Portland Trail Blazers: Slow Steps Forward

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers keep making incremental steps forward, crawling towards respectability one move at a time. What's with the measured pace? Why do other franchises seem to be moving faster? And what is Portland's endgame anyway?

We have a couple of interesting Mailbag questions today!

Hey Dave. Surprise surprise: I'm someone who doesn't understand the NBA cap.

There's all this talk of Bosh going to Houston. I don't get it! They pretty much already have two max players, plus Jeremy Lin's and Asik's contract...How come they can afford Chris Bosh? But the Blazers only have one near max guy and the best we can do is Chris Kaman? I don't know where to look and match up all the numbers, but this just seems wrong to me...

Brandon

The Blazers and Rockets are in different positions, leading to different use of their cap space.

Over the last few years Houston made some shrewd deals, had a couple nice draft picks, signed attractive players, and made their contracts line up pretty well. The resulting domino effect has given them potential to build a Big 3 surrounded by competent players.

The cascade started with the deal for James Harden. The Rockets had enough resources--Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and a couple of first-round picks--to cut to the front of the line when Oklahoma City refused to pay their star shooting guard. Dwight Howard followed, making center Omer Asik expendable. Patrick Beverley emerged this year, making point guard Jeremy Lin expendable. The Rockets just sent Asik to New Orleans for a first-round pick, clearing $8 million off of their cap. They appear poised to make a similar deal with Lin, which will clear another $8 million. There's your space to offer Chris Bosh whatever he wants. Meanwhile Chandler Parsons' cap hold is low enough that it doesn't interfere with Houston's ability to make deals and Beverley is making $1 million next year. Houston could field a starting five of Beverley-Harden-Parsons-Bosh-Howard without breaking a sweat. And they'd still have draft picks to execute or use in another deal.

The Blazers lack Houston's resources. They drafted horribly for years, wasting pick after pick on players who ended up having no value. Their last semi-permanent free agent signing was Wesley Matthews. Since then they've been running through a series of short-term rentals. They have lined up contracts well but they've had to use their cap space in a scramble to catch up. They've not gotten ahead.

Portland's paucity of resources has kept them out of big-time trade considerations. They've expended every possible pick just to build a suitable starting five. They've had no bench to speak of. The only players with value on the roster are players they can't afford to lose, thus the only significant moves available to them are lateral. They have no Asik, no Lin, no Lamb or Martin to get deals done or dump for picks and extra space. Plus when their current players' contracts do come due, cap holds and salary demands are going to eat up most of their resources.

This is why you see the Rockets flipping players and making a run at one of the premier power forwards available on the market while the Blazers are celebrating a commitment from Chris Kaman. Both are making good moves considering their situations, but the one "good" does not measure up with the other.

Dave,

It would seem that this summer is not only integral in trying to take the next step forward in the standings, but also in the retention of LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers are in a tough spot in that they have invested a lot in young "talent" such as McCollum, Barton, Leonard, Freeland, Crabbe and Robinson-but realistically those guys aren't going to turn you in to a championship contender next season. Another problem is that those players seemingly have more value to us than they do to other teams so trading them would seem near impossible for something of value.

Do you think Olshey's plan is to prey on teams underperforming during the season and trade a combination of our young guys and expiring contracts for a fringe All-Star Type? The addition of Kaman and retention of Mo Williams couldn't possibly get us to the next level-could it?

Thanks,
Rudy

Define "next level".

Olshey has gotten the Blazers what they need, a back-up center. It wasn't the center that they wanted. That was Spencer Hawes...just as the target last summer was Tiago Splitter over Robin Lopez. But the Lopez move has worked out well so far and Kaman will probably suit just fine. That's improvement.

Nevertheless, inability to acquire their primary target has forced the Blazers into a position of compromise. They've had to balance talent and need versus commitment and contract.

The Blazers would be willing to commit to certain players no matter what the cost. As an extreme example, if LeBron James came knocking you can bet they'd try to give him whatever deal they could afford for as long as he wanted. They were also willing to give Hawes a four-year commitment at the maximum level they could offer. But the farther away you get from the best players the more you're forced to ask how long you want to saddle yourself with a contract and how big that contract should be.

With Lopez, with Kaman, with Mo Williams, to a certain extent even with some of the less experienced bench players, the Blazers have prioritized contract rather than prioritizing talent. They've gotten the best player they could find without sacrificing future flexibility. The qualifier is the key. Failing to get Hawes, the Blazers didn't go for the next best player available on the MLE-level market. Instead they found a serviceable center who would sign for a single year. Similarly, the Blazers may have been able to get a better player than Thomas Robinson with their assorted picks last summer but that player's contract would not have been as cheap, so they opted for promise and saved cash over immediate help.

You're right that these moves aren't designed to get the Blazers to the next level, assuming "next level" means contending. Olshey is making the best of a "second best" situation, trying to get the most incremental improvement possible out of deals that don't inhibit his ability to change the roster, . Outside of drafting Damian Lillard, that "first best" move hasn't come yet, nor has the mandatory commitment which would enable it.

The good news: nothing is set in stone. Portland will be able to make changes over the next 12 months. Kaman isn't the last signing in this team's growth cycle.

The bad news: any improvement the team showed last year still hasn't led to management committing long-term resources to them. That may yet be coming, but anticipation doesn't equal progress. We still don't know if the front office believes this lineup has a high enough ceiling to build around, nor that management has the wherewithal to make major moves to bolster the roster. As a result the franchise is still in limbo, the way forward still hazy.

If those answers were clear we might have expected more of a push towards a long-term MLE player this summer, to be followed by a similar signing next year. We didn't get that. Absent further moves, we'll need to hope for another excellent effort from the players and coaching staff as we spend another season waiting and seeing.

It was a busy first full day back from vacation for me! You can catch an interview with Chad Doing on Flight 750 here:

You can also check out the Phil Naessens Show for a discussion on Chris Kaman, cap space, and free agents in general here:

Phil and I were talking off-air tonight and I don't think he'll mind me mentioning that his audience has increased by tens of thousands over the last few months, roughly coinciding with the work we've done. That's a huge credit to Phil. Part of the reason I like mentioning him here is his good work, great approach to the job. I hadn't heard of him before he contacted me a few months ago but I've enjoyed talking with him and the increase in international correspondence I've seen since I started doing his show. He's just a ton of fun. I also don't think he'll mind a shout out to you readers who have comprised a decent chunk of that audience spike and the ever-widening interest in the Trail Blazers across the globe. Thank you for keeping Portland's reputation strong and for repping our site well.

For all of you overseas and in the armed forces who caught onto our site through Phil's broadcast, I want to thank you as well. I enjoy reading e-mails from across the globe and I'm honored every time I get mail from our servicemen and servicewomen. I hope you're enjoying the Blazer conversation as much as I do!

Got questions for the Mailbag? Submit them to the e-mail address below.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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