Last week we explored what moving up in the draft would look like for the Trail Blazers. (A theme picked up by Bill Simmons over the weekend.) Today we're going to explore the opposite move, trading out of the draft entirely.
Why Would the Blazers Want to Trade Out of the Draft?
Bailing out of a lottery position is not a prudent move under normal circumstances. Draft picks not only represent the future health of the franchise, they provide the better production per dollar invested than any other category of player in the league. The rookie contract scale tops out at about $5.9 million for the #1 overall pick after four years and go down from there. Those #1 picks are supposed to be stars. Think you can get a star on the open market for $5.9 million?
By comparison Portland's #10 pick would cost them about $2.6 million in the fourth year of his deal. That's third-string point guard money for a lottery pick. There's no substitute for having a player's right so long and so cheaply. If you can find anybody good with those high picks you have to take him. You'll never find a better deal.
Notice we said "under normal circumstances" though. This year two abnormal factors combine to make what would normally be a bonehead move into a smart consideration for the Blazers.
1. As has been proclaimed since before last year's draft, the 2013 rookie crop looks weak. If you don't like the word "weak" you can substitute "flat" instead. There aren't many peaks here. Even the premier picks carry significant question marks and you don't find many high-ceiling players in lottery position.
I've heard some claim, "Every draft contains some star players." Most drafts do, it's true. But that reasoning is the same as, "There are always seashells on the beach!" That's accurate until there aren't. Saying it will not make the tide come in when you get to the shore and find mostly bare sand. If shell hunters have been to this stretch before you, as is the case with anyone drafting after #5 or so, "mostly bare" becomes "completely". Unless, of course, you like half-broken sand dollars. Every once in a blue moon you find a year like 1973 or 2000 when the pickings range from slim to none.
2. You can probably argue with a straight face that the Blazers can get a future decent player at #10 but the Blazers need more than a future decent player. They're flush with experiments, guys you hope for, guys you're waiting on. Their bench was populated with pretty much nothing but last season. They have enough Will Bartons, Meyers Leonards, Victor Clavers...and those are the elite names in the bunch. They need solid help now. That's a tall order with the 10th pick in 2013.
Cross-reference the state of the draft with the needs of the team and you're going to find that trading their lottery pick for an asset makes sense for Portland if they can pull it off.
What's Standing in the Way
The lottery being the sweet spot in today's NBA, the Blazers would normally find suitors aplenty for their dangling selection. Once again, circumstances aren't normal.
Everybody else around the league knows this draft is weak as well. Teams will target players but there won't be as much consensus and they're not going to pay as much to hit those targets as they would be willing to in a stronger year. Fewer teams liking fewer players means a much smaller chance of finding that magical combination of need and willingness to pay that sparks trades.
This could be confusing to those who read the article on Portland moving up in the draft which speculated that such a move would be comparatively easy. Moving up and moving out are completely different types of trades.
Imagine 14 people are standing in line because they got a coupon for a free plain bagel for breakfast. It's free and they've got nothing else to do, so what the heck. They'll each get to pick a bagel when they redeem their ticket so the folks in the front of the line are going to get slightly bigger bagels, but everybody will eventually get a bagel of some sort.
If you're standing in the 10th position in line and you want a bigger bagel it's going to be a fairly easy matter to get the guy in the 5th position to switch with you. He's comparing bagels to bagels. All you have to do is give him enough incentive to take a slightly smaller one. Slip him a dollar and he comes out ahead: a buck and a free bagel instead of a free slightly bigger bagel is a good deal for him...his lucky day!
If you turn instead to passersby on the street and start trying to sell the coupon and your place in line you're going to find a tougher audience. They're not comparing bagels to bagels. They have omelettes, stacks of pancakes, bacon, or the money to buy same. Most of them won't want a bagel instead of their normal breakfast. (You might not have either, except it was free.) Even interested parties won't be willing to pay you enough to get a Grand Slam at Denny's just to get a bagel themselves. Your buck and a bagel just doesn't carry much buying power outside of the bagel line. You're going to need to find somebody who really values these particular bagels in order to swing a deal. And even then, such a connoisseur would probably prefer to buy in closer to the front of the line.
It's the same thing with the Blazers trying to find established players in exchange for the #10 pick. Absent additional incentives they'll have a hard time getting somebody to turn over real assets for that selection.
The phrase "additional incentives" evokes the same question we found in the trading up post. What have the Blazers got to offer? Their bench players are closer to pocket lint than breakfast. Their upper core players can't be traded without rebuilding the team. They're left with Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, or taking on a bad salary.
Moving Matthews or Batum made some sense in the trade up scenario because the Blazers would gain a better pick plus extra cap space to sign free agents in addition to the higher draft pick. It's not a 2-for-1 deal for Portland because they'd get more players with the newly-available money, turning it into a 2-for-2 affair at least.
In the trade out scenario the departing player's cap space would presumably get eaten by the incoming player. Plus the Blazers would lose their pick without gaining one in return. This is a true 2-for-1 deal. The incoming player would have to replace the value of the #10 selection and the core player the Blazers traded out. That's a pretty high bar to clear for any player the Blazers could reasonably get in such a move. It's hard to imagine it turning more than lateral.
This is also true if the Blazers absorb a bad salary in addition to a prized asset when they're trading out the pick. Each dollar they take on means a dollar less to sign someone else. In this case they may keep their Core Four and get one more guy but that would be their summer. Again it's hard to imagine an incoming player who could make that kind of move work all by himself.
The Ultimate Sticking Point
Now cold, harsh reality smacks the Blazers in the face. If it were just a matter of not liking anyone in the lottery and getting out, they could do that. "Who wants a free bagel?" would be enough. But the cupboard is bare for Portland. They need help in multiple places and they need to improve on a relatively quick timetable. They can't afford not to like anybody and just get out. They can't afford to go laterally. They have to maximize every single asset this summer, including this pick. That either means falling in love with somebody at #10 or making measurable headway by trading it.
It's a strange situation because there's no clear solution. The first question you ask is, "Can the Blazers afford to pick at 10 and wait for a potentially-shaky guy to develop?" Probably not. Then you ask, "Can the Blazers afford to trade out and get a more experienced, bankable player?" For completely different reasons the answer is, "Probably not." You're trapped into figuring which move costs you less and carries less risk instead of asking which move takes you forward most. The Blazers can't afford that mindset either.
Everywhere you turn your head bonks something. Welcome to life in the Portland front office.
If they can find a veteran rotation player they like and a team willing to trade that player for #10 and not much else moving out of the lottery is a no-brainer for the Blazers. Parlaying that "maybe" pick into certain depth is the best option possible. But absent the Dwight-Howard-Displaced-Center unicorn scenario the add-on cost of turning that bagel into even an Egg McMuffin, let alone Eggs Benedict, may prove too high to make the move practical for Portland. They may end up having to eat the free bagel and hope it holds enough nutritional value to see them through.