"The Trade"  [Updated]

 

Technically that title should be "The Trades", I suppose, because we're talking about two guys from different teams acquired in different deals.  But here's the scoop.  As those of you who listened to yesterday's radio interview and podcast know, 95.5 The Game's Gavin Dawson set something in motion with an off-hand question during the segment I was on.  He originally asked who would be my #1 option as an acquisition for the Blazers right now and I answered, "If we're talking about reasonable options, Kirk Hinrich."  I said that not because I think Hinrich is the most talented player we could get, but because he combines some talent, the right skills, and a low cost.  Gavin asked whether I had included Hedo Turkoglu in my assessments and I said yes.  He would be a nice fit in many ways but he'd come at a more expensive cost, requiring a sign-and-trade that both he and Orlando would agree to.  Then Gavin said the magic name:  "Tayshaun Prince?"  If you're talking about single players and the criteria I just named then yes, Hinrich is probably a better value than Prince, again because he can be had much cheaper.  But then it clicked.  Hinrich...Prince.  Hinrich...Prince.  I wonder what the possibilities are of getting Hinrich AND Prince without completely gutting the team?

And that is the problem I worked over in the back of my mind for the next dozen hours.  I'm not sure I'm done working it yet, but I'm far enough along to open up some possibilities.

Read about it after the jump...

The first question to answer is, "Why?"  A couple strong reasons come immediately to mind:

1.  One of the glaring weaknesses on this team, even with Nicolas Batum's best efforts, is defense at the perimeter positions.  This is the soft part of Brandon Roy's game.  I believe he could improve but I'm more comfortable letting him focus on being Brandon Roy (the stellar offensive impresario) and accepting whatever incremental improvements he can make while still providing full energy keying the offense for himself and his teammates.  Thus defense will continue to be a sore spot. 

The best remedy is to surround Brandon with good defenders.  Nicolas Batum is a good defender right now for a young guy and for the 19-ish minutes per game that coach is comfortable playing him.  He definitely needs room and time--both court minutes and years of experience--to grow.  That doesn't completely address the problem now, though.  And frankly, even should Batum blossom in his sophomore season that still leaves the guard positions average to weak defensively.  If opposing teams pull their small forward to the sideline the whole top of the offensive area remains exposed.

Neither Hinrich nor Prince need to verify their defensive credentials.  They're two of the better defenders available for acquisition at this point.  If you can manage to make deals for them without touching either of your centers you have a probable starting lineup of Hinrich, Roy, Prince, Aldridge, and Oden or Przybilla.  That lineup has defensive chops.

One of the key goals of an improved defense would be containing opposing pick plays, which killed us through most of the season.  We spent month after month switching on screens, creating terrible mismatches and easy shots for the opponent.  This was a slow leak that never got patched.  We pumped enough air into the balloon to keep it afloat most of the time, but we were never secure and you never knew when a crash landing was around the corner.

A secondary benefit would be easing the pressure on Portland's centers.  We relied heavily on Joel Przybilla to keep the defense sound and the middle clear this year...too heavily perhaps.  We saw in the playoffs that there's no substitute for containment outside, even with a defensive stalwart in the middle.  It's also possible that not all of Greg Oden's fouls this were entirely Greg Oden's fault.  I'm not excusing his awkwardness on defense.  He needs to improve his coverage, especially when he's moving.  But how many of his fouls actually came against opposing centers, the men he was ostensibly supposed to be covering?  Even if you say Oden needs to learn how to control smaller penetrators there's little doubt his teammates would help him out by not forcing him to do so as often.  Better perimeter defenders means more time on the floor for Greg, which is to his advantage and the Blazers' both.

2.  This team is on its way to greatness but the next steps of the path are steep.  The Blazers just emerged from the Woods of Woefulness and now face a heretofore unknown climb up Contenders Mountain.  They could use a Sherpa.   Or two.  They could make it on their own but the trip is going to be slower that way.  They've only gotten a real taste of the difficulty involved on a few occasions.  The March 5th game against Denver for the division lead was one.  The playoff games against Houston were the other main ones.  In these cases they faced good teams playing at or near the peak of their games on those particular nights.  A couple of those games were wins.  Most were losses.  As the Blazers start to threaten the league they're going to experience more and more nights like that.  It's going to happen next year.  It's going to happen again in next year's playoffs.  The team needs to start registering wins in those situations, both for the standings and their own confidence. 

Expecting another jump comparable to what we saw in 2008-09 might be a bit much.  As well as they played and as hard as they fought this team didn't look like a 60-win squad this year at any time.  It would take a ton of growth to turn them into one next year.  That said, flat-lining is not a desirable outcome even though 54 wins is a good mark.  Nobody wants to see a first-round playoff exit again next season.  We need to get higher up the mountain, which means moving farther, faster, and with more confidence than we've yet seen.

The Sherpas who could help us need to be veterans with playoff experience.  Successful playoff experience would be a bonus.  Prince absolutely fits the bill.  Hinrich does to a somewhat lesser degree.  These guys know how to play in games you need to win.  They don't have to think about it.  They don't have to be taught it.  They've done it.  There's nobody else like that on this team.

Using another analogy, the Blazers right now are like a whole bunch of dynamite sticks scattered around.  There's a lot of explosive potential there but a couple things need to happen to maximize the boom.  First the sticks need to be put in order.  This is starting to happen already but the roster is still overlapping too much and is too young to be depended on with precision.  Adding guys like Hinrich and Prince clears up the mess and allows everyone to interlock.  Second, you need a match to light the fuse.  Often that spark happens with one key move.  This would qualify.  The fuse may be long and take a season yet to burn, but you could see the countdown coming.  I'd even be willing to put a date on it:  November, 2010.  Give these guys a year of experience playing together and Oden another year to come out of his shell and the league would probably need to run and find cover.

A couple of the arguments I've heard against the trade are Prince's age and Nicolas Batum's ascension.  These are actually reasons the deal makes some sense to me.  I believe Batum is going to be a starter for this team and a key piece for the next decade.  I like Prince being 30 because I think he can give us a taste of "future Batum" right now and then move out of the way when current Batum reaches that level.  For that reason I prefer this to most other small forwards you'd consider, including Gerald Wallace and Luol Deng. 

I'm also firmly in favor of Batum getting more time on the floor.  The reality is with the current roster containing both Travis Outlaw (who needs more minutes than he can get backing up LaMarcus Aldridge) and Martell Webster (who didn't play at all this year and left those minutes to Batum) those minutes are going to be hard to come by.  Somebody's going to get worked over in that rotation.  At least one, if not both, of those players could be included in deals for Prince and Hinrich.

Another painful reality when considering this kind of deal is that it almost has to cost the Blazers Rudy Fernandez.  This leaves another chunk of playing time open, one that Batum could possibly fill.  Admittedly this impression is mostly instinct at this point.  The stats say Batum got slaughtered in the limited minutes he played shooting guard last year.  But here he would have a chance to make headway against opposing second units.  The plain fact is if he's going to grow into the player he should be Batum has to develop some offensive skills more associated with the shooting guard than the small forward in our system:  getting to the rim, pulling up for the mid-range jumper, using screens.  He has the physical gifts to expand his offensive game.  He was attempting many of these things in Summer League in 2008, getting free for shots that he subsequently missed.  The seeds are there.  They need to grow.  That's not going to happen if he spends all his time in the corner.

We've gone through all of this so far without extolling the virtues of the players we'd be getting except for mentioning their veteran status.  As I've researched the draft selections likely available to the Blazers (whether they stand pat or trade up) a constant theme has emerged:  every potential pick has qualities to recommend them, but each also has flaws that nearly disqualify them based on what we need.  The true point guard can't defend and has no three-point range.  The scoring point guard can't pass.  The rebounding big man has poor lateral quickness and no fundamentals.  The lanky small forward lacks a jumper.  All of them have the added liability of being young, unknown quantities, likely taking years to develop.  One of the best arguments for getting Prince and Hinrich is that you know what you're getting and what you're getting mostly fits the Blazers.

Prince is an able defender. He can stay in front of his man and he hardly ever fouls.   He is a good, though not prolific, three-point shooter.  He rebounds well for a small forward.  He shoots well but doesn't need to take tons of shots or hold the ball every second possession.  He can run the floor and finish.  He's played in all 82 games in every season of his seven-year career save his rookie campaign.  He's not an outright star in his own right.  He depends on having good teammates around him and fitting in.  We saw his impact decline this year as the Pistons transitioned from a cohesive unit to a fractured mélange of agendas.  His situation in Portland would be far more like the old Pistons than the new, however.

Hinrich is also an able defender.  He's another three-point shooter who can also hit a mid-range jumper but doesn't need to control the ball to score.  He's a good fit with Brandon Roy in the backcourt that way.  He's a good passer who has maintained a strong assist-to-turnover ratio throughout his career.  He has struggled the last couple of seasons compared to his earlier years but, as with Prince, his team has drifted into disarray around him.  He's not blameless for that but there are mitigating circumstances surrounding his decline.

Much could be made of both players' production dipping recently but realistically those are the kind of players you're going to have a shot at.  Seldom do you get the opportunity to pick up somebody of clear starting caliber with coveted skills running at full production in their prime.  You have to get those guys as free agents and they're usually quite expensive when they make it to the open market.  Otherwise teams are looking to build around them, not trade them away.  If you want somebody of that description you have to get them when they're quite young and develop them or quite old and milk them for what they're worth. 

OR...

You can get that prime-aged starter if you catch them on a little bit of a downswing when their own team doesn't find them as irreplaceable anymore.  The trick is to find players who are swinging downward at least in part because circumstances surrounding them...circumstances which won't be as strong on your team.  If you can take advantage of the less prolific and promising version of these players more than their current team does, so much the better.  This is the Buck Williams formula.  He was on the verge of being a superstar for the Nets for the better part of six seasons.  Then his production tailed off and the Blazers got him.  He never again reached the heights of his early years but he was THE transformational figure on those Drexler teams.  That's the hope with Prince and Hinrich.

So what would it cost to get these guys?  It depends on how and when you do it.

I believe that Hinrich can be had from Chicago for cap relief and only moderate talent in exchange.  The projected salary cap for next season comes in a little above $57 million.  Most estimates of the luxury tax threshold that I've seen paint it in the mid-$60 million range.  As things stand the Bulls are committed to almost $69 million in salary for next season and less than $1 million of that is optional.  Hinrich's contract sticks out like a sore thumb.  It's not exorbitant.  He'll make $9.5 million in 2009-10, $9 million the year after, and $8 million in the final year of the contract, all guaranteed.  That's high but still reasonable for a reliable starting point guard.  It's a fortune for a back-up guard who's going to become less important as your young superstar develops in front of him.  Add another $4 million or so onto that because of the dollar-for-dollar tax structure and it becomes inexcusable.  That contract has GOT to go.  The rest of the league knows this.  The Bulls have pretty much admitted it.  Hinrich's value is limited to teams who can start him but who are also good enough on their own that he makes a difference commensurate with his contract.  Those teams also have to have cap room to give in return.  That's a pretty short list.  The Atlanta Hawks are about the only other team that qualifies, and that's if they don't re-sign a bunch of their current players.

For these reasons I think it's quite possible that Hinrich could be had for Steve Blake's $4 million contract plus almost all of Portland's available $5.8 million in cap room after July.    If for some reason the deal had to go down before July the Blazers would have to throw in another player, likely Travis Outlaw, to make salaries match.  I don't see that happening at this point.  It probably can't happen if the Blazers want to make the second deal in this trade, as Outlaw could be one of the keys to acquiring Prince.

Tayshaun Prince is admittedly a more complicated case.  He has two years remaining on a contract running at $10.3 million for 2009-10 and $11.1 million for 2010-11.  The Pistons will certainly want talent in return.  However they may also balance that talent with an eye towards retaining cap space for the huge free agent class in the summer of 2010.  They are also rumored to be hot and heavy after Carlos Boozer this year.  Much of that will depend on what they do with Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson.   Young talent and contracts that expire after next season are key in the first scenario.  Young players who are talented and cheap no matter how long their contracts go are important to the second.

Here's the way the salaries stack up among players Portland could consider available:

Player

2008-09

2009-10

Tayshaun Prince

$9.5 mil

$10.3 mil

Joel Przybilla

$6.3 mil

$6.9 mil

Travis Outlaw

$4.0 mil

$3.6 mil

Martell Webster

$3.8 mil

$4.3 mil

Jerryd Bayless

$2.0 mil

$2.1 mil

Rudy Fernandez

$1.1 mil

$1.2 mil

Nicolas Batum

$1.0 mil

$1.1 mil

Sergio Rodriguez

$0.9 mil

$1.6 mil

I have listed both the 2008-09 salaries and 2009-10 because there are actually two ways to go about this.  The Blazers could make this move before July or after.  In either case they'd use the over-the-cap trade rules, in 2008-09 because both teams are over the cap and in 2009-10 because this trade would probably need to happen after the Hinrich deal to preserve the cap space for Chicago.  Though both deals would be governed by the 25%+$100,000 rule the key difference is that trading before June the players the Blazers traded would have to match or exceed Prince's salary in order to keep the 2009-10 cap space alive (again, for Hinrich).  Every dollar extra taken back from Prince's contract is a dollar not available on the cap after July.  If the deal goes down after the Hinrich trade there's no space to preserve.  In that case the Blazers' salaries can come in below Prince's salary.  In fact doing so may be attractive to Detroit as it could save them money.

Talent-wise and contract-wise the two names that stand out on the list are Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.  The Pistons would probably also consider Batum but I don't think the Blazers would deal him.  The Pistons probably wouldn't consider Bayless.  Both Fernandez and Outlaw fill a need for the Pistons, they're young, and they're cheap.  Travis has no contract footprint as of yet in the summer of 2010.  Rudy's will be around $1.25 million.  Those are good numbers. 

In either year, however, we're still short salary from the Blazers' side.

In 2008-09 Prince's salary is $9.5 million and Outlaw+Rudy totals to $5.1 million.  There's at a $4.4 million gap there and all of it needs to be made up to make the Hinrich deal work later.  There's no convenient number left on that chart either.  The only real possibility in this scenario is including Martell Webster and Sergio Rodriguez in the deal.  That makes the salaries work but that's also a 4-for-1 trade which probably isn't plausible.  The only way out of the box for this year is to reverse the original thinking and consider whether the Pistons would accept Joel Przybilla and Outlaw instead.  They need a center badly and Joel has the advantage of not duplicating positions like Rudy and Rip Hamilton, but this seems less attractive for a couple of reasons.  First, Joel isn't that young.  Second Joel has a $7.4 million player option in the summer of 2010 compared to Prince's $11.1 million contract that year.  That eliminates a big hunk of the cap savings...all of it if they want Outlaw back. Detroit really, really valuing Przybilla and going the Boozer route is the only way this makes sense. 

The deal probably goes down easier in 2009-10.  Even though Prince's salary is higher Portland has more wiggle-room around it.  Now you could posit throwing Martell Webster in the deal with Rudy and Travis and be within the target range.  Combined Webster and Fernandez are owed $6 million in 2010, leaving the Pistons a little more to play with under the cap.  Granted that's still going bye-bye if they want to retain Outlaw but with Martell on board maybe Travis becomes less valuable to you, especially if you're chasing Chris Bosh.  Failing that, I believe a Przybilla and Fernandez package also works, leaving the Blazers thinner in the middle but more robust in the forward corps.  Przybilla and Webster may hold the most attraction to Portland in the long run but that doesn't seem as appealing to Detroit for talent or salary purposes.   Any of these deals work with the Boozer acquisition as well. 

There are many permutations possible, which is why I gave you the table.  Maybe you'll come up with a better approach on your own.

As we were discussing in another thread today, there's a world of difference between a speculative deal and one that actually happens. (More so when we're talking TWO deals!)   There are some names in there it would hurt to part with.  The original goal was to do this without gutting the team but I fear the incision may be large.  Still, the idea of that Hinrich-Roy-Prince-Aldridge-Oden starting lineup with Bayless, Batum, and some combination of Przybilla, Webster, Outlaw, or (most improbably) Fernandez in reserve appeals.  You lose some depth and potential but you gain experience and focus.  I'd be nervous about getting thin in the roster, but depth can also be a crutch to explain why roles are unclear and people aren't performing up to their full potential.  If you're making a choice between deep and great you choose great every time.  More teams win with greatness than depth.

Do these trades make us great?  I think they bring us closer than we are and give greatness a better chance to happen...and sooner at that.  Could these deals really go down?  The Hinrich one could at least. The number and/or type of players needed to make the Prince move work lessen its chances considerably.  But then again the odds are long against any specific trade. 

I think it's worth noting, however, that I really only like these acquisitions in the plural, bundled together.  If you're looking for one player to make a difference Turkoglu, Gerald Wallace, or maybe some other names might make more sense.  What's more, though Prince is clearly the superior player right now if I had to choose only one of these two I would choose Hinrich because I think he'd fit better as a solo acquisition and he'd cost less.  For me, though, this isn't about each individual player...it's about what they could do together with the rest of the Blazers to get them over the hump and pave the way for the future.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

 

[Update:]  Sorry for the quick drive-by but I woke up this morning thinking of this and I literally have five minutes to get it in print before I have to be at work.

There's another, slightly less painful way to get this done.  One comment in the thread suggested staying over the cap.  I haven't thought of the implications of that yet.  I'll try to comment in the thread later.  We can also do it being under the cap, depending on what Chicago and Detroit would accept.

We'd need to renounce the rights to Petteri Koponen and Joel Freeland plus (and this is the key) trade away the #24 pick for a second-rounder or a future pick.  The resulting cap hold savings would bring our 2009-10 cap space to around $8.3 million.  At that point, if Chicago is willing, Sergio Rodriguez would make up the difference to get to Hinrich's salary, not Steve Blake.  That frees Blake's $4 million for the Detroit trade, meaning the offer could be Fernandez/Blake/Webster (I think Portland's best option and I honestly believe Martell would be great in Detroit in the absence of Prince) or Fernandez/Blake/Outlaw.  That leaves us another forward with value remaining on the team, lowering the cost in current roster talent significantly.

The questions are:  Would Chicago be happy enough with more space and Sergio?  Would anyone take that #24 pick off of our hands?  If those go through I think the Detroit deal looks more palatable.

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