With the NBA trade deadline coming up next week and Joel Freeland succumbing to injury, breaking Portland's nearly-perfect health record this year, trade talk has taken over my inbox and the Mailbag. In response to your questions we'll explore various trades over the next six days. Before we do that, though, a framework by which to judge potential trades will be helpful. The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in an interesting and somewhat ambiguous situation. That makes consummating a deal somewhat more complex than simply Player A for Player B.
What Do the Trail Blazers Want or Need?
If you believe recent quotes from Terry Stotts and Paul Allen the Blazers don't intend to do much at the trade deadline. Almost every public statement from players and executives has pointed to a multi-year process over instant contention. They appear to be telegraphing that this year's results aren't the main concern, that any roster upgrades will come in the summer, if at all.
Analysis from Kevin Pelton (plus most anything you've read from me in the last couple months) points a slightly different direction. The Blazers have done well so far this year. Teams looking to tank and/or rebuild may offer lower hanging fruit (and bigger bunches of it) than we normally see at the mid-season mark. If an opportunity to improve the club comes along, dare the Blazers wait? Is a future depending on the likes of Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, or even C.J. McCollum plus a mid-level exception that solid? Between good play and great health the Blazers have gotten an edge on their conference competition this year. Can they afford to let the chips fall where they may with no guarantee that the health advantage will be duplicated in subsequent years?
There's no clear answer to those questions. That also means there's no clear reason for the Blazers to stick their hands in their pockets and refuse to shop no matter what's out there. Assuming they're willing to explore, what kind of deal would make them change their publicly-declared stance and take notice?
We've been over positions of need repeatedly. The Blazers need another big man, perhaps a back-up point guard, more scoring off the bench, or a combination thereof. They need insurance against injuries, players with experience and definable skills. Given their system and chemistry the Blazers could absorb a wide variety of candidates. They do have to be concerned about on-court approach: no ball-hogs, no players who can't hit threes at any of the smaller positions, nobody who will encroach on the starters without being clearly more talented than the starters. All that is the easy part.
The harder part is finding a player with those qualifications who also fits the overall vision. Being on a multi-year track, the Blazers aren't going to sacrifice their remaining youth in order to get a single-year boost. Age, contract status, and long-term blend have to match up with enough talent to overcome Portland's stand-pat inertia.
What Do the Trail Blazers Have to Offer?
It's easier to start with what the Blazers don't have to offer,
The Blazers have no near-term draft picks to trade. Owing Charlotte a 2014 pick gums up the works until summer. This is a serious omission in light of June's explosive draft but it's not necessarily a fatal one. Truth be told, few teams have disposable draft picks right now. Teams that do have spent the better part of two years accumulating them. They would have an advantage in trade deadline negotiations but their willingness to engage in such talks is suspect. Not being able to offer a pick makes a deal harder for the Blazers but it doesn't put them below most of their direct competition this week.
The Blazers have no expiring contracts to offer. This is also an inconvenience. Then again, this isn't 2007 anymore. Most teams have learned to work the cap and the new CBA to the point that they're not carrying albatross contracts. Increasingly few franchises will offer talent just for financial relief in this new era.
Contracts size comes into play when making salaries match for trade purposes. The amount of salary the Blazers can take in this week will be limited by the small contracts of the players they'd be willing to trade out. Portland doesn't have disposable salary cap ballast, let alone the disposable expiring salary cap ballast to even out deals that otherwise might not work. Portland can't fiddle with numbers. What you see is what you get.
Neither do the Blazers have proven talent to trade. They won't touch the starting lineup for anything short of an unbelievable deal. Trading LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard would gut the team. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum play specialized roles in Portland's system and can't be replaced by a different style of player without changing the system. It's hard to imagine trading Robin Lopez for a star and it's even harder to imagine any role player doing a better job for the team than Lopez has. That makes Mo Williams the pinnacle of veteran talent available. That's not much of a bargaining chip.
What DO the Blazers have? Rookie-scale contracts on high, though so-far under-performing, draft selections. Leonard, Robinson, and/or McCollum comprise the heart, if not the entirety, of Portland's potential offer.
What Kind of Player Could the Blazers Get?
Combining need and offer, we begin to see the category of player the Blazers might look to acquire. Here, too, it's easier to weed out what can't be done.
Absent multi-team deals, the Blazers probably can't trade with other buyers on the market, only sellers.
Some folks write in asking about players from New York, Dallas, Memphis, and the like. The move might fit Portland but why would those teams want Leonard and Robinson when they're looking to improve in the short-term? The Blazers have to find a team looking to rebuild, a team to whom a 2-3 year prospect on a rookie contract would be an asset, not an obstacle.
The Blazers can't absorb a big contract.
The Pau Gasols and Danny Grangers of the world might look attractive but the Blazers can't compile $17 million in salary to give back without touching the starting lineup.
The Blazers don't want a minor stopgap.
If all you want is a marginal guy to fill 5-10 minutes while somebody else is injured you experiment with 10-day contracts, not trades. Portland could pull a minor deal but it'd likely be for a player they coveted anyway, not just to fill a short-term need.
The Blazers probably can't pull a star-level player.
My mailbox is stuffed with star suggestions far too long to rehearse. But even a semi-desperate team is going to look for more than the Blazers can offer for a player good enough to displace one of Portland's current starters. If you're thinking about throwing in a starter as sweetener you have to ask whether that incoming player could replace a starter without disturbing the system. Almost all star players will go into the category of "can't get" or "won't fit".
Also note: if the Blazers want a good player--as in talented and instant impact--they're going to have to include McCollum in the discussion. They'll be hesitant to do that, so approach obvious names with caution.
The player can't be too old.
Taking a player tailing out of their prime probably wouldn't work for the Blazers. Portland would be giving up a significant amount of their young talent with no means of replenishing it for another year or two. Even if "multi-year plan" could be translated as "two-year plan" they can't lose multiple youngsters for a 33-year-old. Ideally they need a guy 29 years or below, serviceable for the next 3-4 seasons. Under 27 would be even better.
The player can't be too young.
...otherwise why would the opposing team trade him to Portland? Young prospects are the Blazers' main bargaining chip. If a team already has one, if he's an upgrade on Portland's guys, and especially if he's a big, why would they take Portland's offer?
The player can't figure into his team's future much.
Even among the sellers, Portland would have to find a player that was of little or no further use to his current team. Contract, fit, and attitude are possible reasons. Portland's offer will be cheap and potential-intensive. The other team has to view their outgoing player as less valuable and of less potential.
Conclusion: Maybe Not Impossible, But Hard Enough
Summing up, the Blazers have to find a player who plays for a rebuilding or underachieving team, who doesn't factor into that team's future, who doesn't make too much money, who is neither young nor old, who isn't considered a star or clear starter but can play a significant (more than stopgap) role for the Blazers off the bench, who will be happy doing so, who has enough talent and blending potential to fit into Portland's long-term plans, and who plays center or power forward, maybe point guard.
Under those circumstances the Blazers would be threading the needle on a deadline trade. Granted, there's wiggle room. A single bulging category (say, great talent) could bring a compromise in another (like maybe age). But matching up needs, offer, and a willing partner won't be simple. Three-ways deals and creative thinking may be required to make a swap work.
Feel free to reference this crib sheet when working out your own trades. Which players would prompt Portland to overcome their trade inertia considering fit, talent, cost, and availability from their current team? Weigh in below if you wish.