In 2014, the Portland Trail Blazers reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. As July arrived, it was immediately clear that General Manager Neil Olshey's focus was on value transactions to complement the returning core five players (LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez). However, he did have one outstanding decision to make: Should he try to retain point guard Mo Williams, or use one of the Trail Blazers' valuable cap exceptions to replace him?
While Williams stayed near Dallas and rumors swirled about his contract demands (he eventually signed a small deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves), Olshey quickly signed a point guard familiar to both Blazers fans and himself: Steve Blake.
Blake first came to Portland as a free agent in 2005, but was sent to the Terry Stotts-coached Milwaukee Bucks in a package trade for Jamaal Magloire. In 2007, he again signed with Portland as a free agent. After a solid stint, his starting spot was supplanted by incoming free agent Andre Miller, and he was packaged to Neil Olshey's Clippers in 2010 for Marcus Camby.
In his third tour of duty with Portland and his second in company with Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Olshey and Stotts, Blake arrived with high expectations for the role of Lillard's backup. Here were some statements from his introductory press conference:
Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey:
We want to bring guys in here that we know can deliver in high-pressure, high-level environments. This is a team that was in the second round of the playoffs last year and you've got to target certain types of players to be able to compete at that level, and [Blake and Chris Kaman] are in that category.
I think if we had any deficiencies in terms of veteran leadership, stability, and experience off the bench against a team like San Antonio in the playoffs, I think [Blake] and [Kaman] help answer those questions.
Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts:
[Blake and Kaman] are about winning. They came here because of the year that we had last year. We made it to the second round, we have higher ambitions for next season, and I think they will both be instrumental in getting that success.
If Steve Blake is to be judged on these criteria, the results are not pretty.
Blake was billed as the stable veteran, the man who could comfortably set up the offense and knew how to get the ball to players in the right spot to score. During the regular season he took care of the ball, spread the points around, and had a surprisingly effective synergy with fellow new arrival Kaman. Most of his per-36 numbers were reasonably in line with his career, with the caveat that he was no longer playing against opposing starters.
Some numbers gave reason to believe the preseason hype. Steve finished the season third on the team in assists (3.6 per game, behind playmakers Lillard and Batum). And while his .352 three-point percentage was only 8th best on the team, he still ranked above Lillard in that department.
However, Blake was a below-average Blazer in many categories. His .707 Free Throw Percentage was 12th best but it was rarely an issue since he ranked 16th in free throws attempted per minute. His .373 in overall Field Goal Percentage was the team's worst, behind even Will Barton and Dorell Wright. He only moved up slightly to 12th in Effective Field Goal Percentage.
These numbers weren't great, but they weren't necessarily disastrous. The regular season wasn't the main focus of the season anyway. Blake was also brought in to bring stability to the team at playoff time, so the Blazers could handle "a team like San Antonio", to whom they had fallen the year prior.
Portland didn't see the Spurs again in the 2015 post season but they ended up facing another team with a tough defense and team-based play: The Memphis Grizzlies. Nothing positive can be said about Steve Blake's performance there.
With the loss of Matthews and Arron Afflalo due to injury, Blake was never going to be the difference-maker in the Blazers' first round series. Portland's lopsided losses can't be placed on his shoulders. Replace him with Mo Williams, and the Blazers still lose.
But not being the difference maker doesn't excuse not making any difference. Billed as a veteran presence who could stabilize the team against hardened opponents, Blake provided zero spark for the offense and very limited stability. His ability to find players in good position during regular season disappeared during Portland's long playoff droughts. With the season on the line in Game 5, Blake appeared for a nearly-invisible 6 minute cameo, eclipsed by the emerging CJ McCollum.
Steve Blake has a player option with the Blazers for the 2015-16 season, and he's currently expected to exercise it. The Blazers have also signed Tim Frazier to a non-guaranteed contract for next season. If both players are on the final 15 man roster this fall, the point guard positions are filled.
However, the Blazers' front office may look at Blake's 2014-15 performance and debate if their hand is being forced. With Steve's poor shooting and lack of playoff presence, Neil Olshey's carefully-crafted backup point guard plan may be unraveling. Perhaps the name "Steve Blake" will once again appear in this summer's trade rumors for cap purposes if nothing else.
Then again, Blake's supporters need not worry. He'd likely be connected with Portland's third-string point guard opening for the 2016-17 season. Steve Blake comes and Steve Blake goes, but he's rarely gone long.