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Trail Blazers Still Face Tough Road in Free Agency

The Blazers made some good moves in last Thursday's draft but the hardest part of the job is still ahead: negotiating the free agent and trade window. What are the Blazers' aims? What resources can they bring to bear? What will their early-July moves signal about the future?


Note: This article was written before the reports of the Thomas Robinson trade came out. Analysis of that trade and what it means for Portland's direction is being posted simultaneously. Understanding where the Blazers started from and the choices they passed over in the T-Rob move is still valuable, so I'm leaving this post unedited.


The NBA Draft is now in the rear-view mirror and free agency is upon us. The Blazers did well in the draft, but I'll offer this again from the final draft analysis:

The Blazers didn't shoot the moon with this draft but again, there was probably no moon to be shot. Considering the evening as its own microcosm they did well.

They did not revolutionize the team in any way, shape, or form however. The best Portland fans can hope for this that the combination of McCollum and Crabbe will alleviate Portland's need for a big-scoring guard in the backcourt, freeing up salary cap space to chase centers and other assorted bench players.

If Neil Olshey and company strike gold in the free agency and trade window then this draft should be good enough to supplement those moves. But if the best they can do is duplicate this level of success improvement will be incremental. The Blazers are closer to mediocre from here than they were pre-draft, but leapfrogging to good will take more effort.

With that in mind, let's look at where the team is and explore directions they could be heading this month.

The Roster

On July 1st, 2013 Portland's prospective roster reads:

Point Guard: Damian Lillard with C.J. McCollum the presumptive backup.

Shooting Guard: Wesley Matthews with McCollum in reserve and 2nd rounder Allen Crabbe a possibility.

Small Forward: Nicolas Batum with Victor Claver and Will Barton fighting for reserve minutes

Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge backed up by Victor Claver and Joel Freeland

Center: Meyers Leonard with Freeland and possibly 2nd rounder Jeff Withey

To supplement this group the Blazers have approximately $11.8 million in cap space, a "room" exception maxing out at $2.5 million per year for 2 years, and the ability to sign as many minimum-level contracts as necessary.

Roster Analysis

Even though the addition of McCollum (and perhaps Crabbe) bolstered the backcourt Portland's roster still shows major holes.

The most glaring void is the center position. Meyers Leonard showed flashes of promise on offense last season but showed no sign of being able to defend the position even in limited minutes. Hopefully he will have worked on his game over the summer but the distance between him and starting was so vast that projecting him in that role in October, 2013 would be optimistic.

Joel Freeland showed little ability to play center at either end of the floor. He probably needs a harder look at power forward.

People are already optimistic about Jeff Withey because of his shot-blocking and because he's an unknown quantity. Not-yet-demonstrated flaws are easy to ignore. Most second-round picks fall to that draft position for a reason. Perhaps Portland got a steal with the 39th pick of the draft. Then again, there's no guarantee Withey will make the team, let alone make a significant dent in the rotation.

Summation: Staring Centers = 0. Bankable Centers = 0. Number of centers you'd trust with more than 12 minutes per game in speculative reserve duty = 0.

Frontcourt bench depth is another obvious weakness. Freeland, Victor Claver, and Will Barton aren't untried; they've been tried too much and have come up short. Barton and Claver have shown promise in isolated areas for brief times, but they're the kind of guys you carry deep on your roster to experiment with, not rely on in key reserve positions.

Even if McCollum becomes a reliable and productive 6th man combo guard, the Blazers are three players short of a comfortable rotation. They need a starting center, a reserve power forward, and a reserve small forward. This assumes that Leonard and Withey can split back-up center duty. If not the Blazers also need a substitute five. Don't even ask what happens if McCollum struggles.

The Key Question

The biggest question facing the Blazers as they find their way forward from here is whether they're planning to build around LaMarcus Aldridge long-term. Rumors of Aldridge's discontent--or at least impatience--circled last week's draft like so many vultures over a desert-bound depth chart. His contract runs two more seasons, the maximum amount of time the Blazers are guaranteed to have him and a devilishly small window in which to make long-term decisions.

If Aldridge Remains in the Long-Term Plan

If the Blazers believe they can retain Aldridge beyond the next two years their task is clear: fill as many of their holes with productive, veteran players as possible. This is no easy task.

Starting center is the obvious priority this summer. $11.8 million might buy a long-term quality starting center...maybe. We discussed center options ad nauseum before the draft. In brief:

--The best centers available this summer are restricted free agents. The final decision on signing them is out of Portland's hands. All they can do is make an offer and hope the other team doesn't match. If successful, this kind of offer would take up all of Portland's available cap room.

--The unrestricted center crop is fairly thin, characterized by players who are unproven, not productive, or old with glaring weaknesses. These centers could be had for a fraction of Portland's cap space, 60% or less, but you're getting what you pay for.

--The Blazers could also execute a trade for a center. Up until now the assumption has been that their 2013 draft pick would be part of any such deal. It appears that McCollum was drafted to play for the Blazers. Alternate scenarios include trading Matthews or Batum, perhaps coupled with Leonard. Matthews would be the preferred choice for the Blazers, as they have more backcourt depth than forward depth. Batum would probably draw a better quality of center in return but would leave a commensurate hole in Portland's rotation behind him. Either way, a trade would preserve some or all of Portland's available cap space, perhaps even increasing it.

--Another trade scenario finds the Blazers capitalizing on the seismic shift caused by Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers. If he opts to do so and moves to a team that needs to clear cap space to absorb him, that team could be interested in dumping off their starting center. Portland's cap space could be used to absorb that center.

--The Blazers could also try to make do with a power forward at center, either Aldridge or a free agent. This would likely hasten Aldridge's departure but it might be better than paying for a marginal free agent.

After the center position is filled the Blazers will have to make offers to reserves and/or any new replacement starters created by a trade. Depending on how they got their center the Blazers could have anywhere from the room exception only to over $12 million to sign these players. (The latter case assumes they've traded away one or more starters and will need to replace them with the money.)

If the Blazers fail to obtain a center and suitable reserves they leave themselves unbalanced. In the worst-case scenario (no quality center at all) they waste the efforts at the other four positions and lose games lacking defense and rebounding. In the best-case scenario (center on board but missing the reserves) they will be forced to play starters long minutes and leave themselves vulnerable to injury or fatigue.

At minimum the Blazers will need to address the center position and get one quality reserve over the next two months. They could probably make it through the season on that basis and hope to use a mid-level exception to sign the second quality reserve next summer, then hope that's enough to make Aldridge believe in his future here.

If Aldridge Is Not Part of the Long-Term Plan

The Blazers already have a huge hole at center and smaller holes at the reserve forward positions. Their frontcourt is thin and pressure is making it bulge. If LaMarcus Aldridge leaves this roster, structural failure occurs in that frontcourt and there is no roster anymore. The Blazers are then in a complete rebuilding situation. Lillard and presumably McCollum would become the new foundation with future cap space and trades for draft picks and young players becoming a priority.

Presuming they don't just let him walk in two years the Blazers will get assets in return for Aldridge. It's unlikely that those assets would remake the roster immediately. Teams don't trade All-Stars in return for All-Stars. They want to acquire your All-Star to pair with their own, not to replace him. Otherwise it's a lateral move. Younger talented players, future draft picks, and cap space make All-Star deals happen. In a rebuild situation the Blazers would covet all three.

In this scenario Portland's immediate priorities invert. Grabbing some kind of veteran center is essential if Aldridge stays. Signing Samuel Dalembert and trading for Marcin Gortat are both viable options. Chasing Kyle Korver to help at small forward could work as well. But acquiring semi-expensive veterans to support, but not revolutionize, your roster makes no sense if you're rebuilding. You don't even know what they're supporting. What kind of center will you need in the future? Will Nicolas Batum's $11 million contract still make sense? If not, you're now acquiring Korver as a mediocre starter, not a fantastic reserve. Everything changes with context. Contract, age, and ceiling become as important as talent, experience, and skill set.

In case it's not obvious by now, the decision to build around Aldridge or not will determine the value of incoming players and the direction of the team in the near future.


Three things have changed since last Thursday morning:

1. C.J. McCollum might cover the Blazers' need for a 6th man and primary reserve in the backcourt. That would alleviate some of the financial and talent pressure from this summer's free-agent run.

2. It's even more of a might, but Jeff Withey might cover the need for a short-minute reserve center, freeing up Portland's room exception for a different reserve.

3. If the Blazers feel safe gambling on Allen Crabbe they might figure that he and McCollum make Wesley Matthews more expendable, making him available in trade scenarios. This is also a huge might, as Matthews is a starter and a proven player, neither of which apply to McCollum and Crabbe.

Even if most of these mights become reality the Blazers are still trying to thread the eye of a needle meeting their needs with the cap space and trade resources they have available. Unless a Dwight Howard displacement center falls into their laps, finding a quality starter at that position remains a riddle. If that doesn't happen, nothing else they do will compensate, nor would next year's cap exceptions and draft picks be likely to solve the problem. At that point both they and LaMarcus Aldridge would have to consider whether the future together would be rosy or just more wheel-spinning into oblivion.

Either way, we should be able to tell Portland's general direction by the next moves they make in free-agency. The more cap space they devote to experience the likelier they are to consider retaining Aldridge as the key to their future. A youth movement or a propensity to gamble on smart value picks instead of proven performers may signal that the starting center conundrum proved unsolvable and a rebuild is underway.

Tomorrow: What moving Aldridge might look like. Where would he go, and for what?

Plus: All week long, discussion of the major rumors, the pros and cons of each prospective acquisition.

--Dave (