With NBA free agency officially kicking off tonight at 9:01, Blazers GM Neil Olshey will be tasked with improving the league's least productive bench over the past two seasons.
Olshey and the rest of the organization watched the 2014 NBA Draft last Thursday from the outside, without a pick in either of the two rounds. Rumors spread in the weeks leading up to the draft that Portland would find a way in, either by trading for a pick or purchasing one from another team. Unfortunately for draft fanatics, though, the night ended without any action from the Blazers' front, likely indicating a decision to develop bench players from within.
Guard Mo Williams will opt out of his contract for next season with Portland, leaving guards CJ McCollum, Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, forwards Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Victor Claver as well as big men Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard as the reserves coach Terry Stotts has to work with heading into the 2014-15 season as of now.
In an excellent, informative fanpost, Blazer's Edge moderator T Darkstar spelled out Portland's most likely salary cap scenarios for the next two free agency periods. Essentially, the Blazers' main shot -- for now -- at clearing enough cap space to make a serious splash next summer involves the front office renouncing the rights to several players. Instead of going that route and gambling on Olshey's ability to lure a huge name to Portland in 2015, T Darkstar had another proposition:
... In order to try and get cap space, you have to gut the team, even of the prospects. If you want to keep just our rotation starters and one bench player, it's not worth going after cap space at all. The only dream is Marc Gasol, and that is a long shot that involves a giant sacrifice upfront, and risking our best player.
A far better solution is to use this year's Mid-Level Exception, bank on a few young players developing, and spending the money instead of saving it. Taking on salary in order to improve the talent level of this team is a positive, not a negative. And I would be willing to bet that even Olshey has moved on from the 2015 cap space contingency.
What are the Blazers' needs this summer? If Williams opts out and guard Earl Watson walks in free agency or retires as expected, two roster spots will be open. Gone would be Portland's sixth man and leading scorer off the bench. Williams shot 41.7 percent from the floor and a respectable 36.9 percent from deep in 24.8 minutes a game as the team's backup point guard and primary ballhandler when guard Damian Lillard was on the bench or playing off the ball last season.
In the 2013 offseason, Olshey was able to turn second-round pick Jeff Withey, the rights to a few overseas players, cash and several future second-round draft picks into starting center Robin Lopez and Robinson in separate trades. Lacking the cap space to absorb contracts in lopsided trades this summer, Olshey now has to get creative in order to improve Stotts' bank of reserves.
We can probably assume there's no real demand in the NBA marketplace for names like Claver, Barton or Crabbe. McCollum only played 38 games last year and is currently the only real, capable ballhandler on Portland's bench, so he's likely not getting shipped out. Leonard only makes $2.3 million next year and trading him would probably be a lateral move at best, considering his lackluster first two seasons. Robinson could possibly generate some interest around the league, but getting back equal talent and salary for him would prove difficult for Olshey. Trading Wright or Freeland comes with the same set of complications.
Of course, a move that upgrades the bench is not impossible, it's just that speculation about trades is mostly conjecture at this point. Even the trades that brought in Lopez and Robinson last summer caught most Blazers fans and media by surprise, so the moves that do happen are often unexpected and prognosticating about them often requires an understanding of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement that most fans and writers simply don't possess.
What we can do, however, is look at the holes on Portland's bench and predict how Olshey will hit the free agency market tonight with two roster spots and the Mid-Level Exception and Bi-Annual Exception that are expected to be worth about $5.3 and $2 million, respectively.
Between McCollum, Barton, Wright and Robinson, Stotts should be able to fill out the backup shooting guard, small forward and power forward spots next season. The glaring holes on the bench, then, appear to be at point guard and center. Yes, the 6-foot-10 Freeland is certainly serviceable and did an admirable job backing up Lopez last year, but unless Leonard takes leaps and bounds with his game this summer, another big needs to be brought into the rotation by Olshey.
A few weeks ago, the writers here at Blazer's Edge looked at how to improve the backup point guard position in a roundtable discussion. Dane Carbaugh, Timmay, Sagar Trika and Ben Golliver all more-or-less endorsed the re-signing of Williams as Olshey's most realistic option at getting a solid backup point guard this summer.
The case for Williams is fairly strong -- he can be signed using the Non-Bird Exception, which allows the Blazers to keep their other two exceptions, leaving some flexibility. And as mentioned above, Williams was the only consistent scorer off Stotts' bench last year, a solid ballhandler who could penetrate, hit the occasional outside shot and play in the backcourt with Lillard as necessary.
The downsides of a Williams re-signing are just as evident as the positives, though. He's not a good defender, and playing Williams alongside Lillard creates plenty of stress on the frontcourt as both guards struggle to stay with their men while allowing plenty of penetration. Though he was decent at picking up assists, Williams also struggled with turnovers and fouls at times last year. He's looking for a three-year deal this offseason, and at 31 years old, he may not be entirely productive for the duration of his contract. Still, if the right price can be agreed upon, Williams is probably the most realistic and affordable backup point guard the Blazers can target in free agency.
Other available guards mentioned in the roundtable discussion were Kirk Hinrich, Jordan Farmar, DJ Augustin and Darren Collison.
Hinrich is noted for his defense, but at 33, his quickness and athleticism are on the decline. He's had two straight seasons shooting below 40 percent from the field, but is a career 37.7 percent shooter from deep and he picked up almost four assists a game last year, solid numbers for a backup point.
Farmar, 27, scored 10.1 points and averaged 4.9 assists in 22.2 minutes per game last year with the Lakers, but has always struggled with his defense. He's a dead-eye three-point shooter, though, hitting about 44 percent of his threes each of the last two seasons.
Augustin is 26, has never made more than $3.5 million a year and has a reliable three-point shot. Other than that, he's been wildly inconsistent over his six-year career and isn't known as a solid defender. Collison has suited up with four teams in his five-year NBA career, but he's a solid scorer inside and outside of the three-point line who can also find teammates well. He has struggled with turnovers in the past, however, and will likely get plenty of attention this summer in a free agent class of point guards that largely lacks starting-caliber players.
Shaun Livingston, Ramon Sessions and Patty Mills should all be on Olshey's radar, too, as free agency kicks off tonight. Luke Ridnour, Devin Harris and Steve Blake -- although past their respective primes -- could probably handle back-up point guard duties next year, though in more of a stopgap role.
The free agent market for big men this summer is more palatable than that of the point guards, but it's unclear who could fall into Portland's price range. Spencer Hawes, Channing Frye and Emeka Okafor are all names that have been bandied about by Blazers fans for months, but all made more last year than what Olshey could offer and probably won't be looking to come to Portland for a pay-cut.
Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Kaman could probably be had affordably, but both are at the end of their careers and will continue to decline. Jordan Hill's a solid rebounder worth a look, and he turns just 27 next year as a six-year pro. Olshey could also kick the tires on Andray Blatche, a good scorer and rebounder, but he may not be a good fit in Portland's locker room as he's had a number of questions raised about his character over his nine-year career.
After taking a glance at the available free agents this offseason, it's quite clear Olshey has his work cut out for him if he wants to bolster the Blazers' bench without sacrificing team chemistry or future cap flexibility. Portland's best bet after all may be to bring back Williams if he's willing to take fewer than three guaranteed years and then bring in a big man with either the Mid-Level or Bi-Annual exceptions available. This would mean Stotts' bench rotation would likely consist of Williams, McCollum, Barton, Wright, Robinson and Free Agent Center "X", with Freeland, Leonard, Claver and Crabbe in street clothes or at the end of the bench.
Are you comfortable going into next season with what could amount to be the same bench with just a Mid-Level or Bi-Annual Exception player added? McCollum, Barton and Robinson all showed flashes of potential but none showed much consistency from game-to-game last year.
Do you trust Portland's internal development, and is someone on the Blazers' bench primed for a breakout season? Maybe you'd like to see Olshey let Williams finish his career elsewhere and bring in two new faces this offseason ... who do you see as the most realistic free agent options when considering financial constraints, team chemistry and roster balance?
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter