Trail Blazers Continue to Confound with Discount Moves

USA TODAY Sports

Reaction to the Portland Trail Blazers acquiring center Robin Lopez and speculation about the Blazers' free agent strategy.

Let's start with a Mailbag question.

Dave,

Your extra article this week [on advice for NBA rookies] was cool. I noticed you wrote it on Saturday when you normally don't post. That got me thinking that other than weekends I don't ever see you take days off. I can't recall you not posting for a week of vacation or anything. So my question is do you ever take time off and if you do, what do you like to do?

Byron

No, I don't usually take a lot of time off, and this is why. I leave town for one day...one [bleeping] day, having some nice Fourth of July fun at an amusement park with my family...and the Blazers decide to become a Home for Wayward Big Men, blowing $5 million in salary cap space on a center someone else was salary dumping right after blowing $3.5 million in salary cap space on a power forward another team was salary dumping.

If bigs were radioactive material the Blazers would be Nevada. "Sure, dump it here! We've got plenty of unused space! Who'll notice?"

Hold up. Forgot the other question.

Dave,

I know the Blazers haven't done much in free agency yet but do you think Robin Lopez would be a good move? He maybe could be had for a deal similar to T-Rob with Houston, second rounders? That would be a great move for the Blazers IMO because it'd cost them nothing, right?

Allan

OK, we'll give credit where credit is due. Robin Lopez can and will be had for Jeff Withey, apparently. And yes, that's a good value move when you just consider talent. But you also have to look at the bigger picture here.

This process of finding value--absorbing players that others are giving away--looks smart on paper and is fine when you're rolling the dice on a diamond in the rough. It leaves much to be desired as a main strategy for acquiring rotation players and adding wins.

The Blazers are clipping coupons in a designer league. As Marge Simpson taught us 17 years ago, when the inner circle at the country club wears Chanel and Louis Vuitton, you're not going to get by shopping at the outlet mall for long.

Yes, the Blazers can trumpet the value of these moves, but value doesn't indicate absolute quality. Wins and losses depend on talent, not on how smart a shopper you were in acquiring it. Did Miami get 50% off on LeBron James? Is whoever picks up Dwight Howard going to be lauded for their cunning and thrift?

I don't wish to disparage Robin Lopez or Thomas Robinson. They're fine people and fine players, I'm sure. But even they couldn't argue that they're among the prime catches of the bunch this summer, nor that they can be forecast to alter the fate of the franchise. They were good buys, but were they the right buys?

Make no mistake...despite the assertion in the question above, these signings did cost the Blazers something. Forget all the second-round picks traded away to get Lopez and Robinson. Those are as close to nothing as you can give in trade without invoking a trade exception, so you're right about that; they cost the Blazers nothing in that sense. But Portland started this free agency period with roughly $11.8 million in cap space. They will wake up on July 10th having spent $8.5 million of that space--72% of it--on two players that other teams saw fit to give away for free. Unless there's a revolutionary imbalanced trade possible with the remaining $3+ million it's hard to imagine the Blazers coming away with much else for their money either.

Have you ever picked up a paper, saw some radical 90% off deal on some stuff, got all excited and ran to the store, only to discover you just blew most of your monthly budget on 30 cubic feet of generic dish soap and an accordion cover? Sure they were really good buys, but now what? The money you spent on two cheap things could have bought one quality item even if that item wasn't so deeply discounted.

Welcome to Portland's 2013 free agency period.

Let me anticipate a few objections so I don't have to type this stuff in the comment section.

But Dave, I think Lopez or T-Rob is a good player!

They may well turn out to be. Let me be clear. I am not saying either one stinks. Like the accordion cover or dish soap, they're good at what they do. Neither is overpriced. I will not root against either guy. I hope they do great in a Blazer uniform. However there's little or no reason to anticipate that either will meet Portland's needs enough to justify bringing them on board at this time, let alone to justify devoting more than 2/3 of the team's available resources to acquiring them. Seeing as how their former teams dumped them for essentially nothing to make room for players they really wanted instead, there's not even a guarantee that either player will pan out at all.

But Dave, it's not about individuals but about the team. Remember the 1977 championship Blazers!

That team had THE best center in the league that year, one of the best power forwards (if not THE best) in the league, an All-Star shooting guard, and veteran help. Team doesn't replace talent, it makes the best use of it. Case in point: as soon as the world-class center fell out of the equation that "team" collapsed.

This year's Blazers will have the power forward part down, provided LaMarcus Aldridge isn't traded. What else have they got? Maybe Damian Lillard subs in for Lionel Hollins but they have no proven center, no veteran help, and no basis at all to be compared with that '77 squad.

But Dave, I trust Portland's management.

OK. Well it'll be interesting to hear how Portland's management explains the strategy here. Keep in mind we're not talking about explaining process. We all get that. It's value. But that's the same explanation they give every single year in the draft. "We got second-rounders we projected to go in the first round. It's value!" Fine, you've explained the process. Got it. Now tell me how many of those second rounders--or first-rounders that you said should have been drafted higher than you took them--actually worked out. What were they supposed to do and did they (or did they not) end up doing it? That's strategy. That's talent. Those are just as important as value when you're talking about spending on free agents.

We need to hear more from Neil Olshey than, "We got Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson at a good value." What are they supposed to do? How do they change this team? How will they lead the franchise into a new era, or at least strongly support that transition? What was the strategy to these picks besides "getting value" on unproven, cast-away players from other teams? Without clear answers to these questions we have no idea what to trust in.

It's possible that there's still another move here besides using up the remaining cap space on another "value" player. Maybe there's a trade coming. Maybe the Blazers have a yet-unveiled grand strategy to leap into contention of which Robin Lopez is a key part. Even having him as a back-up center to a decorated starter would be a good beginning.

But it's also possible that this free agency period is eating up the Blazers like a 99 mph inside fastball and they're just fouling off pitches and hoping to stay alive at the plate long enough to make something happen. If that's the case then we're looking at Strike 1, Strike 2 already and not enough cap space in reserve for another hard swing.

One thing's for sure. If the Blazers exit the free agency period with these two moves as their crowning achievements, Neil Olshey will have some explaining to do that no about of talk about "value" will cover.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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