As Ben reported just below, Jerryd Bayless has been traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the New Orleans Hornets for a conditional first-round draft pick. While the immediate timing surprised many, this move has been coming down the line for a while. As we've stated repeatedly, this was never a question of whether Bayless was a good player. He's at least decent now and could still blossom into a legitimate scoring-type guard at either backcourt position. The question was whether Bayless was the right fit in Portland. The Blazers answered that question today.
Since his rookie campaign Jerryd Bayless has demonstrated the ability to score, if not consistently, at least in impressive torrents. Who will forget his 29 point performance against Phoenix last year, let alone his 31 against the Spurs a week later? Outside of Brandon Roy the Blazers haven't had anyone with such potential to make opponents instantly miserable. When Bayless was driving and drawing fouls and hitting the pull-up he was nigh unstoppable. Sadly, those superstar-level nights were scattered too thinly, even for a second-year player. Once Roy returned from injury last year double digits turned into three, four, or six point offerings. Clearly fielding another backcourt player who needed the ball and shots in order to succeed was not high on Portland's to-do list. Roy had the captain's chair, Andre Miller had more experience. With a full, healthy roster Bayless was going to lose minutes, touches, and shots to both of those players. It didn't end there either. If you're tallying Blazers whose offensive games need to be explored better (as Bayless' certainly does) count in LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Greg Oden at minimum. For various reasons, all three of those players came higher on the priority list than Jerryd. This is what the "Free Bayless" crowd missed. Bayless had clearance but he was also taxiing a runway with multiple flights scheduled ahead of him for takeoff. Which of the five players just mentioned should the Blazers pull out of line to accommodate Jerryd's take-off?
The magic solution to this scoring conundrum was Bayless becoming more of a true point guard. It's no accident that the team forecast all of his minutes to come at that position, nor that they bolstered the off-guard position in spite of his presence. It was no accident that, when pressed, Jerryd himself claimed he wanted to run the point and be thought of as a helmsman rather than a gunner. If he could be penciled in as Portland's long-term point guard Bayless would only need to wait out Andre Miller's contract to claim all of the playing time he could handle. One more year of understudy and the lead would have been his.
Bayless had not been completely comfortable at the point heretofore. Neither had he failed abjectly. He went through most of the bumps and bruises any converted point guard encounters. At first he only saw the rim. Then he only saw the floor when he was on the drive. He was never smooth with the simple entry pass. He was only brilliant on the drive. He didn't like the catch-and-shoot. Throughout last season he worked on those skills. He became adequate, at times quite good, with his stand-still jumper. He started discovering more angles off of those same drives, recognizing cutters and opportunities. Much of the time, though, he still looked lost, or at least wasted (in terms of his skills) when playing point. He also had trouble defending without fouling, his impressive body becoming a liability as much as an asset.
This was the backdrop to Bayless' make-or-break season with the Blazers. He knew what they wanted to see coming out of the summer. He would either grab a spot or grab a flight out of town. When our own Ben Golliver started reporting that he still looked out of synch with the team the dominoes started falling. Just as telling was the lack of significant mention by other witnesses. With the starting lineup set (not generating as much interest) and with him having the first chance at making an imprint at a desperately-needed bench position, Jerryd should have been near the top of every story. At some point we should have seen headlines about the progress he made staking his claim. Instead the reports read, "He looks about the same." That didn't indicate he was playing poorly but it wasn't what the team was looking for.
The excellent play of Wesley Matthews, his better-than-advertised ball-handling and court vision coupled with laudable defense, was the next domino in line. Inspiring play from Armon Johnson, indicating that he may be a factor a couple years down the line, continued the line. Patty Mills' perseverance, sticking around the team while guaranteed nothing, didn't help. Mills is nowhere near the NBA player Bayless can be but in brief, supporting point guard minutes (providing Jerryd wasn't seizing more anyway) the difference in production might be small. Mills has more range and more point guard instincts. He also comes at a fraction of the price...the next domino to fall. As Ben mentioned, the Blazers are over the luxury tax threshold. Every penny saved is two earned for the team. Not only is Bayless making $2.3 million this year ($4.6 million in luxury tax dollars) his effective cost goes to $6 million next year and $8 million the year after if the team stays in the tax penalty. That's without any negotiated extension. For that kind of money production and certainty are essential.
It's completely understandable, then, that on a weekend when the roster had to be trimmed anyway the Bayless experiment reached a premature end. His journey isn't complete by a long shot but at some point those dominoes hit critical mass, outweighing any reservations about Jerryd's potential. The final one to fall was the New Orleans first-rounder. It's protected down to the 7th or 8th pick depending on the year executed. But the Hornets are now in the sweet spot of being among the best of the non-playoff teams in the West. Chances are they'll end up exactly where the Blazers will benefit most, somewhere between 9th and 13th in the draft order. Bayless himself was originally an 11th pick by Indiana. Portland acquired him for their 13th pick plus Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts. Considering his contributions in the meantime, that pretty much leaves the Blazers breaking even. The only fly in the ointment would be Chris Paul getting traded this year to someone besides Portland. That doesn't seem likely.
Both sides will now move on, probably happily. Portland can keep one more player, saves some money, creates more minutes and shots for their other guards, avoids a smidgen more discontent, and begins to look in earnest for their next point guard. Bayless gets to play behind Chris Paul but could also play alongside him in a lineup short on proven off-guards. Should Paul get injured again the entire backcourt will belong to Jerryd. That's more opportunity than he would have seen in Portland. In the end, that's what he and his fans were asking for. We'll see what he does with it, besides the obligatory 30 points against the Blazers every time they play.
Getting Jerryd Bayless wasn't a bad move but neither was letting him go. He ended up being good for Portland but not right for Portland. With the Blazers aiming for unscaled heights, they need players who fulfill both standards.
A postscript to this story: We're going to find out that new General Manager Rich Cho has a different view of Portland's players than old General Manager Kevin Pritchard. We may not see more moves instantly but this is not the last familiar player you're going to see moved for reasons of fit or finances. Stay tuned.