Five Steps to a Brighter Future for the Blazers
Early on this season the Portland Trail Blazers looked like one of the good stories of the post-lockout 2011-12 NBA season. On January 10th the team sat at 7-2, already with wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Yours truly even wrote a piece praising the offseason decisions of the team’s management, claiming they had filled their holes well.
Even then, as many pointed out at the time, there was reason to wonder if it could last. They turned the ball over too much. Point guard play was inconsistent. Wesley Matthews was struggling compared the previous season. Since being 7-2 the Blazers have gone 12-19 in the past two months, falling from the top of the conference to out of the playoff picture completely. They are in the midst of a seven-game road trip (which they have started 1-2 after being blown out in Boston, then recovering for a win in Washington) that will take them through the 2012 NBA trade deadline.
Turnovers kill them every game, as does poor shooting and inconsistency from all players not name LaMarcus Aldridge or Nicolas Batum. As Alex Kennedy described in detail yesterday, Coach Nate McMillan’s job is also on the line and the Blazers, a team with so much promise early on, are looking at the trade deadline to cash out, to build on their available cap space for next summer, and start over with Aldridge and Batum the franchise’s focal points.
With all of that in mind, here are five things for the Blazers to keep in mind as the trade deadline nears.
1 – Keep the Ending Contracts
The Blazers sit at $66.04 million on the season, but if they do nothing shed about $25 million from that number for 2012-13. Marcus Camby ($12.87 million), Raymond Felton ($7.56 million) and Greg Oden ($1.5 million) all will come off the cap. Nicolas Batum ($2.16 million) will also come off the cap, but can become a restricted free agent with a $3.17 million Qualifying Offer issued by June 30th of this year. By this point it should be pretty clear that will happen and keeping Batum will become Portland’s top priority this summer. Maintaining, if not maximizing, that cap space – Portland will be $16 million under the cap before signing Batum and draft picks – has become the franchise’s top priority as they slid down the standings. As much as people may want to see Portland use those contracts to shake things up, the deadline may pass with all three still in red and black (well, Camby and Felton at least).
2 – Trade the Pieces that Don’t Fit
So who is a priority to try and move? That would be the contracts on the roster lasting longer than this season and not fitting into Portland’s long-term plans. The youngsters – Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt don’t fit into this category because all still have potential to grow into long-term contributors and they are cheap. LaMarcus Aldridge will not be moved. At minimum salaries, Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith aren’t going to return much either. That leaves just three players: Gerald Wallace ($9.5 million Player Option), Jamal Crawford ($5.23 million Player Option) and Wes Matthews ($20.64 million over the next three seasons). Those contracts are the ones Portland could look to move, either in exchange for ending deals or long-term fits. Of the three, trading Wallace should be the top priority. Why? Matthews gets it. He understands the system and he works hard; he wants to be in Portland. Playing the odds, Crawford is mostly likely to decline to invoke his option because he can hit the free agent market and get just as good of a contract (or better) in a situation that will fit his desires better. Wallace? He will get a free agent contract, but it’s conceivable it’s closer to $5 million than $9.5 million so it’s possible he invokes his option and hits free agency in 2013. The Blazers are not willing to take that risk. Since they are going to go all in for Batum, it makes sense to move Wallace now.
3 – Keep Nate McMillan – For Now At Least
It will do the organization no good at all to fire Nate McMillan during the season. This is a team that will look drastically different in July than it does now, so they have little to gain by removing him during the season unless the whole thing degenerates into a schoolyard mess. It’s unlikely to get that bad because while McMillan doesn’t see eye-to-eye with some of his players, they are all still professionals. When Maurice Cheeks was fired late in the season several years back that wasn’t the case and the change had to be made because of how dark the mood in the locker room had become. This group may be unhappy, but it’s not poisonous. It’s worth remembering, too, that the players who have been earmarked to be kept – namely Aldridge and Batum – are on the same page as their coach.
4 – Don’t Take on Long-Term Deals…Unless They Make Long-Term Sense
There is a caveat to the mantra of cutting long-term debt. If the player they could acquire that does have a long-term deal is as good or better than someone they could look at in free agency, make the move now and take on that debt. For example, the Blazers will be looking for both a starting point guard and a center in free agency and the draft. If they can get a player with Camby’s ending deal to be a starter at that position for the Blazers for the rest of the season and beyond, even if it’s at a price of $10 million, then that’s a move they should pull the trigger on. Not taking on long-term debt is the guideline they should adhere to, but it shouldn’t be treated as an absolute. Each offer, each player, each situation is unique and should be evaluated accordingly.
5 – Change the Entire Franchise’s Mentality
Five years ago (has it been that long already?) when the Blazers drafted Greg Oden many people (yes, including me) predicted one or more future championships for Portland with a roster centered around Oden, Aldridge and Brandon Roy. Now Roy and Oden (soon) are gone. For too long now the franchise has been reactive, trying to fill the holes the injuries of Oden and Roy created. That has to end now. The team has to take a proactive approach to their next incarnation. Instead of thinking about how they need a center to replace Oden or a point guard to plug a hole – which is exactly how they treated both Andre Miller and Raymond Felton, for better or worse – they need to step back and evaluate the specific traits they need. The team knows they want Aldridge and Batum to be their cornerstones, so they need to – without looking at draft prospects or potential free agents – step back and ask this question: Which traits of other players complement those two the most? Build that list and using that they need to then turn to the draft boards and free agency. They also need to understand that all the proper pieces may not be found this upcoming June or July and this will be a process. Be patient and understand that the best fit is not necessarily the best player available at a given position at a given moment. Roster slots will need to be filled no matter what, but the key will be maintaining flexibility if it’s not the perfect fit. Don’t spend the money just because it’s there.