Joel Freeland came to the Portland Trail Blazers three seasons ago after scouts had touted him as the best big man in Europe. In the NBA he has established himself as a useful bench player, known for his tough defense, sure rebounding, and heads-up selfless play. Freeland has fit in nicely with his team's needs and style, but he is also coming off his second straight season derailed by injury, which has limited his impact on the team to date. Facing a $3.8 million qualifying offer to retain his services, the Blazers now get to channel Freeland's fellow Brits, answering the question, "Should he stay or should he go?"
In an offseason where uncertainty looms over most of Portland's roster, a $3.8 million qualifying offer would make Freeland a restricted free agent, which would be a raise of about $800k. If Freeland signs an offer sheet with another team for a better deal, the Blazers would have an opportunity to match it in order to bring him back. The decision might not be easy.
A glance at Freeland's traditional per game stats show them to be roughly the same over the last three years. Yet those numbers belie the subtle but significant improvements which Freeland has continually made on both sides of the ball, as well as the recognizable intangible value he has added to the squad.
Freeland has always has been a "lunchpail" big who doesn't need to touch the ball to be effective and scores hustle points, but this year he also started to get a better sense of when to take his own shot within the framework of the offense. In so doing, he started to trot out a range of moves that Meyers Leonard is already well familiar with—not that he could do anything about them in Freeland's nightly posting-and-toasting of the young big during warmups this year. But in particular, Freeland has shown improved footwork and patient use of pivots and fakes when in deep, along with a left-handed hook and a jumper from the deep mid-range that often caught opponents off-guard. Notably, if he can continue to be efficient with his jumpers as he was at the end of the season (he hit 8 of his last 12 from at least 17 feet, and 11 of his last 15 from at least 12 feet), he will be a natural fit in Portland's scheme.
Freeland surprisingly led the team in two categories, one of which was technical fouls. Joel's most memorable tech came when Shawne Williams tried to intimidate Meyers Leonard during a blowout of Detroit in March. Freeland, despite having just returned from his shoulder injury, let Williams know in no uncertain terms that such behavior wasn't going to fly. Those terms included a return volley of a head-butt, which led to Joel's ejection and a hearty ovation from the Moda Center crowd. Freeland isn't just a guy who is willing to mix it up; he is also a wily veteran defender who knows how and when to take a foul, and has been known to frustrate talented offensive players with his defensive tricks.
The other category Freeland led the team in was Net Rating. This metric is meant to show how well a team performed when a certain player was on the floor. It is an amalgam of Offensive Rating (how many points the team scores per 100 possessions with a player on the floor) and Defensive Rating (how many points the team allows per 100 possessions with a player on the floor).
The Blazers were at their very best defensively with Freeland in the lineup. Before his injury, out of all Blazers who had played at least 25 games, he was first in Defensive Rating at 93.9, and first in Net Rating (+10.2). At that time, the Blazers were playing elite team defense, and they had a 100.8 Defensive Rating without him on the floor. In the 8 games he started in the place of an injured Robin Lopez, he took his game to another level, and accordingly logged a miniscule 90.5 Defensive Rating. To give a sense what this means, the top three in Defensive Rating in the NBA among starters this year were Tony Allen (94.9), Andrew Bogut (95.2), and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Draymond Green (96.0). For the year, Freeland was tied for 12th in the entire NBA in Defensive Rating among players who appeared in at least as many games as he did.
Joel's trademark game of last year came December 30 against then-East-leading Toronto, as he played a career high 32 minutes and hauled in 12 boards in a comeback win. He "turned it up to 11" when the Blazers needed him most: with Portland down 7 entering the fourth, Freeland played the entire final quarter, grabbing five rebounds (two offensive) and blocking two shots, igniting the crowd and his team while playing the role of ‘glue guy' to perfection.
In the very next game against the Hawks, his third block of the night was on a vicious Al Horford dunk attempt, which prevented the score but partially tore Joel's right rotator cuff. This was a re-tear; he had originally suffered the injury in the Spanish ACB league a few years back. Because scar tissue is not as strong as original tissue, there is the chance that this could happen again and become a somewhat chronic problem. It was clear that Freeland was not fully healed when he did come back for the last two months of the season, as he was often protective of his shoulder when in traffic, and justifiably so. As such, it was not surprising to see him get only 7 minutes of floor time in the Grizzlies playoff series.
However, given the offseason to recover with the help of the very best protocols in sports medicine, Freeland should be able to heal fully in time for next year. Like Wesley Matthews' situation, Freeland's injury history poses a distinct advantage for Portland in resigning him. The Blazers probably know better than anyone what they have in Freeland. Frankly, with Chris Kaman another year older and Meyers Leonard still learning how to use his frame, we might need to see more of Joel. It seems unlikely that another team would offer Freeland a multi-year deal at this point for more than the necessary qualifying offer of $3.8 million, and with the salary cap going up this year and even more the next, this seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement for this year: one that could help maximize Freeland's next contract, while being fair market value for a heady big who provides depth and stability, and may yet have his best basketball ahead of him.