Blazersedge Mailbag: Forward Thinking-- Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum

Dave,

Small forward is the Blazers strongest and deepest position but [Gerald] Wallace and [Nicolas] Batum have contract negotiations coming up. How can the Blazers afford to keep both of them? Then again how can they afford not to?

I love the way you put that. I also love both players. From an enjoyment standpoint Wallace is my favorite Blazer on the current squad and it's not even close. From a titillation and appreciation of potential standpoint Batum tops the list. Together they're #1 and #2 on Dave's "Best Blazers to Watch" list.

Given the chatter that's come out of Blazers Headquarters, that assessment likely resonates among Portland's decision-makers. Both Batum and Wallace appear to be highly valued by Portland's brass.

The sentimental move here is to sign them both. That's also the wrong move.

Making the argument to retain both assumes that each player will continue to play well. Otherwise, why would you want them? But if both play well, neither will come cheap.

Wallace makes $9.5 million this year and will earn the same the year following if he doesn't opt out. If his level of play stays high he's not going to want to take a significant pay cut. Even if he loves the Blazers and wants to finish his career in Portland it's hard to see him going even down to $8 million a year to do it. Anything less than that is inconceivable. He might even (gasp!) want a raise in what will likely be the last significant contract in his career. But let's be conservative and say he'll sign for $8-9 million.

The number being floated for Batum is around 4 years, $32 million...about $8 million a year himself. He might well earn that on the open market. But let's go ahead and say he, too, loves the Blazers and wants to stay and will do so for somewhere between $6-8 million a year.

Add those salaries now. You're spending somewhere between $14 million and $17 million to fill one position. Even if the salary cap remains at $58 million over the next few years you're talking about 24-29% of your cap spent on small forwards.

Note some of the players in that salary range in the league, give or take a couple million: Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash. Obviously other players also make that or more--your Rashard Lewises and Elton Brands and such--but those contracts are widely considered albatrosses, mistakes. If you're going to spend that kind of money on a single position you want the kind of player who's going to give you a chance to make an impact every single season, who bends every game to his own will, whose name and "MVP" are spoken in the same breath. Wallace and Batum are good. Are Wallace and Batum at that MVP and/or World-Championship-Leader level, even if you combine them? Not even close.

Then you consider that we're already seeing Batum's impact suffer because Wallace is starting and sucking up minutes. Both Batum and Wallace are multi-positional to a point but LaMarcus Aldridge is a roadblock to playing Wallace consistently at power forward, even if he'd want to. Wesley Matthews needs time at shooting guard and moving Batum there full-time (or near) would just shift the issue to Batum-Matthews instead of Batum-Wallace. Retaining them both, you'd get full value and production out of neither.

As inspirational as these players are, as great as they are to watch, this is not a tenable situation. One way or another one of these guys has to go.

The fascinating part of this situation is that Portland's eventual resolution to its small-forward logjam will tip their hand, revealing the direction they think the team itself is going.

If you suppose, as some do, that this team is close to contending in a chaotic Western Conference then keeping Wallace is the way to go. He's experienced and the better player most nights. This team needs more size and more weapons if it wants to take a shot right now. You go for the veteran knock-out blow. You start looking at recognizable names at center (or PF/C), at point guard, at shooting guard. You call Houston, New Orleans, Boston, anyone with talent who might want to get a fresh start. You forget salary cap, trade flexibility, and even luxury tax implications for the next couple of years. Seize the day. Knowing you're not going to re-invest in Nicolas following the season allows you to dangle him as trade bait for those last couple of pieces to put you over the top.

If you don't believe you can contend in the next year or so then retaining Wallace will make little sense. Now you start looking at deals like the rumored Orlando-New Jersey triangle. You keep Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and you move the vets for draft picks and young players. In essence you become one of the Houston, New Orleans, Boston-like teams in the above scenario.

One or the other of these philosophies eventually has to win out. If I have a quibble with the Blazers' front office, it's that they try to split the middle too much. Their philosophy of "rebuild while keeping costs down and remaining competitive all at once" sounds nice in theory but you've got at least a couple of opposing directives in there. I'm ready to go with either decision they make. The only one that won't work is the middle ground, trying to cover all of those bases at once. They can either try to contend now or try to add on to their young core. Both are valid plays. They can't hamstring this team by falling in love with both of their small forwards, trying to pay and play them both at once, capping themselves out for what will end up being high-level mediocrity.

Either way, it's not like the Blazers will be going to extremes. They're not a Finals lock no matter who they acquire. (I'm tipping the hat to the home crowd with that assertion. Personally I don't think they're capable of even getting to the Finals with anyone they could reasonably pick up.) Neither will they enter a complete rebuild, as they still have a young core if they care to work off of it. The choice between winning now and restocking isn't absolute. But the Wallace-Batum question will shade the team one direction or the other. They just need to decide which way is best and make the move with both a clear conscience and a clear plan when it's time.

I'd be surprised if they could get Batum to sign an extension without the Wallace issue resolved. If he does sign early either they paid him handsomely or he's been assured that Gerald will be out of the picture. Otherwise he'll find it more advantageous to test the restricted free agent market in the summer.

I would not be surprised to see Wallace traded before the deadline this year. If he isn't, I think he's gone next year one way or the other, either by opting out or retaining the final year of his contract and getting traded. The talent isn't available to put the Blazers over the top, which would be the big justification for keeping Gerald. Even taking the gamble would doom themselves to luxury tax land for the next few years. I don't think Paul Allen does that.

The answer to your question, then, is that they can't afford to keep both. We just don't know yet which one they'll value more highly and why.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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