You can't talk about the long-term future of the Portland Trail Blazers without considering the Summer of 2015. General Manger Neil Olshey created Portland's roster with flexibility in mind. He could retain the current lineup. He could blow up the entire roster next summer and start from scratch. Other than Nicolas Batum and a couple rookie-scale guys with team options that will likely be picked up (including star point guard Damian Lillard), the slate gets wiped clean next summer.
Portland's future already has some shape to it, though, even if specifics remain foggy. LaMarcus Aldridge will have the option to sign a maximum contract extension over the summer; Lillard will be due for a "super max" contract in a few years (assuming he makes an All-NBA team in the next two seasons as he did last year). With those two moves, 60% of Portland's cap space--and flexibility--evaporates.
Which gets you wondering: What happens to the rest of the team, specifically the starters, in 2015? Prognostication is difficult considering the team hasn't even played a minute of the 2014-15 season yet. Still, we can't dismiss the possibility that Portland's core unit will look drastically different next year.
Consider Wesley Matthews. The shooting guard position is thin league-wide. James Harden has a strangle-hold as the top guy with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade aging in his wake. Jodie Meeks (hardly a household name) just got $6 million per year from Detroit.
Matthews, an unrestricted free agent next summer, is making just over $6 million in base salary this season (plus residual signing bonus). That's a ridiculously reasonable number compared to his production. The Blazers have to be ecstatic with what they have. But Wes will surely command a higher price point than his current contract affords him. The combination of his defense, three-point shooting and relative youth -- Matthews turns 28 in October -- could make him one of the hotter commodities of the offseason. The price will only go up if he has a good showing this year.
Like Matthews, Robin Lopez is on the books for around $6 million this year and he's due for a payday in 2015. Statistically, the 26-year-old Lopez registered an elite season in a number of categories last year. He was one of only three players to snatch 300+ offensive rebounds, ranked fifth in the NBA in total blocked shots and shot an impressive 82% from the free throw line. Yet he's hanging in the same rent district as JJ Hickson and Spencer Hawes. As with shooting guard, the center spot is weak in the NBA right now. Lopez could demand much more than he's currently making.
Think of the questions facing the Blazers in the near future. Would the they prefer to bring back Matthews or Lopez if they had to choose between the two? Dare they pay to bring back both? Could they ever build a bench that way? How does Batum's impending raise in 2016 fit into all of this?
You start to get the feeling that 2014 could be an extended audition year for these two starters and everyone else with a team option strapped to their contract. It'll be a balancing act between talent, fit, and price-per-production, a race to see who will make the grade.
Add it together and we're looking at an incomplete picture with Lillard the only certainty, Aldridge close behind as an "almost" done deal, and everybody else up for grabs. Given the variables and the number of players for whom they'll have to be factored, few solutions end up with every player returning. 2015 might bring another march to playoff success. It might also be the last season these players get to make that march together.