Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Decoding "Flexibility" and "Assets" for the Portland Trail Blazers

Stephen Dunn

Dave explores the concepts of roster flexibility, asset acquisition, and deal flow...the current buzzwords in Portland's retooling plan. What do they mean and how will they shape Portland's destiny?


Dave,

You've been saying it all summer without actually saying it.  You think Neil Olshey is doing a bad job.  Just call him out already so we can have some excitement at least.  I disagree by the way.  In Olshey we trust!

Jase

It's true that I don't get the last statement.  Why would you trust in Olshey with any particular fervor?  What has he done so far that no other GM has done or could do?  How has he earned exemption from critical thought?  Analyzing his moves positively I can see.  "Trust" is an odd target to aim for.

But as far as doing a "bad job", I disagree.  I suspect Olshey is doing the exact job he set out to do and he's doing it quite well.  My two quibbles:  whether that job has been accurately defined and whether it's the job that should be done.

Remember what we said early on in Olshey's tenure.  The single strongest card in his hand--his defining characteristic of excellence--is salesmanship.  (You may recall during that same period readers were aflutter with all his NBA connections and the free agents he was going to talk into coming to Portland.)  Whatever the plan, Neil Olshey makes it look good and sound good.

Exhibit A was last summer's strategy of stocking the bench with cheap, disposable, even untried players.  The description:  "We're not  taking on unnecessary contracts just to get a little better now.  We're going spare in order to preserve our cap flexibility for the future."  That, by the way, was a strategy with which I agreed, which I labeled smart.  (I still believe that, by the way.)  It was also an excellent example of Olshey's ability.  He sold "bad" as "good" to Portland fans and did it well.  That's no easy task, especially in our modern, suspicious, and cloud-communicative era.

But that strategy was supposed to have a payoff, i.e. spending cap flexibility for immediate results this summer.  Olshey gained some traction.  Portland's bench is better off in September of 2013 than it was in September of 2012.  But the main drawing card of this summer's acquisitions was that their contracts expire in 2015, preserving flexibility once again.

If you only consider the "win now" perspective the Blazers' summer was sub-optimal.  But again we read comments like, "This was a stroke of genius," and, "We take a chance and if things don't work, we just recycle in '15.  Such flexibility!  What could be better?"  Sub-optimal is once again the new good.

I admire what Olshey has done here.  I envy those sales chops.  But at the same time I acknowledge Olshey's mastery in explaining "the plan", I have to acknowledge that flexibility in 2015 doesn't win in 2013.  No matter what the curvy wacky mirror of the NBA fun house looks like--with salary cap and lottery odds and all--better is actually better.

I perceive Neil Olshey's job as twofold: keep the balls in the air juggling and sell, sell, sell like it's going somewhere until something significant happens and it really does go somewhere...up or down.  Given that job description, he is masterful.  When you put the balls down and actually ask where the Blazers are and what they're doing, the assessment dims a little.  Mostly the Blazers acquired a couple of guys they want to kick the tires on while waiting to try again in two years.  That's not nearly as exciting as the juggling routine makes it seem.  The brilliance here is less in the plan and more in how it's packaged.

Dave,

It's obvious you're butthurt because [the Blazers] didn't get your mancrush Gortat.  Your love for him was irrational.  Get over it. Your whining is going to look stupid when Gortat plays average and Lopez rocks.

Spencer

(sigh)

Do you recall the phrase "Applebee's of Centers"?  That's one I coined this summer describing Gortat,  It wasn't a ringing endorsement.  It conveyed my assessment of Marcin, that he's OK at most everything, distinctive in almost nothing.

(This was admittedly before seeing Applebee's become a network-wide sponsor a few days ago.  Yikes!  In the immortal words of Principal Skinner, "Prove me wrong, Applebee's.  Prove me wrong.")

The main draw in acquiring Gortat was always cap-oriented.  Trading the #10 pick (which turned out to be C.J. McCollum) and Joel Freeland for Gortat would have netted the Blazers a starting center at the cost of only $2.5 million in aggregate cap space.  Not $5.9 million as Robin Lopez eventually cost.  Not $9.4 million as the combination of Lopez and Thomas Robinson cost.  $2.5 million for a starting center around which you could have added that much more with the remaining cap space.

Had the Blazers gone this route I would have been far more sanguine with acquiring Lopez in addition...a move they still could have afforded.  Gortat-Lopez would have made a decent center platoon, allowing Meyers Leonard to crack the rotation if he earned it but not relying on him this year.  If they needed a veteran-minimum power forward to back up LaMarcus Aldridge they still could have had it.  Or they just could have gone small with Dorrell Wright or Nicolas Batum at the four in the few minutes Aldridge sat.

The cost here would be McCollum and Robinson.  But if you picked up Mo Williams anyway you don't need McCollum from a "win now" perspective.  The two will largely duplicate each other this year with Williams likely earning the veteran edge anyway.  Robinson is a huge gamble, not likely to pay of this year if he ever does.  You lose two players you're gambling on for later in favor of making the team better and deeper right now.

The Blazers valuing speculative, future players highly tips their hand about what this off-season was about: not as much this year's roster as building for the future.  The other veteran pick-ups confirm this.  Not one is guaranteed to be a Blazer three years from now.  Not one would prove a critical loss if they moved on.

None of this amounts to being infatuated with, or unrealistic about the limitation of, Gortat.  The point is defining what the Blazers are actually doing with these moves.

And speaking of...

Dave,

Why won't you wake up and see what Neil Olshey is really doing?  He got assets for nothing giving us power to make trades that we couldn't before.  This summer was about deal flow, pure and simple.

Zachary

Since we've already gone pop culture with The Simpsons, we might as well borrow from Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire too.  Show me the assets!

We went over this once before.  Here's the quick recap of the guys the Blazers picked up and what they paid on the open market for them:

--Robin Lopez:  a second-round pick and cap space

--Thomas Robinson:  four second-round picks and cap space

--Dorrell Wright:  $3 million contract

--Mo Williams:  $2.7 million contract

--Earl Watson:  $1.4 million contract

--Drafted C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe

Total cost of all those players combined:  6 second-round picks, $19.7 million in cap space, and the #10 pick in a relatively weak draft.

The rallying cry around all this has been, "Olshey got them cheap!  He paid nothing for them!"  We could quibble about the value of the cap space, but let's assume that's accurate.  It cuts both ways.

In their assessments people are conflating "cheap asset" with "tradeable asset" and then inching even farther along the line to "valuable/desirable asset".  Cheap may sometimes (not always) equate to "tradeable" under the right conditions.  Cheap and valuable/desirable are almost antonyms.  Nothing is impossible in the NBA; you never say never.  But absent special circumstances if you buy something for $2 at the store you do not expect to be able to turn around and sell it for $5 soon after.  It sold for the price it will fetch on the market.

Some will want to claim special circumstances, saying that the game plan is to develop guys like T-Rob and Lopez and then look to turn them over for a profit.  That's fine, but then we need to call these moves--and probably the thrust of the season--accurately.  Again they're developmental, chancy, speculative.

The Blazers would be farther ahead in the asset game if they had been able to bag a bigger name free agent.  Andre Iguodala was at or near the pinnacle of this year's non-Dwight-Howard crop.  Had the Blazers acquired him they would have created a logjam at small forward, though one might still argue that his veteran, star-level presence would have boosted the team nonetheless.  The redundancy would have made a player available for trade down the line, though...Nicolas Batum or Iguodala himself.  Either would have given the Blazers more trade leverage than any of the seven players listed above.  Setting aside salary cap restrictions for a moment, one can ask whether all seven of those new Blazers combined would be a fair exchange for Iguodala right now.  The answer is probably no.

Then you have to consider the elephant in the room in any discussion of assets: What is the most distinct, least-replaceable asset the Blazers have on the roster? We can talk about Damian Lillard.  He may fit that description in a year or two.  But right now the answer is LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Blazers are in a precarious position with LaMarcus.  They did not go full-out to generate wins and momentum in the short term, before his contract expires.  Instead they hedged their bets, took some low-risk gambles.  If they're going to win big, they need good results from several players including one who plays Aldridge's position.  This is not a mountaintop shout that this team is going places no matter what the cost and they need LMA along for the ride.

If the end result of this stratagem is losing Aldridge, the Blazers have ended up in the hole on the asset scale, not ahead.  It's as simple as that.  Any discussion regarding net pluses in the asset department has to factor in that reality.

The only way around that pronouncement would be developing young players and then trading Aldridge for different assets.  This is the course I've suggested the Blazers are angling towards, the way this speculative-cheap-expiring contract "asset" mode makes the most sense.  For this reason I've also said that Neil Olshey's tenure with the Blazers will likely be defined by what he can get for Aldridge in trade.  Unless the Blazers break out huge this season, that's where we stand.

I don't believe it would be fair to pre-judge Olshey's effectiveness before that moment happens (or doesn't).  I do believe it's not only fair, but necessary, to cut through some of the "flexibility" and "asset" talk--the juggling act--to describe what's happening here.  It's fine for Blazers fans to head into the "bad is good" funhouse for a while, hoping there's a payoff at the other end of the ride.  But LaMarcus Aldridge, other NBA GM's, and Portland's opponents won't be taking that same perspective.  In their world good is good and not-so-good is just not so good.  If the Blazers aren't legitimately good none of those parties are going to let them off the hook no matter how much flexibility and deal flow gets sold in the process.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

P.S.  After I finished this piece I read a few comments in other threads about the pressure being on Coach Terry Stotts now that he has a deeper team.  This illustrates why defining things carefully is important.

"Flexibility" doesn't play.  Development is development, distinct from setting yourself up to get every win possible as soon as possible.  Yet if things do go south--or even if the Blazers just don't manage to win 47 and make the playoffs--the first victim of public castigation will not be the guy who based the approach on flexibility and development but the guy who had to coach the flexible, but not really that deep, team.

I have not talked to Coach Stotts about these matters.  Honestly there's only one way he could address things publicly...the way any coach worth his salt would.  He likes his team, has faith in his players, and is going to win every game possible.  But maybe we don't need a candid public statement to figure this out.

Pretend you are an NBA coach and your reputation lives or dies with the performance of this team, this year.  Look at your center rotation depending heavily on Robin Lopez with Meyers Leonard as the backup.  You don't get to project three years down the road.  You'll be fired before then.  Would you prefer another veteran center on the roster?  Wouldn't you like your chances much better?

Take a hard look at the lineup as you hear the buzz about all the "new talent" your team has brought in.  Now consider whether you have too many unproven (or all-too-proven) guys on his roster to compete with the Big Boys this year.  Are those bench players really going to take major minutes away from your starters?  What's going to happen to the quality of play if you start replacing LaMarcus Aldridge's minutes with Thomas Robinson's?  Remember that you don't get the luxury of hope here.  Your livelihood depends on your answer.  Are you comfortable betting your career on these moves?

If you've got one year, maybe two tops, before your name gets continually mentioned for the "hot seat" are you comfortable with the idea of losing the only All-Star on your roster, a guy in his prime, the center of the team and its offense?  Or would you prefer to stretch as far as possible to convince him to stay?

Building a roster around the idea that you're going all out to win now creates one set of expectations.  Building a roster based on development and preserving flexibility creates another, quite different, set.  If you hang out in the murky middle--making moves based on development and flexibility but juggling in front of the funhouse mirror to make it look like it's all about winning--the crossed messages will lead to confusion and disappointment down the road if and when the team doesn't actually win a ton.

In this day and age, confusion and disappointment equate to loud complaints and calls for heads to roll.  Those arrows always fly towards the coach.  I've said this a couple times but it needs reiterating.  Neil Olshey makes and sells the off-season decisions but Coach Stotts will become the target if the Blazers don't excel...not because Stotts did a poor job but because the expectations were out of line with reality.

The Blazers only winning a modest amount of games over the next couple years and having to retool in 2015 (probably without Aldridge) is the most likely outcome of this whole experiment.   Whether or not they merit a low playoff seed in the process remains to be seen.  Either way, unless multiple players start lighting the world on fire and the Blazers find a way to keep Aldridge happily in the fold (or trade him for a great package) the long-term trajectory of this team isn't world-shaking.

The front office has pre-planned for this exact retooling scenario--made it more likely, in fact--by only acquiring cheap players whose contracts all expire two years from now.  Anything else happening would be the exception, not the expectation.

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