Normally this would be the space where we recap the Portland Trail Blazers' participation in the 2015 NBA Draft. Most years that's a simple matter of describing Portland's picks, why they were made, and whether we like them or not.
Tonight that's not even close to adequate. The Trail Blazers have just emerged from a 24-hour period of chaos. If you left the country on Wednesday afternoon and returned on Friday, the team you returned to bore little or no resemblance to the one you left behind. A tornado has swept through the Blazers' house. A few fixtures remain the same, others are leaning out of balance, and a couple are just gone...blown away suddenly leaving empty holes behind.
Separating Portland's draft moves from the events surrounding them is an impossible task--emotionally if not intellectually. Instead we're going to try and describe the impact of recent events as best we can by taking a look at what's been gained and lost in the last 24 hours.
The Blazers Have Lost
Portland's wonderfully-talented, often-infuriating Swiss Army Knife of the starting lineup now wears a Charlotte Hornets uniform. It's easy to describe the loss statistically. 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists on 40% shooting doesn't exactly leap off the page, especially in 34 minutes per game. It's harder to quantify how much this changes Portland's approach.
Batum did everything for the Blazers: three-point shooter, secondary ball-handler, occasional big-shot-taker, perpetual defender. He was in the middle of things more than at the end of things, playing an out-sized role compared to his stats. The Blazers might recoup or exceed his numbers but no single player will replace his contributions.
Despite his talent, Batum never jumped the hedge from helpful role-player to star. When the Blazers needed him he was as likely to shy away as step forth. When he disappeared, he made a complete job of it, leading to the aforementioned frustration. Portland might miss his widespread influence on their playbook but they might also settle for a thicker layer of contributions spread more compactly and dependably.
Folks will still argue this, but at the very least we've shifted from Aldridge having to prove he'll leave before we'll believe it to Aldridge having to prove he'll stay before we'll believe it. All signs point to him moving on from the team that drafted him in 2006, taking his 23 ppg scoring average and "Best Power Forward in the League" designation to slightly greener pastures.
This isn't cosmetic surgery for the roster, it's a major organ transplant. No player is irreplaceable, but Aldridge is one of those players whose shoes can't be filled in the exact same way. You can still play after they're gone and you can still win after they're gone, but you have to do both differently than when they were here.
Aldridge's departure (assuming it happens) will change everything about this team from style of offense to playoff expectations to scoring hierarchy. Damian Lillard is the heir apparent to the #1 Option role, but how is he going to climb that hill? He's played off of LaMarcus his entire career. He can achieve exalted status alone and probably will, but it won't look the same as it has the last three years.
The fact that Aldridge has spent 9 season with the Blazers--most of an NBA lifetime--should not go unnoticed. You have to go back 15 years to find a successful Portland team that hasn't included him. Everything you know of the current-era franchise has revolved around LaMarcus. That not only describes the magnitude of this loss, but one of the reasons he might want to try something new.
Hollis-Jefferson never played a minute in a Blazers uniform. He just wore the black and red checkered pants on TV. But Portland's young draftee might have been a substitute for the departed Batum...a defensive impresario who needed to work his way into the offensive game. He would not have been as adept as Batum early on, but he could evolve into a game-changer. Or he could end up a one-way player, a defensive specialist who ruins every offense he plays in. We'll never know...or at least we'll never know what would have happened to him as a Trail Blazer.
I don't get attached to draft picks early, but Hollis-Jefferson was a player I wanted to see. If the Blazers do end up having to rebuild after their current plan fails, losing him could be a significant blow.
They say a bad penny always comes back. If that's true, Blake must be the baddest penny ever minted...a copper Abe Lincoln with neck tattoos. Three times the Trail Blazers have signed him as a free agent. Three times the Trail Blazers have traded him away. That's dedication.
The writing appeared on the wall during Blake's current tour of duty. He's always helpful, but his statistical production dwindled into insignificance and his floor presence followed suit. As the year wore on Portland's capacity to keep him on the floor wore out.
The Blazers threw him into the Hollis-Jefferson deal to make salary numbers match but it's unlikely they'll miss his tangible contributions as much as they'll miss his fierce attitude and stand-up approach to life.
The Blazers Have Gained
Henderson is a serviceable veteran shooting guard, a willing defender and decent scorer who clawed his way into significance in 6 seasons in Charlotte but never blossomed fully. He doesn't fit the mold for a Blazers wing player. He takes most of his shots from mid-range and doesn't hit the three that well. But that mold may be changing. Or Henderson may find his role targeted more tightly than he did in Charlotte. Or the Blazers might leverage his economical $6 million contract into a more attractive asset. Either way, he gives the Blazers options.
The 19-year-old power forward Portland picked up in the Nicolas Batum deal could prove to be a steal under the right circumstances. He has the requisite face-up game for a modern 4. He's athletic, maybe even quick. With young Meyers Leonard on board, the Blazers can afford to be patient with Vonleh. He's a roll of the dice but a justified one. If nothing else he replaced the first-round draft pick the Blazers might end up giving to Denver in the Arron Afflalo fiasco.
In the short-term, Plumlee may be the most important and underrated of Portland's pick-ups. He's a quick center, athletic enough to have been invited to the Slam Dunk contest at the 2015 All-Star Game. He's a good offensive rebounder, he can defend, and he fills all the basics required of a Blazers center at this time. Whether platooning with Robin Lopez or another pivot, he'll solidify the position the way other Portland reserves haven't been able to. Plus he's 25 years old. If he works out, he could be with the team for a long time.
The Irish alum will attempt to bring some Notre Damage to Portland's guard corps with good size, shooting, and power...as long as he's going forwards or upwards. When he has to move side-to-side, flaws emerge. He's not quick of foot when changing directions. This will hamper him on defense and the drive. If left relatively free, though, he'll be immediately explosive. He's an acceptable risk for a second-rounder, the kind of guy who could end up muscling his way into a key bench role...Matt Harpring with a shot.
Blazer's Edge reader Norsktroll gives you the skinny on Portland's last draft-night acquisition, the 6'8" Spanish small forward Daniel Diez.
Strengths: Both a slasher and a shooter though mostly playing off the ball, one of the best 3P shooters in the draft (on 6.4 attempts per 40), great in catch-and-shoot situations, potential to be a 40+% 3P shooter, good feel for the game, reputation as a tough competitive player, led Spanish U-20 team in scoring, received the equivalent of "player of the week" in ACB last year, good rebounder for position
Weaknesses: T-Rex arms giving him a terrible wingspan smaller than his height, not very strong or athletic, mediocre ball handler, lateral quickness on defense a question mark, might not come over immediately (Real Madrid trying to keep him locked up) so rather a draft-and-stash candidate
Best case: Taller J.J. Redick
Blazers fit: Potentially if they want another good off-ball shooter but are not in love with any of the available US players
Shaving a million here, $4 million there, Neil Olshey managed to create enough cap space to make the Blazers a credible player in this summer's free agent market. Depending on their decisions with Chris Kaman, Allen Crabbe, Tim Frazier, and Joel Freeland, Portland's available cash could creep northwards of $40 million. BUT...that number comes at an added price. Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez carry cap holds of $37 million combined. We've already surmised Aldridge's departure, bringing that obligation down to $20 million for the other two. That leaves enough room for the Blazers to make a maximum offer to another free agent, but any more than that will require the Portland to say goodbye to Matthews or Lopez or both.
Weighing the Balance
The Blazers did not do badly on their big day, especially if they're looking to retool. They didn't revert back to rebuilding status but they're not even close to complete yet. Their roster contains gaping holes. How (or whether) those holes are filled will determine how successful this 24-hour period was. If Portland finds a prime free agent and a couple bargains, they will have done well enough. If they strike out on the free agent market, they're flirting with disaster.
Judging by these moves, Portland is attempting to trade off talent and salary for athleticism and cap space. They're escaping bondage--financial and talent-wise--to their old starting lineup in favor of flexibility, trying to cherry-pick the best of the old system and infuse a breath of new life.
They've succeeded as far as they've gone...at this point only as far as making their intentions known. But athleticism and cap space don't matter on their own; how they're used makes all the difference. If Portland can't retain or adequately replace Aldridge, all the good intentions in the world won't save them. The moves on June 24th and 25th weren't meant to be load-bearing. They were designed to pave the way for other transactions upon which the franchise will rest. The quality of the final transactions will determine the wisdom of the initial ones.
Two months down the road we could be looking at these moves and marveling at their subtlety in bringing a new era together. We could also regard them as the moment the franchise fell apart, crumbling under a grand design, ultimately flawed.
Waiting for that other shoe to drop, it's only fair to regard the draft (and the trades surrounding it) as Portland's summer midterm, not the final exam. With grade potential swinging everywhere from A- to F-, we'll register an "Incomplete" for Portland's front office so far and wait to see what the next part of the semester brings.