With all of the trade talk and playoff talk and general future talk going on, it's time to take a serious look at one of Portland's more important players, Joel Przybilla.
Przybilla's importance on the court is one of the more obvious things about this team. The Blazers won 54 games last year despite Greg Oden's injuries, inexperience, foul trouble, and what have you. The Blazers excelled despite being congenitally incapable of handling opposing screen plays. The Blazers rebounded like Portland teams of yore, being able to stand proud in the company of frontlines like Walton-Lucas-Gross and Duckworth-Williams-Kersey. All of this was due in large part to the contributions of Joel Przybilla. He shut down the lane. He cleaned up the boards. He spoke up in huddles. He stared down opponents. He even hit a bunch of his free throws for Pete's sake. The Blazers didn't have anyone quite like him.
Przybilla not only enhances the texture of the team, he fits into its context. He's a defensive rebounder and defender on a roster short of both. He's a pick-setter. He's a blue-collar worker. He's just the right kind of guy to set the bar for Greg Oden. He won't give up the starting job without a fight but when he does give it up he'll play just as hard off the bench. He's a great culture guy, a true professional who has done everything asked of him. As such he's a fine example for the team.
That's one definition of Joel's importance. Another is looming alongside of it, however.
In addition to being one of last year's biggest keys on the court, Joel is rapidly turning into one of this year's keys to roster movement.
The Blazers are going to be in the business of making moves this year. Every sign we're seeing is pointing that way. The timing is right. The cap space is right. The need is there. The list of players available to move, however, is fairly small. Most players on the roster are either too valuable or not valuable enough to trade. Przybilla is one of those in the middle ground. And of those, he's the only big man and one of the only players with a contract hefty enough to balance a move for a veteran with talent. Regardless of talent or roster context his name nearly automatically goes on the list of potential trade candidates for those reasons alone.
With the growth and evolution of the team we're also on the cusp of contextual changes. One is Greg Oden's eventual progression, which we've mentioned numerous times in conjunction with Joel's future value. The latest news about the Blazers possibly pursuing Paul Millsap heralds another such change. For the money he gets and the presumed talent he'll bring Millsap cannot play 15 minutes per game behind LaMarcus Aldridge for the next four years. It's possible that Aldridge could be traded, but the fact that Millsap was not the first option on Portland's plate would seem to contraindicate that. If sending LMA out was the plan a replacement power forward would have been the first thought of the summer, not the third. Eyeballs fall next on Przybilla. Millsap is not a center but he's a reasonable candidate for pairing with Aldridge on the court. The minutes he'd get would certainly be Joel's, at least when averaged out over time. Greg Oden may sit for stretches of a particular game but the Blazers are not going to give up on that experiment over the long haul. One can say, "You can never have too many big men" but a frontcourt with Oden, Przybilla, Aldridge, and Millsap just doesn't work long-term. Somebody's going to be sitting...an asset better translated into help at another position.
Perhaps the most important determining factor may be Joel's contract status. He has a player's option for 2010-11. We've heard that he's leaning towards opting out. That would make sense given the evolution we've just detailed. It would make even more sense considering that the summer of 2010 will probably include several bidders for free agents. Most will be after stars but some of those will walk away empty-handed. They're going to be looking to spend that money somewhere. Even with the forecast of impending cap Armageddon there's a chance that a legit center could make money next year. Opting out would mean that Joel is either hoping to get paid significantly more than the $7.4 million owed in his final year or he's looking to get paid longer. Either one could be an issue for the Blazers. Offering $10 million to Paul Millsap in the one year when you have use-it-or-lose-it cap space is one thing. Offering the same to Joel Przybilla as a reserve is another. You could tie up $20 million in your reserve frontcourt alone, and that's before you consider your max or near-max level starters at power forward and center. Tying up your entire basic cap filling two positions is not likely to pass the fiscal prudence test. Even if Joel doesn't opt out the Blazers would face this situation the season following. The only way they don't have to surmount this challenge is if Joel and his agent can't find anyone to offer him a multi-year deal at his current rate or higher. That seems improbable. And the higher you regard Joel the more improbable it seems.
At some point the Blazers may find themselves needing to get value out of Joel before he leaves or before his playing time diminishes. If he truly intends to opt-out after this season, that point may be soon.
The key question is, "At what point to the important trade factors surrounding Joel outweigh the important on-court factors?" I'm not certain that answer is clear yet. It will depend on two things. First, whether Portland can address its needs by other means, either free agency or trading other players or evolution of its own players. Odds are that some of that will happen but that holes will remain. Second, Joel's status will depend on Greg Oden's progress. Summer reports almost always paint rosy pictures. We won't truly know until the season nears. The organization might know sooner but I'm guessing they're in wait and see mode as well.
If the right offer came along I believe Portland might be willing to take a gamble on those issues now. I don't think it would be their first choice but I believe they could be talked into it. Judging by the lack of buzz and the ever-changing plans the offers don't see that good right now, however.
I'd guess that the Blazers will have no problem holding off until December, January, or maybe even February to make this particular decision, even if they know for sure they'll have to wrestle with Joel's contract issues come July. Oden's progress, and thus Joel's criticality, can be more fairly judged a couple months into the season. The trade prospects might be better then too. Portland could well look to raid a team who thought their season was going to go well but were disabused of that notion after eight weeks of actual play.
Either way, Pryzbilla's status, role, and possible involvement in trades will be one of the points of interest in the coming season. He might be the only guy on the team who's legitimately straddling the "sign him forever" and "trade him" lines. Only two things will definitively address this issue: Joel signing a contract extension or a trade going down. We may have to wait a while for either of those to happen.