Solving Problems: Blazers Need Big Men
Another season passed with the Portland Trail Blazers again getting hammered by injuries. Center Greg Oden, All-Star guard Brandon Roy, and center Marcus Camby combined to miss 140 player games, and that doesn’t even include all the games center Joel Przybilla missed early on before being traded to Charlotte in the Gerald Wallace deal.
The Blazers even tried to replace them, signing former San Antonio Spur and Washington Wizard Fabricio Oberto early in training camp to fill the void. Unfortunately for him and the team, Oberto was forced to retire again with heart issues after just five games. The Blazers were forced to play catch up in the middle all season long, with Coach Nate McMillan using power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the middle and playing a small lineup in order to stay competitive.
The biggest issue Portland needs to solve is being able to absorb injuries and still be productive. With 48 wins last season they did a decent job of that, but does anyone think they can do that again? Does anyone think they should rely on being able to do that again? Not a chance.
Whomever becomes Portland’s next general manager – a role still unfilled after the abrupt firing of Rich Cho two weeks before the 2011 NBA Draft – will face a serious issue: provide McMillan with some capable, reliable big men.
The nice part of that equation is these players do not necessarily be starters. Aldridge is the team’s best player and entrenched at the four. Starting power forward is not an issue
Camby, despite his 37 years of age, is still a very capable starter. That said, he did miss 23 games last year and in only four seasons (out of 15) has he played in 70 or more. Put another way Camby has played in 890 games in 15 seasons – 59.3 per year. Presumably Camby will enter training camp (assuming this happens during the 2011-12 season) as the starter, but the Blazers absolutely need to have a backup who can start and provide reliable production if (when?) Camby misses some games.
Behind Aldridge and Camby the Blazers have signed players. Center Earl Barron and forward/center Chris Johnson both signed late last season, minimum salary deals that included non-guaranteed minimum salaries for 2011-12 (a combined $1.9 million). Gerald Wallace is also capable of playing the four, but is the likely starter at small forward. Second-year forward Luke Babbitt also could fill some time there, but is more suited to the three.
That’s it – that’s all the Blazers have under contract for big men. $73.4 million in committed salaries to 12 players and only four of them are big men. Add in Nolan Smith, the point guard Portland chose in the first round of the 2011 Draft, and those numbers become $74.8 million to 13 players.
No matter where the cap number falls (it was $58.044 million last season) the Blazers will be far over it. In fact, under last season’s salary cap rules they would already be looking at a luxury tax payment of over $4 million for next season. All of this is just to illustrate Portland won’t be making a splash in free agency. We’ll come back to that.
First we must discuss center Greg Oden, the top overall pick in 2007 that has played 82 games in four years (and earned $21.8 million). Coming off the fourth season of his rookie scale contract Portland made him a restricted free agent with an $8.8 million Qualifying Offer, earning the right to match any offer sheet he may sign. This leaves Oden with three options: sign the Qualifying Offer (he would be an unrestricted free agent in 2012), negotiate a new contract with Portland, or sign an offer sheet with another team.
By making the Qualifying Offer the Blazers seem to have made it clear they are willing to pay Oden $8.8 million next season. Given his injury history that’s probably too rich for the blood of just about any other team in the league. Signing an offer sheet from another team Portland won’t match seems unlikely. Then Oden can choose to make $8.8 million in 2011-12 and become an unrestricted free agent, his future dependent entirely on what he produces this season, or he can sign a three or four-year deal with Portland, probably to the tune of about $20 million total. That offer isn’t formally on the table, but it’s one that makes a lot of sense, with plenty of upside for both sides. Portland benefits if Oden stays healthy and is productive, and Oden benefits whether injury problems continue to plague him or not. If they do, it’s a manageable chunk of change for the Blazers to mitigate damage.
One more point: Oden likely will not be ready to practice until January 2012 while recovering from his last knee injury. Even if he does sign with Portland and the season begins on time, he won’t be participating on the floor and can’t be counted on in 2011-12.
There is one other name worth mentioning before talking about potential free agent and trade targets for the Blazers: Joel Freeland. Freeland was drafted by Portland in 2006 with the last pick in the first round. At the time Freeland was 19 years old and very, very raw. Portland drafted him for the future. In 2009 Freeland signed a five-year, 4.5-million Euro deal with Spanish ACB League team Unica Malaga (Blazer fans may recognize another former Portland pick on that roster – Nedzad Sinanovic). Freeland starts in front of former Toronto Raptor Jorge Garbajosa and last season averaged 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds a game.
For fun, it’s worth noting Freeland could earn $1.13 million in the first year of a rookie scale contract this season, but if he waits one more year – and he may be thinking about making the jump in 2012 if Portland will have him – he will no longer be bound by the rules of a rookie contract (think Tiago Splitter this year with San Antonio). Since the money is about a push this year – not even discussing what his buyout is – he doesn’t have an incentive. At that price point, Freeland would be the perfect addition to Portland’s frontcourt.
If Portland retains Oden and signs Smith, as expected, they will have one roster spot left. Assuming something remains like the Mid-Level Exception in the next Salary Cap, using that will be their best chance of bringing in a new player in free agency. With that amount you don’t sign a star and you probably don’t even get a starter, so any discussion of the likes of Tyson Chandler, Samuel Dalembert, Nene, DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol should be immediately discarded. Any player they do sign needs to be focused more on defense and rebounding, something similar to Camby. Etan Thomas? Tony Battie? Dan Gadzuric?
The Blazers may feel that between Barron and Johnson they have center covered, but then they must look for a reliable backup to Aldridge. That player needs to be a scorer who grabs some boards. There was some buzz around Carl Landry earlier this summer, but signing him may be problematic. There is a chance he could earn more than the MLE on the open market, plus other teams may be willing to offer him a starting spot, something he will never see in Portland unless Aldridge is injured. More likely targets could be Reggie Evans, Glen Davis or Craig Smith.
This leaves trades. While a team with so many players under contract would seem likely to have pieces to move, Portland doesn’t seem eager to do so. The acquisition of Wallace moved Nic Batum to the bench and plenty of teams around the league would like to make him a starter, but the Blazers have resisted all inquiries. Babbitt and Elliot Williams, both second-year players (though Williams missed his entire first season due to injury), don’t seem likely to be a big part of the rotation initially, but also haven’t really been given a shot to show what they can do. History says the Blazers aren’t likely to trade young talent so soon.
The only remaining decision on a trade would seem to be at shooting guard with Roy and Wes Matthews. Roy is the three-time All-Star, but major knee injuries and $69.5 million left on his contract make him very unlikely to be moved. Many teams would have interest in Matthews, but the Blazers won’t move him unless Roy proves he is back to normal and Williams shows he can be productive. Neither of those will happen soon – it will take time for McMillan to get comfortable with his players and his team.
The Blazers are not a stranger to making trades, but unless they decide to move Camby (last season on his contract at $12.9 million) or Wallace (not likely in either case) they figure to enter the next season with this roster plus a free agent.
The Portland Trail Blazers need reliable big men in order to be more successful in the upcoming season. They have options, but it’s just not very clear if those options how reliable those options will be.
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