Ladies and Gentlemen, let's have one last round of applause for the 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers. In order to truly appreciate how special this Blazer season was, let's briefly recap the last near decade-and-a-half of Blazer basketball:
We started with a gut-wrenching loss in the 2000 Western Conference Finals which preempted the infamous Jail Blazer era. After several years of an expensive, unlikable roster, off-court incidents, and poor play the Blazers went into full rebuild mode, bringing in Kevin Pritchard and Nate McMillan to turn the team around. It started off promising, with the Blazers acquiring Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden in the span of two drafts, giving the Blazers the most talented young roster in the league. All that hope and promise quickly turned to ash as Roy and Oden's careers were ended early due to crippling knee injures. The demise of the Roy-Aldridge-Oden triumvirate lead to a revolving door of GM's capped off by a player mutiny and near-complete reset of the franchise. Now, Aldridge (supposedly the third banana of the trio) is an MVP candidate, Damian Lillard is one of the best young PG's in the league, the Blazers won 54 games and earned the fifth seed when virtually everyone predicted them to finish with the 7th seed, at the absolute best, in the Western Conference this year.
To cap off the season, the Blazers played the Rockets in easily the most entertaining playoff series this year, highlighted by Aldridge exploding for 89 points in two games (on back-to-back 40+ point games on the road), Lillard and Aldridge emerging as a bona fide All-Star tandem, and Lillard nailing the single greatest shot I can remember seeing in my lifetime.
That they lost in five games to the Spurs isn't something to be embarrassed by. Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich have four rings, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio has three, they were one rebound away from another last season and look like the favorites to win another this year (and I hope they do). Look, it took Jordan's Bulls years to get past the Bad Boy Pistons and the Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics in the late 80's and early 90's. LeBron didn't win a ring until he joined Wade's team in Miami and brought the Boshtrich along with him, and even then they didn't win the title in their first year together. The Thunder have had one good postseason (when they went to the Finals against the Heat), and have only been to the Western Conference Finals twice (including this year) in the Durant-Westbrook era. Great teams take time to learn how to win.
This Blazer team is still very young. Aldridge is only 29, Batum 25, Matthews and Lopez are 26, and Lillard and Robinson are the babies of the group at 23. This was only the third playoff series for Aldridge, and it's effectively the first for Batum and Matthews as they didn't play much in their first playoff appearances. This was Lillard's first playoffs outright. The other young guys, CJ McCollum, Will Barton, and Meyers Leonard, barely sniffed the floor. So to say the Blazers were "embarrassed" by the Spurs or that their loss in five somehow dimineshes the season the Blazers had would demean this Blazers season. This team is young, and it's their first real taste of playoff basketball, both victory and defeat. This postseason should have taught the Blazers both that they can win in the postseason and exactly what it takes to make a deep playoffs run.
This has been a franchise-altering season for Portland, and Blazermania is back in full force. There's no reason to think the Blazers are going anywhere but up, led by Aldridge and Lillard.
But where does Neil Olshey go from here? The only way to go may be up, but how do they get there? Last offseason Neil Olshey was extremely busy: JJ Hickson, Eric Maynor and Luke Babbitt were shown the door, while Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson were brought in. Those four, along with jumps in production from Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Aldridge himself, are what propelled the Blazers to 54 wins and the fifth seed in the brutal Western Conference.
In the process of bringing those guys in, however, Olshey sacrificed a very large part of his war chest of basketball assets. The Blazers already didn't have a first round pick to trade thanks to the Gerald Wallace trade (a trade made before Olshey arrived in Portland), and he shipped out all of Portland's second round picks for the next five years or so in acquiring Lopez, T-Rob and Allen Crabbe.
What's more, the Blazers are capped-out. They have 14 players under contract next year with salaries totaling $64,832,163, which is more than what the cap will be next year. The NBA sent out a memorandum to all 30 teams about a month ago with a new projection for the 2014-15 salary cap. The cap is projected to increase by roughly five million dollars, from the $58.6 mil it was this year to $63.2 mil next year. Even if that optimistic projection holds (which it isn't guaranteed to, and likely won't), that still leaves the Blazers over the cap. That means they would only have the full mid-level exception and the biannual exception to lure new free agents.
So here are the biggest questions facing Olshey and Co. as they prepare for a very busy offseason. I'm not going to suggest specific trades or signings that Olshey should pursue (well, maybe one or two), but rather just examine the biggest questions that are facing the Blazers this summer.
Will Terry Stotts have a lame duck season?
This question, thankfully, has already been answered. The Blazers' front office picked up Stotts' option for the 2014-15 season, as well as extended him for two more seasons. Stotts has done an outstanding job and is absolutely deserving of this extension. A 21-win improvement, 54 win season, and a Western Conference semifinals berth should absolutely earn a coach a contract extension.
The Blazers were terrible defensively two years ago, mainly due to personnel issues, but improved this year. Statistically they improved from around 26th in defensive rating at the beginning of the year to 16th at the end. Not elite, but league-average is something the Blazers can improve upon moving forward with Lopez, Aldridge, Batum and Matthews in the fold. They were also the best offense in the NBA until Aldridge went down with lower body injuries, and will be a top-3 unit next year as well.
This move is great if for nothing else than for consistency and continuity. The Blazers have established three things by extending Stotts. First, Lillard and Aldridge love playing for him. That's huge in making Aldridge happy and convincing him to re-sign. Second, it is hugely important for young players (you know, like most of the Blazers' roster) to have continuity in coaching/system in order to develop. This only helps young guys like T-Rob, McCollum, Barton, and Leonard develop.
Lastly, the Blazers have established a system. Olshey and Paul Allen are announcing to the rest of the league, "This is our coach. This is our system. These are our players. This is how we're going to play. We've got Aldridge and Lillard, now come at us. We can beat you with these guys." Having an established, consistent system benefits the entire organization, from the GM to the scouting department to the coaching staff. They can identify players whose skills fit within the system and will thrive here. Portland, like the Spurs, can build a true organization through consistency in the front office and coaching staff. This was a great move to secure Portland's future.
How will they address the backup point guard/third guard position?
Mo WIlliams is due $2,771,340 next season on a player option. He is going to opt out of that in order to pursue a long-term deal. He has stated he wants to remain in Portland, but that may not be the Blazers' best move. By now, we all know the pro's and con's of Mo. His efforts single handedly won a few games for Portland this year, but that doesn't change the fact he's a no-defense gunner who is as likely to shoot you out of a game as win one for you. I don't want to sound anti-Mo, because he certainly has more court sense than any of the Blazers alternative options on the roster (Will "The Thrill", "The People's Champ" Barton and McCollum), and is a more reliable veteran than any of the Blazers' other options on the bench.
There are two factors working against the Blazers re-signing Mo. First, he wants a long-term contract. The Blazers only have one player currently under contract after next year (Batum), though they are virtually guaranteed to pick up the options on Lillard, Robinson, and McCollum. (Meyers Leonard also has a team option on the fourth year of his rookie contract, but without serious improvement this summer and upcoming season I would bet they decline to pick up that option.) Re-signing Mo to a three year deal (like he wants) would potentially gum up the Blazers' salary cap when they are trying to juggle new contracts for Aldridge, Lillard, and Lopez, as well as possibly Matthews and Batum. He may be a luxury the Blazers' salary cap can't afford.
Second, he may simply not be worth both the financial and opportunity costs. In the short term the Blazers have 13 players under contract for next season, factoring in Mo opting out of his player option. Re-signing Williams means Olshey has one roster spot available to sign someone to improve the bench.
Batum emerged this season as a very capable secondary ball-hander/facilitator on offense, and Olshey had some success playing him as a point-forward in the playoffs. It's possible that Olshey and Stotts decide to let Williams walk, and go into next season with a backup-point-guard-by-committee approach. That could potentially look like using Batum, McCollum, the People's Champ, and a minimum-salaried vet (a la Earl Watson this year) as a collective backup point guard. Matthew's defensive versatility would allow Stotts to play a backcourt of Batum as the nominal point guard/point forward, McCollum/Barton as the off-ball shooting guard/secondary ball handler, and Matthews at the small forward.
What this question ultimately comes down to is how comfortable Olshey and Stotts are with giving their young players more playing time. If Stotts thinks that McCollum and Barton aren't ready to take over primary ball handling duties during the stretches when Lillard sits, they are going to have to bring in someone for that role, whether that is Mo or a vet on a one-year deal.
Can Olshey upgrade the big man rotation?
Joel Freeland's injury came at the worst possible time. He had improved enough to warrant playing time in the playoffs to help spell Lopez and Aldridge but didn't play in the months leading up to the playoffs due to injury. He got destroyed when he did play against Houston and didn't see the court at all against the Spurs. A major reason he struggled is because he was so rusty. We don't really know how well he would have performed had he been in full playing shape and not coming off an injury.
Regardless, the Blazers still need to upgrade their big man rotation. Meyers Leonard is still a few years away from contributing, Robinson became more consistent towards the end of the year and the playoffs but is still young and prone to the mistakes that plague young players (turnovers, bad defense, poor decision making), and Freeland is better off as the team's fifth big man rather than its third.
Olshey's best shot at improving the big man rotation is via the full mid-level exception. I've seen a few names thrown around, but three options make the most sense: Nene, Spencer Hawes, and Emeka Okafor. Obviously Nene would be the ideal choice. He's 31 and will be looking for a long-term contract. If the Blazers decide it's worth it they can give him the full mid-level exception for the next four years and bring him off the bench as the Blazer's third big (a la Boris Diaw in San Antonio and Nick Collison in OKC). He would provide the Blazers with a reliable option that can play 30 minutes a night and provide inside and midrange scoring and defense, while allowing T-Rob to continue playing 10-15 minutes a night and develop his overall game without sacrificing wins.
The problem: Nene is only 31, is coming off a great season with the Wizards, made $14 mil last year, and probably wants to start. Nene isn't like Carmelo will be this offseason; whereas Carmelo has made his money and need to start thinking about his legacy, Nene's goal is to make as much money as possible before his career ends. The Wizards are going to be very motivated to keep him, and other teams are going to want him. While the rules surrounding exceptions have changed under the new CBA, it's not like the Blazers can only offer him a pittance (remember they signed Matthews away from Utah using the mid-level exception). Portland could offer three or four years and around $25 mil total (factoring in annual raises), but that may not be enough for a big man who can play both front court spots and does everything at a B+ level.
Hawes would be great for all of the reasons we discussed this season at the trade deadline. His shooting, size, rebounding and defense all would allow him to play with any of the Blazers' other bigs. The biggest question is if he will be willing to take a per-year pay cut to come here, and will be be willing to be a backup? He would earn the lion's share of the minutes behind Aldridge and Lopez as the third big, but he may want a starting gig (he's earned it). If he is willing to take less on a per-year average for a longer term (i.e., four year) deal, he would be a great add.
Okafor is basically diet Nene. He'll give you defense and reliability, but won't give you any offense outside the paint. He's also much more likely to sign for a smaller contract that fits into the mid-level exception as he is coming off a season in which he didn't play due to injury.
Other than those three, any substantial upgrade to the big man rotation (and Jermaine O'Neal doesn't qualify as "substantial") will probably have to come via trade. Unless T-Rob makes a huge leap (not out of the realm of possibility but not very likely either) Olshey is going to have to get creative to upgrade the rotation given the assets at his disposal.
Will Olshey be able to shed any cap "dead weight" this summer?
One of the things both Olshey and Stotts emphasized in their exit interviews with the media is just how young this team is. Stotts repeatedly noted the eight players (or 53% of the roster) in their first or second year in the league. If you want to name them, that's Lillard, Robinson, McCollum, The Thrill, Freeland, Claver, Leonard, and Crabbe. Those guys, outside of Lillard, didn't see major minutes in the playoffs. (And of the remaining seven only Robinson got consistent minutes in the playoff rotation.) The issue the Blazers have is that most of the young guys on the roster (and some not-so-young guys) are just dead weight against the cap right now for the Blazers. What I mean by that is that when push comes to shove, they just don't belong on the court against elite competition in the playoffs. Stotts put it best in his exit interview:
When we're a winning team, he [insert literally any of the Blazers' young players here other than Lillard] doesn't get the luxury of playing through mistakes and getting time on the court.
Case in point, seven guys averaged less than five minutes per game against the Spurs: Freeland, Wright, McCollum, Crabbe, Claver, Leonard and Watson (who is neither young nor going to be on the team next year). Having young, developing players is great. Having nearly half of your roster taken up by these young players (because while Lillard is still developing it's hardly fair to group him in talent-wise with the rest of the Blazers' young guys) when you're trying to make a deep playoff run is not a recipe for success.
Earlier I mentioned that this team is capped out for this coming year. However, Olshey may be able to manufacture some cap space by dumping some players already on the roster. The salaries for Wright, Freeland, McCollum, Leonard, Claver, McCollum and Crabbe total $12,984,432 for next year. That's basically one-fifth of the Blazers cap for next year spent on guys that saw practically zilch playing time against the Spurs (and it's probable Barton wouldn't have averaged the 16 min/g he did had Mo not been injured). Olshey could sign one B+/A- level free agent and one B- level free agent, or two B/B+ level free agents with that amount of money.
Olshey isn't going to trade all of them, nor am I saying he should. However, he may be able to move a few of them to free up some cap room and roster spots. We saw him get creative last summer in swinging trades for Robinson and Lopez, and he may be able to use some of those players (all of whom are on expiring contracts) in order to help other teams facilitate larger deals in return for a future second round pick or two.
Speaking of trades and cap space...
Will Matthews be on the team come May next year?
This is, unfortunately, a completely serious question. Let me preface this by saying that I love Matthews. I love how hard he plays, the energy and skills he brings to the table, his heart and passion, and the way he inspires his teammates. However, he is the most replaceable piece in the Blazers' starting lineup. While he improved his all-around game this year, but especially his ball handling and post-up offense, he's still basically a rich man's 3&D guy.
He also has the most trade-able contract of the starting five. It's a mid-sized contract the Blazers can pair with other smaller, expiring contracts to swing a deal for a larger, better player(s). If you don't have any cap space or open roster spots, sometimes you have to sacrifice a player everyone loves in order to get better. I'd like to not see this happen, because I think the Blazers can be very, very good if they only add one or two pieces this summer and wait until next summer to add more, but it is a serious question Olshey and Stotts might have to talk about sometime this summer or before the trade deadline next year.
One last note about Matthews: while all the attention has been paid to Aldridge being eligible for an extension this offseason, Matthews is eligible for one as well. So we may see him sign one this offseason to lock up his future with the team, if he is willing to sign an extension as opposed to hitting the open market after next season. News worth keeping an eye out for.
Ultimately, the Blazers are in a very good position. They have two franchise cornerstones in Aldridge and Lillard, a smart coach that doesn't make bad decisions, and savvy general manager with a supportive owner. Their starting five can compete with anyone, and they have young, developing players. The problem with those young, developing players is that they have very little trade value, other than to rebuilding teams trying to be bad and as salary filler in larger trades.
This is most likely not going to be a big summer for the Blazers. Likely the biggest move for the Blazers this summer is going to be nabbing a free agent with the full mid-level exception. I think we'll see a larger reshaping of the Blazers' bench after next season when the Blazers will have a lot more cap space because most of the contracts on the books are set to expire. For the first time in a few years I'm very, very excited for the future.