Today marks the official beginning of the NBA's Free Agency period. At 9:00 p.m. Pacific, midnight Eastern, free agents and teams desiring their services will be free to seek mutually beneficial deals together.
Suggesting this free agency run is huge for the Portland Trail Blazers would be a massive understatement. The single most coveted (actually available) free agent on the market belongs to Portland. (You can read all about LaMarcus Aldridge's interview itinerary here.)
The Blazers have a surfeit of options before them, all hinging on Aldridge's decision. They could...
1. Re-sign Aldridge and retain their other incumbent free agents.
2. Re-sign Aldridge and jettison their free agents, making room for another max-contract-level signing.
3. Lose Aldridge and keep their incumbents, still retaining room for a max-contract-level signing.
4. Lose Aldridge and their own free agents, creating room for 2 max-contract signings.
Even the most staid, change-free option involves luring a maximum-level free agent (Aldridge). At the other extreme the Blazers could be after 2, plus another non-max player around the fringes. If they hit a home run this month they could set up the franchise for the next 4-5 years. If they strike out they're probably destined for a slog through lottery land.
Even though their need for success is near desperate, Neil Olshey and company face tough obstacles in their path to glory. Two of the most basic come from the nature of free agency itself.
The supply of max-worthy free agents is limited. Olshey has done a great job making more out of less in Portland. But you can't spend $40 million in $6 million increments and you can't convince a win-hungry Aldridge to return (or replace him, for that matter) by signing only developing value players. Portland's max money is earmarked for max players.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, a dozen other teams can also make that claim. Already we've seen the Knicks, Lakers, Spurs, Raptors, Mavericks, Rockets, and Suns chasing Aldridge...each willing to clear and/or devote $20 million of cap space to him. That makes 8 teams (including Portland) after 1 guy. Once Aldridge has made his decision other free agents will fall in line, accepting offers of their own. The supply of franchise-changing players will run out before we get to the 8th offer. It's not just a matter of the Blazers not getting Aldridge; the Blazers may not end up with anyone acceptable because there are always more teams willing to spend money than there are superstar players worthy of it.
If you think this problem is bad now, wait until the salary cap balloons in 2016 and 2017 with broadcast rights money. Great players will be able to sign enormous contracts just about anywhere. It'll be like Fred Meyer just got a shipment of Wave 1 Amiibos but there are only 3 of each in the box. Black Friday will look like a DMV line by comparison.
The very, very best players in the league don't often hit free agency. Teams will do everything they can to make sure their tip-top superstars remain in the fold, not even tempted to look elsewhere. No GM worth his salt will let his franchise player venture into an open market if he can help it for the reason we just stated. If you're good enough, teams will line up around the block to snag you. A true superstar can write his ticket anywhere in this league.
People will immediately point out LeBron James as an exception to this rule, but he's a special case...one that proves the point at that. His departure from, and return to, Cleveland made huge news because it was nearly unprecedented. It was as if Michael Jordan had left the Bulls for the Pistons in his prime or Magic Johnson departed the Lakers for the Suns. Technically James has become a free agent once again but he's employing short contracts to gain power and financial supremacy, not because he intends to change teams.
When true superstars switch franchises, it's usually via trade. If not, they're going to the Lakers. Examples outside of those two categories are hard to find. When Dwight Howard signs with the Rockets or Steve Nash leaves Dallas for Phoenix, you remember it.
Absent rare occasions--Aldridge's free agency may be one, which helps explain the rabid interest in him--building your franchise around free agents means building your franchise around "superstar" players that other GM's were willing to risk losing for nothing. That willingness casts the "super" part of "superstardom" into a bit of shadow.
If the Blazers only need one superstar player and his name is Aldridge, they might yet do OK this summer. If they need 2 and neither of them is Aldridge, the task in front of them is monumental. If that's the case, Olshey is likely to explore improvement through trades, not just direct signings. Trading still means taking on a player another GM didn't want anymore, but at least the player is valuable enough to demand compensation for.
If none of those options work--if the free agent and trade markets for bona fide stars both run dry--the Blazers might get forced into a rebuild.. It won't be because they chose it, but because the reality of the NBA economy hit them beyond their ability to cope for.
Stay tuned throughout the day as we bring you the latest news and rumors for the Blazers and other teams as free agency commences.