Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Free Agent Desirability, Omer Asik, 2014 Draft, and 2015 Cap Space

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Blazer's Edge readers ask about Portland's true desirability as a free agent destination, trading for Omer Asik, Portland's 2014 draft, and renewing cap space in 2015. Oddly enough, these all point to the same thing: a new direction for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Mail call! Lots of hot topics in the inbox today, so let's get started.

Dave,

Give us some hope that Portland is still able to draw free agents even though the article yesterday [by Greg Jayne of the Columbian] said we couldn't. Things can't be that bad can they?

Bryce

I agree with Jayne's point that the Blazers have not signed or traded for premium players this season. But there are several possible reasons for this:

1. They're just too small, provincial, or anonymous to attract free agents, the tack (mostly) taken by Jayne and adopted by folks who take the "woe is me" route regarding Portland's culture and status and claim the Blazers will never be winners on this front.

2. No significant free agents are available, or at least they weren't this year. This has been spouted around various comment sections as Portland's 2013 signings and trades have settled.

Both of these explanations are flawed. The Blazers have done fairly well in the free agent and trade market in the past. The Rasheed Wallace era provides the most obvious example. For a while there the Blazers were either trading for or signing seemingly every decent player on the market. Even though he didn't end up successful, Jamal Crawford wasn't a bad get in 2011, a more recent example. The Blazers have gotten significant names before. It can be done.

As for the second item, other teams improved themselves in the market this year. Those players were out there. The Blazers just didn't get any of them.

If they could get free agents and they didn't, we have to look for other explanations to explain Portland's performance.

3. They just didn't care to pursue any, going another direction.

4. They did pursue but couldn't land their quarry because those free agents didn't like the chances for the franchise to succeed in the short term.

These hold far more water than "nobody will ever come to Portland" or "there isn't anybody out there to sign". Free agents follow money, sure, but they also follow success. This is especially true of bigger-name free agents. You have to show your team is on an upward arc in order to get the big fish.

The Blazers are not giving off signals that they're planning to succeed. They're broadcasting a rebuild instead. That's going to make chasing quality free agents harder.

This off-season is probably a sign that both 3 and 4 are true. The Blazers didn't care for most of the bigger name free agents and the bigger name free agents didn't care for the Blazers' chances.

Good News: Free agents will come to Portland as soon as the Blazers demonstrate that they want them and demonstrate enough competence and forward direction to interest them.

Bad News: The way things are looking, that'll be a while.

Dave,

You touched on contract length a little when you talked about [Portland's] signings but not enough. Give this team two years to grow and we'll have a super solid core plus plenty of cap space to raid that free agent market. Then you'll get the kind of signings you seem to be looking for. The summer of 2015 will be a bonanza!

Junger

I agree the Blazers are shifting focus to that point but not the way you think. What you're suggesting isn't really possible when you look at the actual cap space available in 2015.

Let's consider only a six-player core: Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Leonard, Lillard, and McCollum. The cap holds and established contracts for just those six players will total around $50 million in the summer of 2015. Assuming the salary cap lies at $58 million, adding roster spot holds, that'll leave a grand total of $5 million for the Blazers to spend...a mid-level exception. And that $50 million cap figure assumes Portland dumps everybody they got this year outside of 3-Mac. No Lopez, no Crabbe, no Wright, no Claver or Barton...none of those guys would last past 2015 or the cap obligation would be even higher.

You could create more cap space by letting Wesley Matthews go as well, but then you're down to a core of 5 and you're depending on Meyers Leonard as a starting center and C.J. McCollum as a starting shooting guard, both of which could be problematic. If both of those aren't rock-solid you have $15.5 million-ish to fill 1-2 starting holes plus a couple significant bench players, which should bring flashbacks to this summer. You're replaying the current situation except Aldridge is two years older and an unrestricted free agent.

In short, there's no way they can keep this core AND sign even one truly great free agent in 2015. They could get a decent one by letting all but 5 players go but then their holes would be so plentiful that one decent free agent wouldn't fill them.

The idea that 2015 will be a bonanza is not true, at least if the Blazers retain their current players. They'll have less money than they did this summer.

As with the first question, it's pretty easy to find possible explanations for the Blazers lining up their contract obligations this way despite the low eventual cap space payoff.

1. They truly believe that this core of 5 or 6 will take them to a title (or whatever their target apex is) pretty much as-is...probably a stretch.

AND...

2. Every acquisition this summer outside of McCollum was a two-year placeholder, as is Wesley Matthews if you want significant cap space in 2015...also a stretch.

OR...

3. The move they're telegraphing: trading away LaMarcus Aldridge, his enormous contract, and his enormous cap hold in 2015 so cap space opens up around these other players...the only explanation that really makes sense.

The 2015 contract line-up is the second sign, along with the caliber and age of this year's acquisitions, that the Blazers are shifting into rebuild mode. It also shows you where they'll probably go with an Aldridge trade, not seeking equal talent and experience in return but going with younger, cheaper players and/or draft picks.

Dave,

I was reminded recently that the Blazers' first round pick in the coveted 2014 draft will in all likelihood belong to the Charlotte Bobcats. As someone who has been confused/disappointed in what the Blazers have accomplished this summer, being reminded that we likely won't have a first round pick in the best draft class in years was a gut-punch that I am still recovering from. Could you give us a rundown of where the Blazers stand regarding next year's draft and maybe some analysis of how they got there/was it worth it? I don't exactly remember what picks went where, when, and how.

Peter

The Blazers promised a pick to the Charlotte Bobcats as part of the trade that brought Gerald Wallace to Portland. It was top-12 protected last season and remains so next year and in 2015. It's unprotected in 2016. As to whether it was worth it, probably not for Wallace's sake alone given the nature of that one-year experiment at "veteranizing" the roster. But without Wallace there's no trade to New Jersey later and thus no Damian Lillard pick. You can be the judge of its ultimate worth.

However I'm not sure you need to worry about the gut punch of not having a pick next year. If the Blazers don't make the playoffs--or at least get right on the border--they'll keep the pick. There's no guarantee Portland will be a playoff team next year. Unless things go really right they're not getting that much better.

Also as we've just established twice over, trading Aldridge is not only on the menu, there's a big, shiny picture of that deal on Page 1. Is it more likely that the Blazers would ride out a season of mediocrity, perhaps losing next year's pick in the process, and then deal him? Or is it more likely that they'll look to move him sometime before the trade deadline?

I believe offers for Aldridge are going to get hotter as the season progresses. The Blazers have incentive to shop him and take the most forward-looking, rebuild-friendly one available. Then not only will they retain their own pick next summer, they might have somebody else's on top of it.

Dave,

How can we get Asik???!! Does Robinson have enough value to get a mid-level first rounder next year? Package that with Lopez and maybe another draft pick? Send McCollum and use the mini mid-level to sign a serviceable combo guard (Mo Williams?) to take his place?

Seems like Asik is the right player at the right time and the Blazers need to find a way to take the assets and tools they possess and make a deal!

Will

There are a couple interesting parts to this question.

First, I've received several versions of it, many of which include Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez as parts of the prospective trade. Robinson is out of any direct trade for Asik for technical reasons because Houston traded him away and thus cannot reacquire him for a year. He could, as you say, be traded for another asset to be bundled to Houston. But this brings up a bigger philosophical question of what these players are worth.

If there's anything watching multiple Pawn Stars marathons has taught me, it's that an item is only worth what someone will actually pay for it. Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price doesn't matter. ("He was the #5 overall pick in 2012!") What somebody is listing it for on eBay doesn't matter. ("Recent model power forward, low mileage, good coat of paint! Must see!") Currency changing hands counts. Absent extraordinary circumstances, the most reliable barometer of current value is what the last buyer actually paid for the product in question.

We have to insert an asterisk because only teams below the cap could bid on Lopez and Robinson, since their teams were seeking cap relief. But keep in mind that more teams had more cap space this summer than at any time in recent memory and that plenty of those teams could use an extra big man. In that environment, what were Lopez and Robinson traded for?

Robinson was traded for the rights to two second-round draftees who have never played in the NBA and two future second-round picks. Portland obtained Lopez for the rights to a single second-round pick. You can claim more was involved in that deal with Greivis Vasquez heading out and Tyreke Evans incoming, but Portland stepped into the Lopez receiving line for that paltry price. The lowest of first-rounders would have been a better return for New Orleans. Rights to two second-rounders would have been a better return. None of those offers were forthcoming from other teams to take Portland's place.

With that baseline of worth on the open market established, what kind of Chumlee of a General Manager would then turn around and trade a first-round pick for either one of these guys, especially with next year's draft projected to be strong?

This is what tends to happen. Your team gets a player on the cheap. You call it a "steal", immediately increasing the value of said player in your mind. You let it marinate a little bit, project the best possible outcome with said player, cement the possibilities into near-certainty. Then you re-explore the idea of trading him, ignoring that he was just traded for real and the price you paid is the price he went for. After all the marination and extrapolation, the player's value seems greater. Then you step up to the counter and opposing GM's become your Rick, shaking their heads and saying, "Maybe you could get that in an auction setting, selling to a rabid collector on the best day of your life, but here's the real price I'll offer you." The reality is simple: that "steal" price you paid for the player was actually the high offer on the recent market. For everyone else his value is lower than what you paid.

So then, revisiting the Asik trade idea...can Lopez or Asik be moved for a first-round pick or the equivalent, let alone Asik himself? Anything is possible I suppose, but I'd guess not. You really have to ask whether the Blazers have any assets that would trump what other teams could offer for Asik. Would the Rockets value Wesley Matthews when they already have James Harden? Which of Portland's young players would do it? Those that might, the Blazers probably wouldn't be willing to trade.

You also have to look at whether Asik fits into the Blazers' scheme given everything we've discussed in this post. His contract expires in 2015. That's a positive. But he'd create a cap hold, albeit not as egregious as Aldridge's. He's 27, not a bad age but a bit on the high side when extrapolating 4-5 years out. He'd probably make the team better over the next couple years but is he enough of a long-term solution that you could ride with him through a rebuild into contention? If your intent is only to make this year's team better, remember that any Aldridge move would certainly scuttle any progress made on that front and all signals point to an Aldridge move coming.

For all these reasons, I'd be surprised if the Blazers ended up trading for Asik unless he was part of a package of assets acquired in exchange for Aldridge himself.

Final Thought: Up until now the narrative surrounding Aldridge has been his discontent with the Blazers and/or Portland. As we said in the last Mailbag, a couple of national rumors and a follow-up local report helped to paint that picture. As should be clear by now, that's not the real issue...at least not at this point. The Blazers are giving off every sign of preparing to do without Aldridge. If and when that moment comes, remember it wasn't a one-way street, or at least not for long.

We've got plenty of Mailbag questions in the hopper but there's always room for yours. Mail it to blazersub@gmail.com with "Mailbag" in the signature!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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