Six Moves the Portland Trail Blazers Should Make
With the NBA lockout almost in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at the Portland Trail Blazers as part of our series on moves a team should make.
On Thanksgiving Lang Greene wrote a nicely done piece discussing whether or not the Trail Blazers were contenders. In that space I expressed a certain amount of doubt, but there are ways to change my mind. Injuries and the threat of injuries will still loom over Portland’s 2011-12 season like a dark shadow, but there are some moves they can make to mitigate any possible damage.
First, here are some reference points (check out Portland’s salary page). Including rookie point guard Nolan Smith, Portland’s first-round pick last June, Portland has $74.8 million on the books to 13 players. Included in that is a $1 million cap hit for waiving Ryan Gomes after acquiring him in 2009. Earl Barron and Chris Johnson are under contract for this season at minimum salaries, but both deals, totaling $1.9 million, are fully non-guaranteed. That means if they need to create another roster spot it’s fairly easy to do so. In addition they have two Qualifying Offers out, $8.8 million to oft-injured center Greg Oden and $1.2 million to point guard Patty Mills. Mills is under contract in China and couldn’t return to the team until March of next year, if even then.
So what can Portland do to get better?
Name a General Manager
After the season Portland fired General Manager Rich Cho supposedly for communication issues, despite the draft day coup that returned them forward Gerald Wallace for spare parts. Since then Chad Buchanan has been the teams interim general manager while they conducted a full search, a search that eliminated Buchanan early on and was put on full hiatus a couple weeks ago, just before labor talks blew up. All of the names that have come up in the media have either been eliminated or removed their name publicly.
At this point, with a very rushed free agent season coming, it’s unlikely the Blazers will find someone to fill the position better than Buchanan already has. Now, he’s not making all the decisions on his own, but he was still key in the draft day trade that landed the team Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and helped make the decision to draft Nolan Smith, a point guard better and cheaper than anyone the team could find on the free agent market in 2011. It’s time to give Buchanan the job and see how it goes.
Wait on Brandon Roy
There is much hubbub right now about three-time All-Star guard Brandon Roy and the amnesty provision. With his knee trouble that is unlikely to get better, making his return to All-Star status also unlikely (as well as probably even a return to the starting lineup), his max contract salary doesn’t make sense to keep when it can be wiped away clean. Makes sense, right?
But here’s the deal: No matter what, Portland will be paying Roy $15 million this season then another $54.5 million. Even if they use the amnesty provision on him, they have to write that check. While it’s true that using the amnesty would get the Blazers well under luxury tax status (they are currently $4 million over), doesn’t it make sense to let Roy try one more time? Doesn’t the organization he put on his back – as a rookie! – and helped rebuild owe him that? He’s getting the money either way, and yes he’s overpaid if he can’t make it back, if he can’t again be a NBA starter, but if they use the amnesty provision on him without a trial run after a long summer and he becomes an All-Star again on another team… Just think about it.
Make a Reasonable Offer to Greg Oden
Oden is a restricted free agent by virtue of the $8.8 million Qualifying Offer Portland made to him back in June. (Note: Qualifying Offers change in the new deal, but that won’t affect any of the ones made in June. Under the new rules Oden’s QO would be just $3.2 million. That’s equal to the 15th pick in the 2007 draft, Rodney Stuckey, because he would be defined as a non-starter.) If Oden signs the QO it could cost Portland $17.6 million for one season since they are in luxury tax territory already. Oh, and yes, Oden is still not available and may be ready in January. At the earliest. Maybe.
Portland needs to be aggressive here if they want to keep Oden. Offer him a four-year deal worth around $18-20 million, perhaps adding in incentives. The offer has to be enough money and guarantee that the $8.8 million doesn’t seem like the best option anymore. The Blazers could wait and allow another team to give Oden an offer sheet, but if they really don’t want to let him go and that offer is starting at $6 million or maybe even more it becomes a problem.
If they don’t make any offers to him at all, that $8.8 million will look very enticing. And if they did use the amnesty on Roy, Oden signing the QO will push them right back up against the luxury tax.
Add Another Big Man
Regardless of what the Blazers do with Oden they need sign another big man. Marcus Camby’s injury history is legendary and other than stud forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the team has just Barron and Johnson as big men. Both them did okay last spring in small minutes and they do have high hopes for Johnson, but they really don’t have the depth to whether a Camby injury.
This is where Portland needs to focusing their Mid-Level Exception spending. Unfortunately for them, under the new rules they will be limited to the three-year deal starting at $3 million because of their current salary commitments. (Teams with contract commitments starting at $69.5 get a gradually decreasing MLE from $5 million down to a maximum of $3 million). This limits what they can spend and who they can target. It may mean big men like Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, and Glen Davis – thought to be Portland targets – will be out of reach.
So what will $3 million buy? Joel Przybilla? Spencer Hawes? Jeff Pendergraph? Portland may be better off looking at someone from Europe, maybe a former college player who has excelled over there, or even an undrafted rookie with a solid four-year NCAA career behind him. Who? Not sure, since that opens the field a lot. Keep an eye on Pendergraph though; seeing him back in Portland would not be a surprise.
Of course, if they do amnesty Roy, this conversation changes because they would have the full MLE to offer in that case. If that happens, Hayes should be the number one target. He brings the best mix of defense, toughness and rebounding, all things the Blazers need. And they may add Pendergraph too.
Do They Need Another Guard?
If Roy is still on the roster the Blazers also have Wes Matthews and Elliot Williams – a 2010 first-round pick who missed his entire first season with injury – at shooting guard. They have Ray Felton, Smith and Armon Johnson at point guard. That’s a full backcourt. Even if they amnesty Roy the expectation would become Matthews gets a few more minutes as a starter and Williams will be given every chance to shine, not that they will add another guard.
This is partly why some of the previous rumors of Portland looking at Jamal Crawford were comical, because where would he fit in the rotation? And how would they pay him? Sure, they could make a trade, but Portland should instead be patient and allow the young guys – Williams, Smith, Armon and Chris Johnson, and Luke Babbitt develop. They actually have a lot of young talent on this roster.
Sign Nic Batum to a Reasonable Extension
Batum has started 168 games in three seasons in Portland, improving his scoring, assists, rebounding and steals each year. He will not be the starter when camp breaks because of the trade for Gerald Wallace last deadline, but Batum actually excelled off the bench behind the veteran last year post-trade. It was like suddenly there was no pressure and he felt free to relax on offense.
Wallace has two years left on his contract and Batum can become a restricted free agent in 2012 (at an elevated Qualifying Offer due to his number of starts). After the team finalizes their free agent moves, they should move to lock up Batum for four or five years at a salary starting in the $4-5 million range. He will make just $2.2 million this season and while the higher rate could be considered a tad high for a reserve, it could be a steal if Wallace gets hurt (he’s played more than 71 games in a season just once in 10 years) and when Wallace becomes a free agent.
Lock him up now at a lower rate, because if they wait until next summer some other team will make him a much higher offer in restricted free agency.
The Portland Trail Blazers have a lot of great pieces to work around and if a few things fall into place, like good health, a few minor tweaks could be all they need to be a serious threat in the Western Conference.