Yesterday afternoon the Portland Trail Blazers took the first step into whatever new era awaits them by trading long-time small forward Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Hornets for shooting guard Gerald Henderson and power forward Noah Vonleh. The transaction itself was straightforward with no dangling ends or extra considerations. The most challenging part of the deal might be trying to figure out its purpose. Like every other move in the Neil Olshey era, it opens up several possibilities. We're left to guess which outcome the Blazers are aiming at...assuming they, themselves know.
This move doesn't appear to help the Blazers in the 2015-16 season. Nicolas Batum spent the better part of 2014-15 in a slump. He registered career lows in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and scoring per minute. Henderson outpaced him in field goal marksmanship and scoring, but Batum's career-low distance shooting--the most critical offensive quality for a wing player in Portland's current system--equaled or bettered Henderson's mark in 5 of the shooting guard's 6 seasons in the league so far. (Comparing Henderson to Wesley Matthews or CJ McCollum from the arc isn't fair; he's not even close to Portland's incumbent guards.) Plus Batum bests Henderson by most advanced statistical measures.
In a 2-for-1 trade the team receiving the "1" end almost always gets the best player in the deal. The margin isn't huge, but that's exactly what happened here. Portland didn't get better by virtue of talent. Portland didn't get a player with skills better suited to their system. Portland didn't get better by shuffling their starting lineup instead of maintaining continuity either. Whatever it was, this move wasn't about making the next, immediate push.
This move didn't help the Blazers much financially. Batum's $12.2 million contract with Portland was set to expire after next season. In 2015-16 Henderson will make $6 million on the last year of his current contract, Vonleh $2.6 million on the second year of his rookie-scale deal. The total savings to the Blazers next year will be $3.6 million.
Though many media sources have waved that number as a perk of, if not justification for, the trade, tangible benefit for Portland only accrues under specific circumstances:
1. If the Blazers end up below the salary cap come July, they'll be $3.6 million further under because of this move, adding flexibility. That's going to require them to say goodbye to at least one of their top 3 free agents, though. If they bring back LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez they'll be at (or over) the cap threshold even with the savings this deal brings. They won't be able to use the $3.6 million to sign anybody else. When all is said and done, they'll have to lose Batum plus at least one other starter to take advantage of the money.
That said, jettisoning Matthews and Chris Kaman--combined with the extra $3.6 million--would put the Blazers at or near max contract offer status. At that point the savings could become quite significant.
2. If the Blazers re-sign all their players and end up near the luxury tax limit, that $3.6 million could keep them from going over. With the number of free agent variables involved, the chances that they could forecast the need for this precise amount of savings are negligible. This probably isn't a factor in the deal.
3. If the Blazers enter next summer with money to spare, the cap hold on Henderson's $6 million contract will be significantly less than the hold on Batum's $12.2 million would have been.
Only in the first scenario--and probably only if Portland can lure a max-level free agent--does the money saved in this trade make an immediate difference. Absent that huge swing, money doesn't make this deal make sense.
The Blazers did get a young player in the exchange. You may recall that first-round picks were a hot commodity in the 2014 NBA Draft, judged to be one of the deepest in history. The Blazers couldn't buy or trade their way into the draft order last June. They finally managed it now, a year late. Noah Vonleh was the 9th overall pick last summer and now the Blazers have him.
But Vonleh was only available because of a disappointing rookie season that saw him appear in 25 games for 259 minutes total. He's a project, not an instant help. Plus he's a power forward...a position currently occupied by Aldridge. If Lamarcus remains with the team Vonleh won't see the court much. If Aldridge leaves, Vonleh won't come close to replacing him. Neither scenario ends in a plus for Portland next year. If Vonleh ends up contributing, it'll be 2-3 years down the road.
Though the long-term perspective provides the best hope that the deal will turn out great for Portland, Vonleh's talent isn't significant enough to herald a true rebuilding movement. This trade isn't a clear-cut break with the current lineup or a shining promise for the future. Depending on what happens next it may be both, or neither...the first step to a new destiny or a minor diversion on the way to somewhere else.
Sum it up and we're left with a transaction that doesn't make the team better immediately, may or may not offer financial savings, and may or may not be the first sign of a new emphasis on youth. Neither the meaning of the act nor its efficacy can be determined in isolation. Moves yet to come will reveal the direction the team is pointing and whether this trade succeeded in propelling them along their chosen path.
The good news for Portland fans is that some of those moves will come quickly. Today's draft will provide the first. If the Blazers move up in the draft order to select a prime small forward (or watch Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fall to them at #23) the Batum deal makes immediate sense.
Free agency gets rolling a week from now. If Portland passes on Wesley Matthews' $15 million contract demand and chases DeAndre Jordan with that money, welcoming the comparatively cheap Henderson aboard will look shrewd.
The bad news for Portland fans is that conclusions have never been that easy, nor that firm, in the Olshey era. In the opening paragraph we suggested that every Neil Olshey move opens up myriad possibilities. Like the Harry Potter series and Lost, endings have not lived up to beginnings. Olshey's carefully-curated possibilities have not once resulted in a firm follow-through, nor in long-term benefit to the franchise. Veteran contracts have been flexible rather than enduring. Young guys have been acquired, hyped, and then traded away. Primary free agent targets have gone elsewhere; secondary targets have offered incremental, but not revolutionary, improvement.
For a brief, shining moment it looked like the franchise might be onto something as the Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs but the victory was short-lived. Nicolas Batum is gone. Reports have LaMarcus Aldridge on the way out the door. Either Wesley Matthews or Robin Lopez must depart to make the Batum deal bear financial fruit. It's likely that two weeks from now the team that thrilled Portland a year ago will not exist.
Olshey has given the Blazers flexibility, Damian Lillard, and by proxy the memory of one glorious series-winning shot. Everything else appears poised to slip through his fingers, to be replaced by more short-term, bargain-basement contracts and more hopes pinned on late- or cast-off lottery picks. If flexibility doesn't result in tangible gain but only leads to more flexibility, is it really that useful? If promise doesn't lead to a full-flowered roster but only the chance to buy into the next promise, is it really that promising?
The Blazers just executed another Neil Olshey deal. Let's hope they don't get another Neil Olshey result.