey’s tenure in Portland. He cut yet more salary with a draft night trade that sent seemingly bi-annual Blazer Steve Blake along with the draft rights to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (the 23rd pick) to the Brooklyn Nets in return for Mason Plumlee and Pat Connaughton (the 41st pick). The motivation behind this deal, like the trade for Vonleh, can be drawn from more than the simple financials.

Plumlee is a demonstrably competent center of an age that allows for sensible projections of improvement. In his short career, Damian Lillard has rarely, if ever, played with a dynamic pick-and-roll player, and the pairing with Plumlee offers exciting possibilities in Terry Stotts’s creative, open-minded offensive system. The springy Plumlee should offer some significant gravitational pull as a roll man. On the defensive end, Plumlee could stand to improve as a rim-protector and rebounder to cement himself as a starting caliber center. But at 25 and with two years remaining on a rookie-scale contract, he offers more than reasonable insurance against Lopez fleeing for greener pastures in free agency.

Insurance policies help to manage the risk of expensive events. They allow you to function in the everyday without worrying about largely uncontrollable issues; the mitigation of risk and expense creates flexibility and liberty of action. Whilst it’s ludicrously simplistic to directly analogize between the Blazers’ recent dealings and insurance policies, it is indicative of their broader stance for the offseason.

The mere possibility of losing Aldridge makes for a grim outlook. Maybe Aldridge will return, but all indications are to the contrary, and contention is always more enjoyable than rebuilding projects. But there is a subtle and important difference between contention and competitiveness. A rational self-awareness that enables the best alternative response to be adopted as quickly as possible is crucial. Rather than wallowing in the midst of uncertainty, the Blazers are moving on with proactive transactions.

That aggressive approach to uncertainty can continue in free agency. Whilst not to imply that rash carelessness will serve as a coverall solution, the result of their proactivity is the freedom to hurl max-level space at prospective free agents.

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Help on the wing, particularly at small forward, will be high on the wish list. Names like Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard are theoretically wonderful but also fantastic in the truest sense of the word. In rebuilding situations, though, talent generally trumps need. Such players that might fit Portland’s criteria and timeline are mostly reduced to the restricted members of the class and difficult to pry away from their existing teams.

Cap space can hold utility in other ways too – compensatory assets can be gathered by absorbing unwanted salary or by participating in sign-and-trades. Maintaining some space for future years is by no means detrimental either. A young group featuring Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Vonleh and Plumlee share a similar development timeline and have complimentary skill-sets. McCollum and Leonard both flashed signs during Portland’s first round exit at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.

While far from ideal, if supplemented by some mid-tier free agents, it isn’t difficult to imagine a funky offense evolving with Leonard or Vonleh spotting up around Lillard-Plumlee pick-and-rolls and McCollum functioning as a secondary ball handler. That group would leak like a sieve on defense, but it’s a better, more solid grounding than the mire of mediocrity that might result from the retention of their existing free agents in the event Aldridge departs. The acquisitions of Henderson, Vonleh and Plumlee and the expansion of their cap space make that notion a palatable reality. While the Blazers would not sacrifice a playoff birth for the purpose of keeping a draft pick, their lottery protected selection owed to Denver as part of the Afflalo trade is a worthy background consideration.

Portland’s immediate future is perhaps not as foggy as it seems. There is power in recognizing that with uncertainty comes the potential for flexibility of direction. So far, the Blazers have shown a willingness to embrace this flexibility with a dynamic and proactive response to their vague standing. The chaos of free agency begins on July 1st. Many eyes will be on the Blazers. Which direction are they really heading? For now, it certainly looks like it’s full-steam to the future.

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Andrew Cutler

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