First time writer, long time reader. Neil Oshley said he had a Plan B for every single free agent. Going through our free agent list, what would your plan be for a replacement for each free agent on the list? From LA to D. Wright, how would you restock for next year?
This is a difficult question. Portland's starting lineup is more than the sum of its parts. As the great Bob Ross taught us, you can change almost anything in the process of completing a painting. Once the basic composition is set, after the painting becomes a product of dozens of layers blended into each other, it's pretty hard to scrub out 20% of it and fill in seamlessly.
We saw this with Arron Afflalo this season. Afflalo might not be an exact copy of Wesley Matthews but he's in the vicinity. You won't find too many players closer to Wesley's skill set. Portland's starting lineup never looked the same once Afflalo stepped into Matthews' shoes. Being new accounted for some of it, but we also have to acknowledge that the Blazers don't just need a Wesley-Matthews-type, they function best with the genuine Wesley Matthews.
Synergy is a blessing and curse for this incarnation of the Blazers, much as it was for Clyde Drexler's and Bill Walton's teams. There's plenty of room to fiddle around the edges of this roster but if you mess with the core it's not going to be the same team anymore.
Changing the core may be a good thing. If the ceiling for the starting unit is the second round of the playoffs it has to be done. But it's not as simple as pulling out Player A and inserting Player B.
Here's a list of free agents and some thoughts on how the team could proceed if they need to be replaced. I do mention names under each one but these aren't mean to be 1-for-1 replacements, rather indicative of what's out there in the free agent market if the Blazers have cap space. Keep in mind that trades may produce better results than simply replacing one free agent with another.
If LaMarcus Aldridge leaves, you're rebuilding this team. That doesn't necessarily mean starting from scratch or going back to 30 wins (though either could happen). But you're not fiddling with a spoke here, you're changing out the hub. That'll move every spoke in the wheel, calling into question the usefulness of each player on the roster outside of Damian Lillard and the efficacy of Portland's offensive and defensive schemes.
Rebuilding would present new opportunity, however. The Blazers don't have to stick with a mid-range, forward based attack. With Lillard as the heir apparent to Aldridge's crown, Portland would have an opportunity to go backcourt-heavy. They could look for a high-scoring, multi-purpose shooting guard while incubating CJ McCollum to see if he could develop into that role. They could concentrate on defense, rebounding, and athleticism across the frontcourt to compensate for score-first guards. They'd be emulating Drexler's Blazers or the current Golden State Warriors.
I don't see the Blazers keeping the current system and accepting a lesser light in Aldridge's place. A guy who only played on one end of the court would be problematic even if he was as good as Aldridge on that end. Kevin Love might be the best of the realistically-available options, Greg Monroe the most problematic. Either way, this solution seems like taking a third swing at pitches you couldn't hit the first two times, this time with a cracked bat.
They aren't direct substitutes, but players like Jeff Green, Al Jefferson, or even David West might be able to fill in some of Aldridge's frontcourt action as long as the Blazers compensate in other areas so they aren't so dependent on the position. But long-term I think they'd go with a younger and/or more intimidating frontcourt while trying to spice up the smaller positions. (Hint: Think trading for Al Horford.)
Wesley Matthews' particular combination of skill and chutzpah have made him a rallying point for this team. He's one of the few Blazers with a hard-nosed attitude...something they need more of. Losing him--be it to free agency or lingering effects of injury--would be a major blow.
If Matthews does fly the coop, Afflalo might be the next best option. Sunk cost is one reason, but he's also a pretty good option if the Blazers want too fill the position with a two-way player.
I'd have no problem with the Blazers going one-way at shooting guard, though. McCollum counts, as would Eric Gordon or even Gerald Green. The Blazers could also go defense-first and try to cover shooting with someone like Marco Belinelli, then try to get more frontcourt scoring.
Robin Lopez is a good fit if the Blazers keep the starting lineup intact. Otherwise he might get demoted to platoon center, bench center, or even ex-center.
Even if the starting five remains whole, Portland needs another stylistic option in the middle, someone who can get out to cover screens and retreat to the middle. Any number of mobile centers with varying degrees of utility will be available this summer, from Brandan Wright and JaVale McGee to Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan. Old friends Roy Hibbert and Omer Asik are free agents as well, though they wouldn't offer a change from Lopez's style. Wooing and paying a center candidate will be a bigger problem than finding one.
Arron Afflalo, Chris Kaman, Dorell Wright, Steve Blake, Alonzo Gee
Another year, another cry that the Blazers need more bench help. But, well...they do.
The names on this list are better than bench players of yore, but they suffer from a lack of impact and (in some cases) a lack of differentiation. If Robin Lopez isn't working out in a given game it's probably because he's too slow. Chris Kaman isn't going to remedy that. Steve Blake is a heady, steady placeholder but he won't bend games your way. This bench isn't bad, but "not bad" isn't good enough.
Every player on this list is expendable. The Blazers owe no debt to their bench beyond the memory of the first-round pick they spent for Afflalo. The continuity and chemistry issues that limit fiddling with the starting lineup don't apply here. Portland had a steady "walk" sign for a big bench move two years ago. At this point the light's getting old, blinking red and counting down the dwindling years until LaMarcus Aldridge ages out of superstardom. It's time to get across the street or go a different way.
This year's free agent market is light on superstars but long on players who could bolster Portland's reserve corps. At the high end you have Green or Jefferson (mentioned above). Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, and Tyler Hansbrough are less expensive, more attainable options. The Blazers could even go a surprise route with Andrea Bargnani, Bismack Biyombo, or making a bid on restricted free agent Kyle O'Quinn.
The trouble is, even modest bench moves would take salary cap wrangling. The Blazers will need to lose a current starter, re-sign their starters on the cheap, or divest themselves of everybody in the bench list above to generate any cap space.
As you can see, free agent issues aren't simple. The players who fit best are going to be the hardest to get. The players with the most talent will also require the most adjustment to the system. "Contingency plans" could end up with multiple moving pieces, some combination of trades and signings, each move necessitating another. There's no "silver bullet" move if the Blazers have to make major changes. Even if they get a decent return for their loss they might spend the next year or two trying to get the formula right...or figuring out whether they have a successful formula at all.
Thanks so much for your question, Grant! I hope it was worth writing.
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