With the team’s 2016-2017 season now wrapped up, the time has come to look ahead and see how the Portland Trail Blazers can improve a roster that snuck into the playoffs this past season. With zero cap room available this summer, general manager Neil Olshey will have his hands full trying to add complimentary pieces to a team that largely under-achieved prior to the mid-season acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkic.
First, let’s take a look at those who are under contract through at least next season:
PG: Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier, Tim Quarterman (non-guaranteed)
SG: CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Pat Connaughton (non-guaranteed)
SF: Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, Jake Layman
PF: Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard
C: Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Festus Ezeli ($1M of $7.7M guaranteed)
Of those potentially under contract, GM Neil Olshey has already stated that Festus Ezeli’s team option will be declined. I believe Olshey will also allow Tim Quarterman to reach free agency, with Pat Connaughton’s chance at keeping his roster spot still tenuous.
With the 2017-2018 salary cap currently projected at $102 million, the Trail Blazers have a little over $141 million on the books for next season, if everyone on the roster were to return. We can remove all but $1 million of Ezeli’s 2017 salary (due to the partial guarantee), which puts the team at about $135 million. Neil Olshey has already stated that the team will part ways with Ezeli. With the luxury tax threshold projected to be $122 million, Portland will only have the tax-payer mid-level exception (roughly $3M), minimum contracts and rookie scale contracts at their disposal to improve the team.
The good news for Portland is the team has three first-round picks in the upcoming NBA Draft (picks #15, 20 and 26). In one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory, the team can either use some (or all) of those picks to acquire cost-controlled players with potential, or use one or more of the picks, along with a player or two, in hopes of landing a high-level talent via trade.
Potential Trade Target
Indiana Pacers forward Paul George – After another disappointing early playoff exit, George is entering the last year of his contract with the Pacers. Larry Bird’s resignation, combined with the frustration George showed as the season progressed leads me to believe the Pacers will entertain offers to move him during the summer.
What It Would Take: The Pacers run the risk of losing Paul George next offseason, as he could decline his player option in order to hit the free agent market. It may be better to trade him now and receive some compensation, than to risk losing him for nothing.
That being said, the Pacers aren’t going to give him away, either. It would likely have to start with Allen Crabbe, as well as two 1st round picks in order to start a true dialogue between the teams.
Likelihood of a Deal: Slim. While I’m sure the Blazers would be interested, but it’s very unlikely Portland would be interested in moving either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum in order to make the move happen.
Free Agent That Fits
Miami Heat forward James Johnson – While he was ultra-productive in his point-forward role with the Heat, there are definitely risks associated with Johnson. In prior stops in his career, keeping off weight has been a problem. Miami seemed to keep that in check, which resulted in Johnson having the best year of his career. He is also 30 years old, so his ceiling and ability to maintain this year’s level of play are definite concerns.
While Miami can offer Johnson more money, I don’t believe there is a better team/player fit in free agency than Johnson’s on-court fit in Portland. Johnson is definitely a more talented player than his market value will likely dictate, due in large part to some of the issues listed above.
It may take a cooler-than-anticipated market for this move to happen, as Johnson’s play this past season clearly warrants a much bigger deal than the tax-payer’s MLE. This is exactly the type of situation that good general managers take advantage of, and I do believe Olshey is an above-average NBA executive.
Other Free Agent Fits: Atlanta Hawks power forward Ersan Ilyasova, New Orleans Pelicans power forward/center Donatas Motiejunas.
NBA Draft Prospects to Target
While the Blazers have three first-round selections, the odds of them making all three selections is pretty slim. They could use at least one of the picks, along with a player, to acquire another rotation player. Some of the prospects that fit Portland’s needs include:
UCLA power forward T.J. Leaf – Leaf will likely struggle early on defense, but made 46.6% of his three-point attempts and 61.7% of his shots overall, so his shooting stroke makes him a potential role player right away, with enough upside to eventually push for a starting spot.
Duke center Harry Giles – a preseason consensus top-five pick, injuries and sub-par play has lowered his stock. If the Blazers keep their pick at #20, Giles could be a steal as a project big man with upside to be at worst a rotation big man.
Other prospects that fit: Houston guard Damyean Dotson, North Carolina small forward Josh Jackson, UCLA center Ike Anigbogu
While Neil Olshey has done a more than satisfactory job of acquiring talent, he clearly overspent on several players on the Portland roster. Allen Crabbe (4 years, $75 million) and Meyers Leonard ($4 years, $41 million) were compensated much more on potential than production. While the Trail Blazers’ cap space would likely have been gone this offseason either way (with McCollum’s extension kicking in), the team’s decision to retain both of them has not paid dividends.
The Allen Crabbe decision was definitely a tougher call, as he was signed to an offer sheet by the Nets (which Portland eventually matched). While still overpaid, Crabbe finished 3rd in the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage this past season, and gave the Trail Blazers a strong floor-spacer to play alongside Lillard and McCollum.
Leonard could just as easily been brought back on the restricted free agent tender, as the market seemed lukewarm. The move also would have saved Portland around $6 million this year, and about $35 million for the duration of his contract. Instead, Leonard continued the regression in his play that plagued his fourth year in the league, and Portland is tethered to an ugly contract on a player that they would probably rather not have any more.
While the Evan Turner signing was likely a classic over-pay as well, the team reportedly swung and missed on bigger names like Hassan Whiteside (who re-upped with Miami) and Chandler Parsons (who signed with the Grizzlies). While Turner spent the first half of the season struggling to find his niche on the roster and battled injuries, he had a much stronger second half of the season, and was arguably the team’s best perimeter defender.
If the Blazers can find a taker for Meyers Leonard’s contract, I’m sure Neil Olshey would pull the trigger. Ultimately, the only players on this roster that are likely deemed untouchable are Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. The Trail Blazers have a fairly deep roster, and a trade to consolidate talent (including potentially using some of their draft capital this offseason) would be a wise move for a team that appears to be stuck in NBA limbo…good enough to battle for a playoff spot, but not good enough to be a true contender.