The 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers were a team with admirable chemistry and a culture of work, helping to foster a player development curve that generated a widely unexpected level of team success.
General manager Neil Olshey’s roster construction was cunning and frugal, targeting undervalued free agents early in the process before snaffling them for what are now considered bargain-basement numbers. Al-Farouq Aminu proved himself a valuable starter at either forward position, while Ed Davis and his offensive rebounding were a critical piece to a Blazers’ bench devoid of primary shot creators.
Savvy trades filled gaps in the roster and complimented the core pieces already in place while maintaining a clean bill of salary cap health. A first round pick for Mason Plumlee was not an insignificant price, but he gave the Blazers a rim-runner and added some bizarro passing creativity. Nabbing Moe Harkless for a fake second-rounder gave the Blazers a more than worthwhile look at a young, athletic wing whose defensive versatility turned out to be valuable in the playoffs. Any upside in Harkless that may have made him difficult to retain was protected against by way of his impending restricted free agency. In addition, some shrewd deals at the deadline helped to hack the salary floor regulations. The season ended with the Blazers a model for fiscally responsible team building and a commendable second-round exit.
On its face, the 2016 offseason marks a shift in Portland’s methodology of sharp, prudent maneuvering. Having had the lowest payroll in the league entering last season, the Blazers have committed over $300m in guaranteed money this offseason. It’s easy to engender a vision of Paul Allen handing Neil Olshey a blank cheque with a clear, simple instruction – make it rain. And in some senses, that’s correct.
Clearly the Blazers identified shot-creation beyond Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as a priority entering the offseason. Lillard and McCollum bore almost the entire creation burden for the Blazers, something that was particularly evident when one of the pair left the floor. Following a failed pitch to Chandler Parsons, the Blazers quickly moved to sign Evan Turner to a four-year, $70m deal.
Even with the inevitable sticker-shock that comes with an exploding cap number and associated rising salaries, paying Turner at a rate commensurate with an above-average starter seems a little exorbitant. Unlike Parsons, Turner has limited range off the ball and that lack of gravity dictates the need for him to have the ball in his hands. Just 11 percent of all his field goal attempts were threes last season, making a paltry 24.1 percent of them.
The logic in signing that type of player at that price to take the ball out of the hands of Lillard and McCollum seems flawed. McCollum and Lillard may need assistance, but they too are most dangerous with the ball in their hands running pick-and-roll. Teams moved to trap them, given their ability to drill off the dribble jumpers. Creating those types of 4-on-3 situations is invaluable. Turner nailed his midrange jumpers at a respectable rate last season and he’s crafty in pick-and-roll, but he needs the ball, doesn’t demand a trap, and cannot spot-up.
With McCollum flying solo, the Blazers still scored 106.8 points per 100 possessions, whilst Lillard-only units led Portland to an offensive rating of 109.4, per NBAwowy. Both those numbers are very respectable. That being said, in bench-heavy units, Turner’s ball-handling and midrange quirks will be useful (as they were for the Celtics). When McCollum and Lillard shared the floor last season, the Blazers offense reached a dizzying 111.8 points per 100 possessions. And perhaps that is where the Blazers recognise the value of a secondary ball-handler.
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Most of Portland’s issues last season were not on offense. On the other side of the ball, Turner’s defensive versatility could unshackle some more switching for a Blazers team that has publicly stated a desire to start Aminu at power-forward and needs to hide it’s defensively challenged backcourt. Turner projects to function as a back up point guard and fight with Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless for minutes on the perimeter.
Crabbe signed a four-year, $75 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets before the Blazers matched, in a decision that by no means amounted to a no-brainer. Crabbe, as the player he was last year, is unlikely to be worth north of $18 million annually. He’s a so-so defender who, despite being a gifted shooter, lacks wiggle off the bounce, and that limits his offensive repertoire. The price is steep but unlikely to be immovable. Asset retention provides one explanation for not allowing Crabbe to walk for nothing, but it’s not certain whether Crabbe is indeed an asset at that price. That being said, Portland has retained a player it values and will back its player development program to expand his game. At 24, banking on a lot more improvement from Crabbe is probably ambitious, but at the very least the Blazers need his shooting on the wing.
Some sort of backcourt rotation featuring Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe and Turner (the latter two of whom will foreseeably see time at small forward) is well balanced, but it’s expensive. Following the announcement of McCollum’s four-year, $106 million extension, the Blazers project to have over $70 million committed to their backcourt for the 2017-18 season. Even with the cap projected at around $102 million for 2017-18, that doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room for roster manipulation.
But looking closer, the outlines of the Blazers considered blueprint are still visible, despite some of the flashy price tags. Signing Festus Ezeli to a two-year, $15.1 million contract with a partial guarantee on the second season represents a great value. This is particularly so when considering the deals signed by Timofey Mozgov with the Lakers and Bismack Biyombo with the Magic, amongst other members of a bloated free-agent center class. Legitimate questions will be asked as to whether Ezeli can make plays in 4-on-3 situations after Lillard and McCollum are trapped in ball-screens, but his competence as a rim-protector and defensive rebounder fills holes for Blazers team that was a bottom-10 defense.
Ezeli can struggle with stone hands and his injury history is an additional, valid concern but Portland has great depth in the frontcourt and the partially guaranteed second year mitigates any health related risk. It is the sort of value signing that was a hallmark of Portland’s 2015-16 offseason.
Just as timing their run in the big-man market helped Portland grab Ezeli at a nice price, the Blazers were also the beneficiaries of patiently waiting out the restricted free agent market. Eventually the money had to dry up, and Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless were left without much choice but to take relatively modest deals. Having rejected an extension offer in the previous summer, Leonard settled on a four-year, $41 million deal, in the range of a quality bench player in the league’s new economy. Defensively, Leonard struggled at power-forward early last season, but his shooting is a powerful weapon, particularly when he’s deployed at center. His skillset is a nice change-up from the other centers on the roster and will allow Terry Stotts to search for the right pieces to pair with his pick-and-roll maestros in the backcourt.
The Blazers were also able to retain Harkless after he, too, saw the market desiccate and his bargaining power collapse. A similar four-year, $40 million contract is more than reasonable for a versatile perimeter defender capable of shifting up to power forward. Harkless flashed his value in the playoffs against the Clippers and Warriors, and going into his age-23 season, retains some untapped potential. He struggled from three-point range and an improved stroke would make him a more powerful weapon as an interchangeable partner for Aminu in the frontcourt who could still compete on the glass. Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu and Plumlee played 290 minutes together in the regular season and outscored opponents by a whopping net rating of 14.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Clearly, Portland values the culture it is building from within and the roster continuity necessary to retain that culture. Continuity by way of player retention maintains the familiarity of the coaching staff and their system, making it easier to build on the foundations of last season’s success.
However, player retention when combined with additions can lead to a roster crunch where it is not immediately obvious who is playing where and when. A look at the center position alone reveals Ezeli, Leonard, Davis and the incumbent Plumleee, all capable of logging major minutes. This is a deeper Blazer team than last year and it will be interesting to see how they maintain their player development focus and empowerment of young players in a more crowded environment. Stotts has shown himself to be an innovative and open-minded tactician, and he will have plenty of tools to tinker with. It seems almost inevitable that some of the pieces will have to move, due to positional overlap and the fiscal restraints that will become a practical reality.
*A brief aside related to the Blazers trust in their player development framework. Portland moved to acquire Shabazz Napier in a deal similar to that which acquired Harkless last offseason. Napier projects to have nowhere near the impact of Harkless, but as a third point-guard still on his rookie-scale contract, he’s worth a shot.
A major splash in free agency for the summer of 2017-18 was off the table upon the signing of Turner and Crabbe, so keeping Harkless and Leonard by way of their Bird Rights did not cost the Blazers much opportunity in that sense. Evidently though, the Blazers saw this offseason as their best opportunity to use cap space given the temporal proximity of the end of a series of the rookie-scale contracts of their young core. Portland’s added depth makes them better but whether, as currently constructed, that is good enough to move beyond the second round of the Western Conference is less clear.
There are other avenues to improvement beyond free agency and Portland is aware of the difficulties of attracting starry free agents to small markets. Growth from within and by way of trade will likely be the Blazers best path to rapid improvement. Although the signings of Turner and Crabbe seem expensive at present, the Blazers have earned the benefit of the doubt given their recent ability to develop and empower previously undervalued players.
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