Portland Trail Blazers: Discussing the Chris Kaman Signing

Stephen Dunn

Blazer's Edge explores the Trail Blazers' new vistas with Chris Kaman in the fold.

I'm back from vacation and tackling some of your questions about Portland's latest signing commitment. Let's get to it!

Dave,

Chris Kaman? WHY? This was not the signing we were looking forward to.  Please tell me this isn't a fail. I know you already said it but say it more.  I'm not convinced yet.

Marcus

OK. It isn't a fail. Or at least not a total fail, depending on your perspective.

I empathize with your feeling. I get it. You knew your parents couldn't afford a new iPhone or Galaxy S5 for your birthday but you thought maybe you'd at least get an older model or some kind of Motorola. Then you opened up your shiny present and saw...an off-brand TracFone.

But hey, after you get done being disappointed at the distinct lack of splash, consider the following:

1. That TracFone does most everything the fancier phones do, just more basic and a little bit slower. It's not top of the line. You'd have been happier getting this model three years ago when it actually looked decent. But it makes phone calls. You can send texts. Look! Emojis! Just don't be expecting to zip through Doctor Who trailers while playing Dead Trigger 2 on the thing.

Chris Kaman can score. (He has higher per-minute point production than Vince Carter!). Chris Kaman can rebound. (He has higher per-minute rebounding production than Spencer Hawes!) Chris Kaman shoots efficiently from nearly every range inside the three-point arc. He hits his free throws. He blocks more shots per minute than Robin Lopez.

Are all these stats colored by having played on a hapless, helpless Lakers squad where nobody else was going to pick up the slack? Yes. Are all these stats further colored by Kaman's not-so-great defense? Yes. But you'd be worried about Kaman's shortcomings more if he were a starting center. He'll be coming off the bench for Portland, filling minutes, providing an offensive threat to a frontcourt which had few last season. Given that, it's perfectly appropriate for Daddy Neil to look at Blazer fans and say, "You don't NEED that fancy phone, kids. Just be happy you got one at all."

2. The obvious follow-up assertion: the TracFone doesn't bind you to a contract. You pay as you go, buying only the minutes you need. This is where Dad puts an arm around your shoulder and says, "See? We're not locked in here. If you can demonstrate over the next year that a better phone would be practical and we can afford it, we'll talk about it for your next birthday."

This is exactly what the Blazers are doing with Kaman. They're using him for one year, possibly upgrading at the end of the term or sooner if they get a sweet offer. They're figuring it'd be worse to lock into a 3-4 year contract with an imperfect model than just go basic for a season and see what happens. When they know more about their future situation they'll be able to make firmer plans.

We don't have to like this. Few semi-disappointed kids would. But at least we can understand it. It does make sense from a (sigh) grown-up point of view.

But yeah, an S5 would have been better.

Dave,

What's with the Kaman hate?  That was a good signing.  How could the Blazers have done better?

Jonathan

I doubt anybody hates Chris Kaman. People were just expecting more, and perhaps rightfully so. For a few summers now the "big move" has been "right around the corner". It hasn't yet materialized. Instead we've seen a series of small gambles and stopgaps leading up to 2015.  Some have paid off, others not so much. But with opportunities going by--seemingly without the Blazers being able to get their hooks in them--folks are probably wondering if 2015 might bring more of the same.

The "how could the Blazers have done better" argument has some merit, but only some. Looking at the list of free agent centers realistically available to the Blazers after Spencer Hawes turned them down, you're probably right that they'd have had a hard time topping Kaman. But theoretically they could have done "better" by getting a more promising talent at another position, by convincing Hawes to come, by having traded for Hawes earlier, or by not getting stuck relying on the MLE as the primary mode of improvement in the first place. The Blazers not being able to do better with a big man...at this particular juncture in time does not make Kaman more than Kaman is. Assuming no major changes before the start of the season, multiple teams around the league--Portland's direct competiors--will do far better this off-season than the Blazers have done.

In the end, "good" is a matter of perspective. Let's say your child is somewhat overweight and runs slowly but managed a personal best in the field day race and finished 18th out of 30 kids. That's your kid, right? You're going to pat him on the back and say, "You did great!" You'll mean it too. Given the conditions and his current ability, he excelled. But measuring against the field, "good" for him is still 18th place. Unless something changes he's not destined for a track scholarship or the Olympics.

Looking at the Blazers like they're your kid, saying you're going to love them for doing their best under the circumstances, is a legit perspective. But we also have to acknowledge that this is the NBA. It's the Olympic trials, not a field day race. If the Blazers finish 18th out of 30 in the free agent race then they finished 18th out of 30, period. 17 teams did better. That's not good even if it's the best they could do.

Holding either view to the exclusion of the other leads to an incomplete explanation. Kaman may have been the best move for the Blazers...a move that deserves applause. But after that applause dies down we also need to ask what shape this team is in, how Chris Kaman became the best possible move, and what our expectations should be.

Dear Dave,

How much should Spencer Hawes choosing the Clippers over the Blazers concern us?  Is Olshey's ability to attract free agents to Portland slipping?

Granny Nan

I see two levels to this question.

First, Hawes choosing the Clippers isn't that worrisome as a specific case. Any number of reasons could have led him there. The Clippers being a better overall team than the Blazers right now surely factored in. (Though I think Hawes would have been a better fit and better used in Portland.) Personal attraction may have entered the equation as well. We'll never know completely. But a given player will do what his heart tells him. Hawes landing at a different destination doesn't mean much in isolation.

But Hawes' decision could also indicate a larger pattern and a larger concern. The Blazers may be getting less-than-pleasant feedback from the rest of the league on their chances of excelling, or at least setting themselves apart from your run-of-the-mill team.

Blazer fans like to consider their suddenly-buoyant franchise "up and coming". Despite that (supposed) momentum, they're not generating much buzz. From what we've heard, Hawes was the only semi-interesting MLE candidate who gave them a sniff. I don't believe the old saw that the Blazers can't draw free agents. When they've been good, they've attracted players. That they're not doing so now may indicate that the team isn't perceived as well--nor its future perceived as brightly--as fervent supporters would hope.

The second part of your question dealt with Neil Olshey "losing" his free-agent attraction mojo. When it comes to his tenure in Portland, the proper response is that you can't lose what you never had.

Here's the list of free agents Olshey has brought on board: J.J. Hickson, Ronnie Price, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright. This is hardly a Murderer's Row to strike fear in the hearts of Portland's opponents. Of those players, Hickson was the clear stand-out and he didn't stand that tall. Nobody on that list has yet spent a second year with the team.

Some will cry foul, citing Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, and players brought in via trade. The Lopez move worked perfectly. The jury's still out on other deals. But their success for failure doesn't negate the point. The Blazers spent two summers with significant cap space and came away with zero significant free agent acquisitions. They'll spend Olshey's third year working cap exceptions and that number will not rise. They've almost certainly bought themselves another single-year rental in an increasingly long series.

One could argue that the trade techniques Olshey employed (successfully) last summer stem from Portland's apparent inability to sign free agents. It's like complimenting a poker pro for playing a pair of 5's well. The praise is accurate and well-deserved but you know eventually he's going to lose to the guys with Kings and Aces unless those cards improve. So far we've seen no sign of that improvement, just rejection from a guy somewhere in the middle of the MLE picture and the subsequent scramble to fill the gap...again.

It feels like each summer we're saying, "Just wait one more year. This year's moves were designed to buy time and preserve flexibility. Next summer we'll really see what Olshey's got." Maybe we are seeing what Olshey's got. If you're looking for creative Plan B's and the ability to match fill-in talent to the team's needs, Olshey has shown that in spades so far. The Kaman move is no exception. But if you're looking for ability to draw the best--or even good--free agents to Portland through some combination of charisma and connections, we've not seen that. Forget Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, forget Luol Deng and Vince Carter and Trevor Ariza. We're not even seeing Spencer Hawes and Shaun Livingston at this point. The bar's not particularly high and the Blazers still aren't clearing it.

So we say once again, "Wait one more year. 2015 is coming. Potential cap space is coming! Maybe. Or another MLE player is coming...this time a keeper! Maybe. Either way more free agent prospects will surely be headed our way and this time the Blazers will get their man!"

Maybe.

Keep the Mailbag questions coming to the e-mail address just below.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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