Blazers owner Paul Allen, GM Neil Olshey and the front office staff are staring down the barrel of a busy, complicated summer -- starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, along with backup veterans Dorell Wright and Alonzo Gee, can all walk in unrestricted free agency. Reserves Joel Freeland, Steve Blake, Arron Afflalo, Chris Kaman, Allen Crabbe and Tim Frazier are either still awaiting qualifying offers from the team, possess a player option for next year or have non-guaranteed roster spots. Add in the No. 23 pick in this month's NBA Draft, and it's easy to see that July 1 kicks off a wild free agency period for the entire organization.
Technically, the draft falls first on the calendar, landing on Thursday, June 25. With a late first round pick, Portland's been linked to an unsurprisingly wide array of potential draftees -- players who can either contribute right away off the bench, have plenty of potential for coach Terry Stotts to develop, can be stashed overseas or bring any combination of the above traits.
Names of prospective guards, wings and big men alike have been bandied about all over Rip City this spring, as fans dream of mining the next Jimmy Butler (Pick No. 30 in 2011), Rudy Gobert (No. 27 in 2013), Darren Collison (No. 21 in 2009) or DeMarre Carroll (No. 27 in 2009) from the depths of the first round, shining and polishing an unfinished lump of coal into a diamond -- or, at least, a useful piece who can fit into Stotts' rotation come next November.
But the first domino to fall this offseason -- one that will either affirm or severely alter Olshey's long-term plans for the team -- will be Aldridge. If the four-time All-star power forward re-ups in Portland, deductive reasoning might suggest one or both of Lopez and Matthews would stick around for their third and sixth years as starters with the team, respectively, alongside mainstays Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, who are both signed through at least 2016.
Should that paradigm manifest itself in the coming weeks and months for the Blazers, one could reasonably argue Olshey's best course of action would be to surround CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard -- the team's only two virtually guaranteed holdovers from last year's bench -- with a stable of affordable, proven and effective reserves to complement Portland's starting five, a group which would be going into its third straight year playing together next fall.
If Aldridge bolts when free agency opens, the Blazers' brass may hit the reset button and completely rebuild or retool the entire roster around Lillard, McCollum and Leonard with an eye toward the future. With Matthews, Lopez and Batum either in the midst of or approaching their late-20s, the team may or may not figure them into its long-term plans. Matthews and Lopez, especially, will have their values dictated by the market.
Matthews' Achilles tear in March has his value all over the map; Prior to the injury, he was considered a lock by many to garner $10-15 million a year in a long-term deal with either the Blazers or another team in free agency. Following the Achilles tear, Matthews' true value across the league is speculative at best, as teams ponder his ability to recover and come back a similarly effective player.
Lopez helped anchor one of the NBA's top-10 defenses this past season, according to NBA.com's Team Defensive Rating, but he's fairly limited -- if not underrated at times -- offensively. And while he's a very effective individual and team defender given the right system and talent surrounding him, Lopez could also be considered immobile and a less-than-ideal fit as the backbone of a defense against teams that can exploit his shortcomings, i.e. the Grizzlies. Like Matthews, Lopez' appeal to other teams and his financial prospects can't be directly pinpointed until free agency opens and the offers start pouring in.
The NBA's inflating salary cap in the summer of 2016 -- a figure that will likely increase by $21.9 million to $89 million, and then to $108 million the next year as the league's new television deal kicks in -- especially envelops the discourse surrounding Matthews' and Lopez' perceived values with ambiguity, not to mention that of Aldridge or any of the other players not guaranteed to be in Portland when training camp opens.
Because the scenario of Aldridge leaving the Blazers in free agency is littered with variables and would no doubt initiate a rippling effect -- cascading through the entire organization and leaving an almost-assuredly unrecognizable roster in its wake -- perhaps the discussion encompassing Portland's future should start by examining how the team should approach free agency with the assumption that its 29-year-old, All-NBA talent will come back for at least another year with the Blazers to see what Olshey can construct around him. This by no means invalidates other modes of thinking, but instead begins the conversation by analyzing what we, as outsiders, can understand most empirically without having to lay out too many "what-if" scenarios -- which is a fun exercise in and of itself, no doubt.
So for the sake of this discussion, let's say Aldridge comes back, with Matthews and Lopez giving it another shot in Portland next to Lillard, Batum, Leonard and McCollum. If you're of the belief that the current starters for the Blazers could contend for an NBA title given full health and an upgraded bench from which Stotts can more confidently draw competent reserves, you've probably scoured the NBA's list of available free agents, looking for that perfect fit alongside McCollum and Leonard off the pine.
Kaman, Blake, Wright, Freeland, Crabbe, Afflalo, Gee and Frazier all have familiarity with Stotts' system, and any combination of the aforementioned players could be brought back and be on-board for Opening Night 2015. But let's assume at least a couple roster spots open up -- one to be taken by the team's upcoming draftee, and one or more for incoming free agents. What kind of player would be a good fit for Portland, and are there any such available players who are realistically obtainable by Olshey and his staff?
Because the Blazers' starting five and the rest of the guaranteed players in 2015-16 would command the majority of the salary cap, we're likely talking about veteran minimum contracts and contributors who can be brought in on the cheap. No worry, though; There are still valuable guys who can be acquired under these specific circumstances.
Let's start by identifying an area that can be addressed by Olshey in free agency given these hypothetical constraints. The first need for the Blazers off the bench next to McCollum and Leonard would likely figure to be a "3-and-D" player -- a wing who can possibly float between perimeter positions, hit kick-outs around the three-point line, function within the framework of Stotts' offense and not be a detriment on the defensive end.
Portland's offense is predicated, as currently constructed and in this hypothetical scenario, around a few major, bedrock concepts: Aldridge's all-around contributions and the attention he draws from opposing defenses, Lillard's ability to create for himself and his teammates, team ball movement and the role players surrounding the Blazer's two stars hitting open shots.
Following this line of reasoning, Wright, Afflalo, Crabbe and potentially Gee could continue filling the 3-and-D role off the bench. But is there better value out there for the Blazers on the free agent market, or another complementary piece worth taking a look at?
One of the main roles of a 3-and-D player is to catch and shoot the ball effectively and efficiently without having to create off the dribble, specifically on the perimeter. This is especially true for any potential wing player Olshey would pursue this summer, as Aldridge consistently commands double-teams and Lillard is one of the league's most deft penetrators, creating plenty of open looks for teammates off the ball.
To anyone who has watched Stotts' offensive scheme develop over the past few seasons, it should come as no surprise that the Blazers ranked No. 7 or better in the league as a team in catch-and-shoot points per game (29.4), catch-and-shoot total points for the season (2,411), catch-and-shoot field goals attempted per game (28.6) and catch-and-shoot three-pointers attempted per game (18.9) last year, according to NBA.com.
Scouring the league-leaders in these categories and in other related catch-and-shoot statistics, it becomes clear just how much the league has shifted into valuing this type of shot. For example, of the top-15 teams last regular season in catch-and-shoot points per game, only the Knicks (No. 5) and 76ers (No. 10) didn't make the playoffs. The list of the top-10 teams in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage -- which adds extra weight to outside shooting -- reads as follows: 1. Hawks, 2. Warriors, 3. Raptors, 4. Cavaliers, 5. Pelicans, 6. Clippers, 7. Spurs, 8. Rockets, 9. Mavericks and 10. Pistons.
Of the aforementioned group of teams, only the Pistons missed the playoffs. All four conference finalists and both Finals representatives -- Golden State and Cleveland -- land in the top-8 or better of catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage.
Oddly enough, though the Blazers put up more shots off the catch than all but three teams in the league, they registered at No. 12 in catch-and-shoot field goal percentage (39.3 percent), No. 14 in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage (36.8 percent) and No. 12 in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage (51.4 percent) last regular season. As it becomes more clear how paramount shooting off the catch is for role players in the NBA, Portland's need for an upgrade in that regard also begins to stand out more.
Of the top-50 players in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage in the league last year (minimum 10 minutes per game, 20 games played, two catch-and-shoot field goal attempts and one catch-and-shoot three-point attempt), only Leonard and Matthews rank for the Blazers, at No. 23 and No. 36, respectively. Batum would likely join that list, had he not suffered through his worst year as a pro. But the point remains clear: Portland could use another shooter or two off the bench.
Okay, so who's available as a realistic free agent target for the Blazers to shore up their bench with some shooting? A quick glance at the NBA's best players in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage last season shows that an above-average player in that category can hit his catch-and-shoot shots with an effective field goal percentage of 52 percent or higher. Names like Kyle Korver, Steph Curry, Danny Green and Kyrie Irving dot the top of the list, likely to no one's surprise.
Richard Jefferson, John Jenkins, Marcus Thornton, Mike Dunleavy, Tayshaun Prince, Gerald Green and Rasual Butler are realistic options for Portland this summer in unrestricted free agency who all fell in the top-half of the league last year in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage. Narrowing the list to above average three-point catch-and-shooters (36 percent or better) adds no additional prospects, but does inflate the value of Prince, Thornton and Jefferson slightly.
Let's take a look at our pool of unrestricted free agent wings who are in the top-half of the league in catch-and-shoot efficiency, and see if any of these guys are worth kicking the tires on.. Green and Thornton are both high-usage players who shoot first and don't create much for their teammates. With McCollum and Leonard likely commanding the bulk of the touches off the bench next season, neither Green nor Thornton seems like a great fit in Portland unless Stotts is looking to limit the touches of his best young bench players, which would be contrary to the role fans saw both McCollum and Leonard play as last season progressed.
Jenkins, who made just over $1.3 million last season with the Hawks, is set to enter his fourth year next fall after Atlanta drafted him at No. 23 in 2012. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has played him sparingly each of the last two seasons and the team declined to pick up the option on his fourth year for about $2.2 million in 2015-16, which may indicate he could be had for a decent price. At 6-foot-4, Jenkins gives up some height on the wing but he's a solid spot-up shooter who would fit nicely in Stotts' offense and be a serviceable team defender on the other end of the floor.
Looking past Jenkins for reliable and obtainable catch-and-shoot perimeter players, it appears Olshey would be trolling the scrap heap for guys past their primes -- Jefferson, Dunleavy, Prince and Butler have a combined 52 years of NBA experience. Nevertheless, all four guys played at least 16.8 minutes per game last season and contributed to playoff teams. Also consider Kaman's impact on the Blazers this past year after bouncing around the league as a journeyman for a half-decade; Sometimes a player just needs to be in the right situation.
Prince played for three teams last season. Defensively, he was a detriment to the Pistons and Grizzlies, but in nine games with the Celtics, he was able to be a positive force on that end. Dunleavy and Jefferson held their own defensively with the Bulls and Mavericks, respectively, while Butler did not help the Wizards' defense much, if at all.
Green and Thornton aren't the best fits with Portland's current core of talent and Butler, at 36, probably doesn't have enough left in the tank to correct his defensive deficiencies. Between Jenkins, Jefferson, Dunleavy and Prince, which player could best come off the bench in Portland next season, play 10-15 minutes per game and hit the open shots afforded to him?
Prince hit his catch-and-shoot three-pointers at a 49.2 percent clip last season, followed by Jefferson at 43.2 percent, Jenkins at 40.9 percent and Dunleavy at 40.3 percent. Portland's best catch-and-shoot three-point shooter last season was Leonard at 41.6 percent, followed by Afflalo (40.5 percent), Matthews (38.9 percent), Blake (37.7 percent) and Wright (37.5 percent). Believe it or not, both Prince and Jefferson would've been the Blazers' best spot-up shooters from outside last year, taking into account their percentages on the season.
Prince and Jefferson are clearly in the twilight of their careers, but each has been healthy enough in recent years to play roughly 20 minutes a night. Under the right circumstances, either could join the Blazers' reserves and be plugged-in as a spot-up guy. Defense is always a concern for a player this age, which would make Dunleavy and especially Jenkins more viable options for Portland's front office.
If the Blazers find a way to keep Aldridge and his cohorts in the starting unit around for at least another year, Olshey will have no choice but to add to the talent pool available for Stotts off the bench. With all the directions Portland could take its free agency in the coming weeks, adding another affordable 3-and-D player seems prudent, as reliable catch-and-shoot perimeter players have added value in today's NBA.
Even if the Blazers are limited by the salary cap this offseason and no big-name players can be had realistically, with some astute digging, Olshey should be able to find at least one veteran to add to the bench. The draft, trades and more ambitious free agent pursuits may net Portland a hotter commodity and make a bigger splash, but bringing in a proven veteran this July with a bankable skill -- in this case, spot-up shooting -- like Prince, Dunleavy or Jefferson could be a good start in rounding out this roster should Aldridge & Co. stick around.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter