6 Easy Steps to the Playoffs

The Blazers did not win the lottery, and thus have no shot at drafting Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo or Nerlens Noel. It's not a travesty, none of those three players would have given the Blazers what they desperately need from Day One. So now Olshey knows exactly what capital he has to work with to get this team to the playoffs next year: the number 10 pick, a few second rounders, J.J. Hickson's Bird Rights, the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou, and about $10-13 mil in cap space. Let's see if we can't turn that little capital into pieces for a legitimate playoff team, step by step.

Step 1: Acquire the 13th pick in the draft from the Dallas Mavericks. I have had a few discussions about this on several different posts, and Dave has mentioned it in his mailbag. But this is a weak draft, with no superstar level talent at the top. After the first seven picks, the next 15-20 guys are all of about roughly equal quality. As such, everyone wants to trade down. I've made this argument before: it is going to be incredibly difficult for any team to trade down this draft, especially if they ask for a lot back.. The reason why is everyone wants to trade down, but who want's to trade up? If the Hawks can get two players at 17 and 18 of roughly the same quality as the player the Blazers are going to get at 10, why spend resources to trade up? It's a buyer's market, and the price for trading up will be less than most other drafts. The only real movement I think we will see would be a team outside the top seven jumping up to get a player they really like.

So how do the Mavericks fit into all this? Well, they are reportedly shopping the 13th pick in order to have more cap space to go after Dwight Howard and/or Chris Paul. Dave talked about this question specifically in a recent mailbag, asking what can the Blazers offer that the other 28 teams can't? You can't build a trade based on the other team's motive. However, if the deal is there to be made with either the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou and/or a second round pick or two, the Blazers should pull the trigger. It's a buyer's market, and the Mavericks (if they really do want to unload the pick) may have to settle a little bit in what they get in return for it.

Step 2: Pay someone to take Joel Freeland off The Blazers' cap sheet. I like Joel a lot personally and know he's a hard worker. But $3 mil/year is just too much to be paying a guy who is basically unplayable. Ship him, $3 mil to cover his salary and a second round pick to a team that's going to be bad anyway for a low second round pick. He'll turn into an expiring contract after this year for the team that gets him, so that's a silver lining.

Step 3: Trade the 13th and/or 10th picks to the Philidelphia 76ers for Thaddeus Young. A couple caveats here: first, Young would have to be made available by Philly, which he just might be. Their nucleus right now is disjointed and none of the pieces fit together. Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Young make for an incredibly poor-shooting back court. The fact that Young is on a quazi-expensive long term deal signed under the previous brain trust, coupled with Andrew Bynum's uncertain future, may make their brand new GM and head coach want to start over and build around Holiday. Having two or three lottery picks would be a good place to start, especially if they want to move up into the top five of the draft (for instance, a Holiday-Alex Len combo would be a great foundation and would allow them to move on from the Bynum fiasco). Second: due to salary cap reasons this deal would have to be agreed to in principal on draft day, and executed after the league year begins July 1.

Young would kill about three birds with one stone: bench scoring and rebounding, as well as depth at both forward positions. He would give the Blazers a scorer off the bench, someone who almost exclusively shoots near the rim but still has a nice and improving mid-range game. He doesn't draw a ton of fouls, but would be a second player who can get to the rim other than Lillard. He doesn't shoot threes, we need to be clear about that. But the Blazers have enough shooting to cover up for his lack of three point prowess when he slots in for Batum, and his mid-range game is decent enough so he won't cramp the Blazers' spacing on offense.

Apart from his offense, he is a is a very good rebounder (he ranked 24th in the NBA out of all forwards last season with 7.4/game) and pick and roll defender. He also draws a ton of charges, so that's always helpful. He'd be the Blazers nominal 6th man as the primary backup to Batum and Aldridge. Because he has the size (6'8", 225) to play PF, the Blazers could embrace a small-ball identity by pairing him with Aldridge in the front court and surrounding them with three shooters. The Blazers could be a very effective small-ball team for stretches in Stott's system.

(This is a non-sequitur, but there are only three players in the NBA whose last name starts with "Y", and all three of them are named Young. I may be the only person who finds that interesting.)

Step 4: Renounce Bird Rights of Hickson and Maynor, and release Sasha Pavlovic to free up as much cap space as possible. Pretty simple step, these moves alone free up over $14 mil in cap space because Maynor and Hickson have such high cap holds ($7.9 mil and $5.85 mil, respectively). Again, I believe Olshey has to wait until July 1 to be able to renounce their rights. Pavlovic's $1.4 mil salary next year is not fully guaranteed.

Step 5: Sign OJ Mayo. It's no secret Mayo wants a long-term deal worth more annually than the $4 mil he got last year. He's going to opt out of the final year of his contract, so he's there for the Blazers as an URFA. Since the Mavericks will be going after both Howard and CP3, if Olshey acts quickly he can most likely sign Mayo before Howard and/or Paul have made a decision on their free agency. Howard has already said he's going to have a long courtship, and Paul will most likely take his time as well to find where the best place for him is.

The Blazers already know Mayo will be at least as good on the Blazers as he was on the Mavericks because Stotts runs the same (or at least a very similar) offensive system as Rick Carlisle. He's a very good ball handler (and would be that secondary ball handler the Blazers are looking for), an adept passer, and a great shooter and scorer. He doesn't get to the rim as much as some fans would like (he ranked right behind Matthews in attempts at the rim last year), but with his mid-range and three point prowess, you really don't mind that much.

His presence has the secondary effect of improving the bench, as Matthews would now be a backup able to step in for either Mayo or Batum. Mayo would be the one major free agent signing as he would take up the vast majority, if not all, of the Blazers' remaining cap space after the Young trade. His presence also makes Batum more valuable. With another ball handler/attacking guard Batum remain as more of a facilitator role when he is on the floor with the other starters. There is less pressure on him to be aggressive so he might find it easier to develop the play making part of his game with defenses keying on Lillard, Mayo and Aldridge.

Step 6: Re-sign Eric Maynor and sign Jermaine O'Neal. Maynor is a very credible backup, able to run the offense when Lillard is off the floor, allows Lillard to play off the ball, and is an above-average from three. The best part about Maynor is he will come very cheap. He can be signed using the leftover cap space after the Young/Mayo moves, or with the Blazers' room exception. He'll give you 20-25 good minutes a night.

O'Neal can be signed for the veteran's minimum, and the reason he would do it is he would get one last starting gig. Basically what you're hoping for with him is that he comes in, gives you 15-20 good minutes a night, rebounds a little blocks a few shots (he blocked 1.4/g last year in only 18 minutes), and maybe teaches Leonard a few things in the process.

How it all works: If you notice I didn't mention any specific numbers in charting the course. Here's how it all breaks down (salary cap numbers, as always, from Storyteller's beyond-excellent website, assumed cap of $59 million):

The Blazers have $43,240,658 committed to nine players next year. If you factor in cap holds, that number jumps up to $56,990,658 (a little more if you factor in the cap holds for all roster spots). The first thing Olshey has to do is find a way to trade Joel Freeland on draft night, freeing up $2,897,976 for next year, bringing the cap total down to $54,092,682. At that point, that's all the moves he can do until the league year begins. We don't have to factor in any cap hold for first-round picks, because we traded them to Philly for Young.

When the league year starts, Olshey can renounce Maynor and Hickson's rights, as well as release Pavlovic. I remember reading somewhere that Pavlovic's contract is partially guaranteed for $500k next year, so we're going to count that against the cap to be conservative. Those three moves bring the cap figure to $39,443,175 (again, plus the minor holds for all the unfilled roster spots).

In the trade for Thaddeus Young, his $8,850,000 2013-14 salary brings the Blazers' cap figure to $48,293,175. That leaves the Blazers with $10,706,825 to use on free agents.

This is where all the guess work comes in. Mayo wants more than the $4 mil/year he is getting now, but how much more? If he only wants $6-7 mil/year, that leaves the Blazers in really good shape, and they could even possibly go after another mid-level free agent with the remaining cap space or with the room exception. But if he wants $8-10 mil/year then that is going to squeeze the Blazers and put them right up against the salary cap. There are going to be a lot of teams with cap space this offseason that could use shooting, so hopefully it doesn't turn into a bidding war. Mayo and his agent probably have a figure in mind already, so if Olshey went in with a hard proposal they could probably reach a deal over brewskis.

What this does for the Blazers: Young, fast, explosive, versatile. That's what this would turn the Blazers into. Aldridge, and Young could score in the paint, the shooters would open up driving lanes for Lillard and Mayo, and Batum could continue to be a do-it-all player. The Blazers would have eight legitimate NBA caliber rotation players, and seven of them would be 28 or younger. The only players over 30 on the roster would be O'Neal and any other veterans the Blazers sign for the minimum to fill out the end of the bench.

It would be a cast of versatile players capable of playing and guarding multiple positions on offense and defense, allowing Stotts to play a number of different kinds of lineups. Stotts would be able to tailor his offense to be one of the most efficient in the NBA, scoring almost exclusively from three or at the rim, with a few excellent mid-range players mixed (Aldridge, Mayo, Lillard). Case in point: here is the FG% and frequency of every shot in the NBA last season:



That is from the excellent work of Kirk Goldsberry, a professor and Grantland contributor. Look at that distribution: lots of action and a high percentage around the rim, and about a 35-40% proposition everywhere else. If you look at the Blazers' shot charts (plus Mayo and Young) you'll find they are average or above average from all of those spots:
















(Maynor's shot chart isn't a great example, as he had less than half a season with the Blazers and barely played with the Zomie Sonics. After arriving in Portland he averaged 21.2 min, 6.9 pts, 4 ast and shot 38% from three.)




And Young:



All of those players have above-average numbers in the court's "sweet spots" for their areas of strength. Having another play maker in Mayo on the floor will help get everyone better shots in a system that is built around ball movement, unselfishness, and efficiency. Zach Lowe discussed this some last week, but having an offensive (and defensive) system is incredibly important. Coaches usually get fired for two reasons: gratuitous losing, or the cliche that the players "quit" on him. The most important aspect of coaching is not player rotations and calling timeouts, it is establishing a system and getting players to buy into that system fully. If a player plays outside that system he either has to be benched or gotten rid of.

Last year the Blazers scored 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that places them squarely in the middle of the pack (tied with the Hawks and Pelicans for 15th in the league) and includes a bench devoid of any NBA talent (other than Maynor). While having Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews helped, Stotts' system is largely responsible for that figure. Adding players to it that fit the system and will maximize their opportunities should be enough to get into the playoffs, possibly as a higher seed.

Drawbacks to the plan: While I think it's a very good plan, I recognize that it has its downsides. Some of them are more minor than others, and most of them revolve around the Blazers' defense. Starting with:

Punting on center. The Blazers' biggest need is a shot blocking, rim-protecting, rebounding, defensive presence at center. Portland doesn't get that in this scenario. The centers who are free agents either won't sign with Portland (Howard), or don't fill those needs (Al Jefferson, Kris Kaman). The closest thing you're going to come is Chris Anderson, and he's a nutjob (though he could come cheap). (While there has been some talk about him his offseason, we should remember a couple things: it took playing with LeBron James to make him look decent, and he's 34 years old.) With this plan the Blazers are essentially committing themselves to a season of mostly small ball. Against a team like the Zombie Sonics or San Antonio or New York that's not a problem, but against someone like the Grizzlies it could be a huge problem.

Risk of upsetting Aldridge. It also may not make Aldridge very happy, as he has previously stated he wants to play alongside a shot-blocking seven footer. Instead of Roy Hibbert, he'd be getting 20-30 minutes a night of Jermaine O'Neal and Meyers Leonard. Olshey and Stotts would have to pray to Bill Russell that Leonard can develop into at least an average defender, something that's no guarantee. If not, the Blazers will be forced to play small a lot.

Overall defensive limitations. Good defensive players make good defenses, and good defensive centers are the most important part of a good defense. You're almost guaranteed at least a decent defense if you have Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Omer Asik or Larry Sanders on your team. However, even the five best defenders in the league can be made to look silly if they don't have a unified defensive system and all buy into it.

Stotts' problem last year was not that his system was bad, it was that he had players who didn't understand NBA defense and were bad at it on a fundamentals level (Lillard, Leonard and Hickson being the three biggest culprits). Many times just knowing the rules of your defensive system and having them drilled into you so they become habit is the best way to turn a poor defender (Carlos Boozer) into an acceptable one. The Blazers gave up the third most shots at the rim last season, testament to not having a rim protector on the team (also poor overall team defense at keeping people out of the lane). Stotts would have to bank on a roster of versatile players capable of guarding multiple positions to clog the lane, switch on everything, trap opposing ball handlers, force turnovers and take away other team's ball movement in order to to make up for the lack of a Roy Hibbert on the roster.

Lack of cap flexibility. The Blazers would be locked into four years of Mayo, three more of Young and Batum, and two more with Aldridge and Matthews (and possibly Maynor). Those are all expensive contracts, with not a lot of wiggle room. In a couple years the Blazers are looking at trying to re-sign Aldridge and more than likely give Lillard a max or near-max contract. There is very little flexibility in there. On the flip side, however, it is a fairly impressive collection of talent that could be packaged and traded around the league for more and/or better talent. So while the cap room isn't there, the Blazers aren't trapped either.

Conclusions: Defensive limitations aside, this would be a young, fast, explosive roster that would score a lot of points and be fun to watch. They would have a few years to grow together and compete in the West. The upshot is if Leonard develops into a quality defensive center they would have a chance to be great. By way of illustration, here would be the Blazers' depth chart, (ages and length of contract in parenthesis):

PG: Lillard (23/3), Maynor (26/2)
SG: Mayo (25/4), Matthews (26/2), Barton
SF: Batum (24/3), Young (25/3), Matthews, Claver
PF: Aldridge (28/2), Young, Claver
C: O'Neal (35/1), Leonard (21/3)

The Blazers have to be in "win now" mode, if for no other reason than they don't know how good Aldridge can be surrounded by a roster of legitimate NBA players. The worst case scenario is an ugly first round playoff exit, and then Olshey trades Aldridge in the offseason or at the trade deadline next year. He would fetch an excellent price in return, and the Blazers would still have a solid foundation to re-build on in Lillard, Mayo, Matthews, Batum, Young.

Thanks for bearing with me on this one, I know it was long.

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