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How Can the Portland Trail Blazers Lure Star Free Agents?

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The latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag talks free agents and starters.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Hi Dave,

How can the Blazers get big-time free agents?
It seems being a contender is the only way to get them want to join the Blazers. But to be a contender, you need big-time players. Unless you can draft a player and the player grows and reaches an all-star level, it's a chicken and egg situation.
Making a trade is another option, and I think it is still a possibility if the Blazers take a player with a bad contract together. The Blazers have the cap space at the moment and they are financially capable.
Do you think that's the most realistic and quickest way to get out of the rebuilding phase?

Thanks.
-hiro

Well now, that's the $29 million question, isn't it?

Let's start with free agency. The Blazers are left holding gobs of cap space with no star-level free agents to spend it on. They could easily dribble it away in $6-10 million chunks but getting 3-4 mid-level veterans won't help this team enough right now and they're not exactly in position to make long-term commitments. Instead they're going for cheap, young, under-utilized players with upside.

I do not believe the lack of stars responding to Portland's call has anything to do with the city, as some have posited over the years. Greg Monroe joined the Milwaukee Bucks this summer. There's no way Milwaukee rates superior to Portland. (On par, maybe, with particular things to recommend it, but that's about it.)  As you point out, players like to join teams where they believe they can make a difference in a deep playoff run. The Blazers haven't been in that position for decades.  The "nobody wants to come to Portland because it's a small market" meme will disappear as soon as the Blazers look capable of handling big-time free agents.

Contending is one step. Maintaining good relationships with the veterans already in tow is another. LaMarcus Aldridge wanting to get out of town was not exactly a sterling recommendation to high-profile veteran free agents. Nor was the wave of negative coverage that followed him out the door, critiquing his personality and aims via the local and national press. Being able to articulate a coherent plan for the future would also help. 3 years ago the plan was to make a big signing to help Aldridge and company, which didn't happen. 2 years ago the plan was not to take on any contracts that would outlast Aldridge's. This year the plan is rebuild and start over. That's more likely to cause dizziness than eagerness to sign on the bottom line.

The long and short of it is, major free agents don't come to Portland right now because they can pick between multiple teams and the Blazers haven't done enough to distinguish themselves from the others. San Antonio and Golden State stand out (obviously). The Blazers are milling around in a herd of also-rans without anything tangible to separate them from the Pistons or Magic or Timberwolves of the world.

Since these things won't change overnight, Portland's next best option for improvement is an imbalanced trade. Neil Olshey has pointed to that possibility publicly now that free agent recruiting fell through. With the salary cap rising over the next couple seasons, though, once-onerous contracts suddenly look more palatable. Teams will still look to dump players, but the need will not be as urgent and decisions that might have straddled the fence will probably slip towards keeping, rather than trading, the player in question. That'll limit the pool of candidates the Blazers can draw from.

With free agency looking dicey and the bad contract market drying up, the quickest way through the rebuild may be the only way through the rebuild: step by step. The Blazers are accumulating young talent, hoping some of it sticks. They might not get a firm answer for the next 2-3 years. That's also the amount of time it'll take for the NBA economy to normalize after the TV deal hits. First there'll be a wave of free money, then contracts will settle into a new, higher equilibrium, then things will return to normal. (If, of course, a new CBA doesn't change the system completely. But that's another story.)

Maybe the Blazers will pull the miracle trade for the next Chris Paul while fielding enough good players on their roster to support the guy. If that happens, there will be time for applause. Short of that, the process can't be sped up...or at least not dramatically. Even if the process goes well, we're probably looking at a couple years minimum before the rebuilding phase evolves into something more.

Dave,

Why don't the Blazers go after Tristan Thompson or Matthew Dellavedova?

Rich

The Blazers would have a couple options with Thompson.

He's got a $6.8 million qualifying offer on the table from Cleveland. This makes him a restricted free agent. He reportedly wants $20 million per year. If the Blazers were willing to offer that (and I don't believe they should be) they could redo the Enes Kanter trick and see if the Cavaliers would match the offer.

The Cavaliers will have to trade Thompson if they can't come to an agreement on a contract extension. They can't risk him Greg Monroe-ing them, signing the 1-year offer and then becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2016 (the exact summer 2/3 of NBA teams will have cap space). But would the Blazers have the right combination of talent to attract the Cavs' attention? And would Thompson re-sign in Portland with so many choices available to him?

Unless the Blazers want to fork over $20 million per for another power forward who rebounds well but relies heavily on the inside game (Gotta Catch 'em All!), Thompson is probably a pass. But they don't appear afraid of picking up duplicate players and Thompson is a former high lottery pick coming off one of the best yeas of his career, so you never know.

I don't think the Cavs let Dellavedova go. When he's making so little money ($1.1 million qualifying offer) there's no incentive to unless somebody else makes him a crazy offer.

Dave,

Roster starting to come together a bit. We still have a ton of cap room but if the season started tomorrow whats the rotation? I think Meyers Leonard has to start either at C with Davis or PF with Plumlee. Aminu at SF, Crabbe at SG and Lillard at PG. That leaves Davis/Plumlee, Kaman as the big men. Harkless and Henderon as wings. McCollum and Frasier as guards. Do not see Vonleh getting much time ala Leonard a few years ago. Next year he gets Kaman's spot. Thoughts?

Ben

It's a total shot in the dark until training camp, but my guess would be Damian Lillard and Gerald Henderson at guards, Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard at the big spots, and Al-Farouq Aminu over Mo Harkless at small forward. But I'm not entirely convinced Henderson remains with the team long-term. If he departs, CJ McCollum would quickly take his place.

In case you're wondering, here are the aggregate stats of that starting lineup based on Per-36-Minute production. Also included: a comparison to the aggregate stats of last year's starting 5.

StarterCompTable

As you can see the rebounding rises with this group but the scoring goes bonk. Yes, that's a technical scouting term.

Whatever way it shakes out, every starting position save point guard will be open when training camp starts. Part of the fun in October will be guessing who will make the Starting 5 on opening night and how long they'll remain there.

Send your Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com. We'll do our best to answer!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge