The Trail Blazers could have as many as seven free agents this offseason, but surprisingly, there's been a little bit of drama surrounding a guy who's none of the above. Is there any chance the Blazers make a bold move this summer and trade Nicolas Batum?
To answer this question, two Blazer's Edge "experts" got together and hashed it out. Here's what Willy Raedy and I had to say on the matter:
EVANS: Alright, Willy. I need an emergency powwow. Got something worrisome on my mind.
There's still a lot of buzz out there about trading Nicolas Batum, and I just don't get it. This began a couple weeks ago when CSNNW reported about the possibility of shipping Batum away - possibly for younger, cheaper pieces or for a first-round pick in this year's draft - and the speculation is still ongoing. I'm totally confounded as to why this is happening. Why have this conversation now?
If you ask me, trading Batum is bonkers. Let me boil my rant down to two key points:
1. Why sell low on the guy? Obligatory "I am not a GM" disclaimer here, but as I understand it, the worst way to get value for someone is to move when their reputation is at its lowest. Batum is coming off of a down year. He averaged only 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this past season, down from 13.0 and 7.4 the year before. He also shot only 32.4 percent from 3. Why now? Why swap him for someone else's table scraps?
2. Why take apart the core? The Blazers' greatest strength these last two years has been their cohesive starting five. They've been at their best when Batum has shined next to LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard and Robin Lopez. Shouldn't your priority be to retain that group? Re-sign Aldridge, sign Matthews and get him healthy, keep RoLo as well and roll it back? Doesn't shopping Batum send the opposite message? What's Aldridge gonna think when he sees rumors like this?
When you start shopping a guy who's been a steady presence for seven years, that's a bad sign for the stability of your franchise. What do you think - am I overthinking that a little? Or is there another angle here that I'm not considering? Stumped here.
WILLY: Emergency powwow! Do we huddle under blankets with flashlights? Can we get code names and talk on walkie talkies? Maybe we can pretend to be different members of the Goonies. I call Data. I haven't even read the rest of your email but I'm already in, 110 percent.
Oh, wow, that is worrisome. You're certainly right that this isn't an opportune time as Batum's value is lower than it's been in years. But if I had to play devil's advocate, I think the "trade Batum" wave has a couple of undercurrents.
First and foremost, the dude had a bad year. There's just no way around that. How much was Batum's season worth? $5 million? Maybe $7 million? Anytime a player produces well short of their salary it makes sense to reevaluate things. At the same time, the context around Batum has changed in subtle ways.
Portland hasn't been this close to championship contention since the early 2000s. There's a feeling that the Blazers just need to get over the hump. In that kind of context, any disappointment becomes magnified and the sense of urgency grows.
While the team has ascended the ranks of the league, Batum has fallen farther down the Blazers' roster. When he signed his big contract, Batum was perceived as the team's third best player and their best perimeter defender. Now, both those titles probably belong to Wesley Matthews. His position in the pecking order has shifted making his absence seem more tolerable.
Finally, even a healthy Batum might be an inefficient use of resources. There are schools of thought that argue the best way to build a roster is to sign as many max players as possible and then fill out the roster with exceptions. From that perspective, Batum has one of the dreaded middle-class contracts - not quite a max player but still a sizable investment.
The Blazers are pretty limited this summer. Even renouncing Matthews or Lopez wouldn't give them much money to throw at the top free agents. However, if they renounced one of those and traded Batum, things could get really interesting really fast. Trading Batum to trade Batum is one thing. Trading Batum for a cheaper "3 and D" facsimile and then snagging DeAndre Jordan is something completely different.
It's true that Batum's value is low, but from this perspective time is of the essence. Plus, even if the trade doesn't return equal value the added flexibility might.
Breaking up such a successful group is certainly a gamble, but the discussion has merit and raises interesting questions about where this team is and the best ways to move forward. Although trading him for a draft pick seems absolutely insane. Not sure what the rationale for that would be.
EVANS: OK. I'm glad we agree that unloading Batum just for a pick would be insane. You need to maximize value here - as in, current value. "Winning right now" value. No matter what else happens, the Blazers have one of the best young point guards in the game in Damian Lillard, who's inching closer to his prime. You need to put good players around him and thrive. This is not a rebuilding project.
We also agree that there's a greater sense of urgency because this team has been so close to contention the last couple of years. Every decision becomes more important as the title window starts to open. But aren't you also worried that under that pressure, Neil Olshey might panic and make an overreaction trade, dealing Batum when he doesn't need to?
Maybe he's not the best perimeter scorer or defender. He's not considered the "heart and soul of the team" the same way Wes is. But he's still a very legitimate starting small forward, and those guys don't exactly grow on trees. That "3 and D" role is all the rage in today's NBA, but how many guys can actually fill that role as well as Nic Batum? If you ditch Batum this summer, who can you conceivably get to replace him?
Here, I'll toss out a few names. DeMarre Carroll and Mike Dunleavy are free agents this summer. Al-Farouq Aminu is probably opting out in Dallas; Corey Brewer might do the same in Houston. Matt Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thabo Sefolosha are all under contract but possibly tradable. Any of these guys intrigue you? I don't hate any of them - Carroll's been one of my favorite underrated players for a couple of years now, actually - but I like Batum better.
So let's brainstorm a scenario. If Batum's not the Blazers' starting small forward on opening night, then who is? What's a move you can realistically see happening?
WILLY: You're absolutely right that panic trades are a concern. No matter the talent, the locker room fit of a new player is always a risk. We're talking about the Blazers being the best they've been since the 1999-2000 season. Talk about a front office that overcorrected! The Blazers made the Western Conference finals, lost in a heartbreaker to the...I can't even say it, and then turned around and traded Jermaine O'Neal and Brain Grant for Shawn Kemp and Dale Davis. Those moves were supposed to get the Blazers over the hump. They never got past the first round and eventually devolved into the Jail Blazers.
These concerns are especially true given the starting unit's cohesion and Batum's skill set in particular. Let's do a thought experiment to drive this point home. Assume that the Blazers stay the same at every position except for small forward. What kind of player would you want to complement the rest of the roster?
Ideally, he'd be a knock-down shooter who could also attack off the dribble. In order to keep the offense flowing, he'd need to be a willing passer and know how to run a pick and roll. On defense, he'd be a lock-down defender at his own position with enough quickness to check point guards when Lillard gets in over his head. If we're getting greedy, he'd also be big enough to play stretch four and post up smaller players.
That skill set goes way beyond just "3 and D" - it's a guy who makes up for the holes in the rest of the roster. Batum isn't everything on that list, but he's a lot closer than most of his competitors.
So I agree that's it's tough to find a realistic upgrade. But how much worse would the Blazers be if they went with someone cheaper? Would the team fall off a cliff with a guy like Mike Dunleavy or even Arron Afflalo? The team would be worse, but how much worse? In my mind, trading Batum only makes sense if it allows the team to upgrade elsewhere.
I'm not sure if I have a particular scenario in mind or if those are particularly useful. I would look for trades that brought back a decent starter in the $5 million to $8 million range. That would allow the team to offer a free agent close to max money by renouncing either Matthews or Lopez instead of both. Paul Pierce or Thabo Sefolosha would both be interesting options. I would even throw out Tiago Splitter. If the Spurs want to clear cap space Portland could send Batum to a third team.
The more important thing is the second move after a Batum trade. Can Olshey's connection to DeAndre Jordan make that a real possibility? Would a guy like Tyson Chandler be enough of an upgrade to outweigh losing Batum? If Portland snags Splitter, could the team then make a run at Khris Middleton?
I'm curious how you perceive these team dynamics. How important is Nicolas Batum to the team? Are there substantial upgrades available at other positions, or are we undervaluing Lopez and the rest of the roster? How would you characterize this cost-benefit balance with Batum at its fulcrum?
EVANS: How important is Batum? Very important, I'd say. He's been around so long that we risk taking him for granted here in Portland, but take a look around. Small forwards of his caliber aren't exactly easy to come by. He's a good defender, a good passer/playmaker, a great shooter (with the exception of his down year in 2014-15) - he's the complete package. Why give that up?
But maybe I'm just being sentimental. It's always easier to envision the team you have currently than an entirely new one. The status quo is simple. It's comfortable. Maybe if the Blazers shipped Batum out and effectively rebuilt on the fly this summer, I could get behind it. I don't particularly buy the DeAndre scenario (still feel like the most likely outcome with DAJ consists of "Clippers offer max, DAJ accepts max, DAJ stays," frankly), but you're right - options are out there. It's possible to move Batum and find other, more creative ways of building a winning team.
Also, you just mentioned Khris Middleton and I drooled on my laptop a little bit. I LOVE Middleton. He's young, athletic, long and works his butt off on defense, guarding multiple positions and closing out beautifully on the 3-point line. He's exactly the kind of player I'd want to replace Batum with.
Still, I think the most likely scenario is this is all smoke, no fire. Batum's probably staying.
Ultimately, final answer, proverbial gun to your head - what are the chances of Portland actually making a move this summer with Batum? Pretty low, yes?
WILLY: Gun to my head, I'd say Batum is with the team next season. If I had to throw out a number, I'd say there's a 10 percent chance of him moving. Maybe less.
If you boil down our conversation into its essence, our conclusion was this: If the Blazers can get a max or near max player, they should have no problem trading Batum or downgrading at the small forward position. Barring that, trading Batum doesn't make much sense. Since getting a max player is inherently difficult, especially for the Blazers, it's unlikely Batum will be traded.
The thing is, that conclusion applies to everyone on the roster besides Lillard and Aldridge. Batum's name is getting thrown around because, out of the group of players that make enough money to matter, he's the one people would be most willing to give up.
You have to wonder if this is a behavioral phenomenon. Everyone wants to fantasize, but there are the cap sheet rules and some level of common sense. As a result, people tend to fixate on players that can make splashy moves financially possible, are good enough to make those scenarios semi-reasonable and aren't perceived to be critical to the team's success. Wesley Matthews was theoretical trade fodder when he fit that profile. Now it's Batum's turn.
Don't sleep on Khris Middleton, though. Sources inside my imagination say Portland is discussing a sign-and-trade deal with Milwaukee. Batum and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (after we draft him) for Middleton. You heard it here first!
EVANS: Here first and here only, Willy. Here only.
Nah, I kid. If nothing else, you've opened my eyes to some interesting possibilities. Middleton, Pierce, the DeAndre pipe dream - we agree that none of these things are likely, per se, but they're not totally laughable, and they're definitely interesting conversation starters. And hey, there's a lot of time for conversation. Can you believe it's still only May 29? Free agency is still more than a month away.
The verdict, for now: Nico's probably staying. Powwow adjourned. Though if the rumors out of Milwaukee start picking up next week, I might need you on call again. Stay tuned...