If you believe everything you've been told this offseason about the long-term plan that Neil Olshey has in mind for the Portland Trail Blazers, you have every reason to think the team-building process over the next couple of years will be slow and steady. There are no shortcuts to improving a roster like this one. When your best player is 25 years old and two of the rising stars expected to accompany him into the next era are 23, you have to be patient. There is no other option.
Olshey has said as much publicly. Obviously, his Plan A going into this summer was to bring back LaMarcus Aldridge and retain as many of the supporting pieces around him as possible, but when that didn't happen, he shifted gears quickly, and Damian Lillard became the new focal point. Here's Olshey, on the record, in a wonderfully candid interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe from a couple of weeks ago:
What we weren't going to do was become a victim of LaMarcus' decision. We had made that decision months in advance. The contingency we had in place was not to replace LaMarcus Aldridge, because quite honestly, that player didn't exist. Our contingency was we were going to move away from the veterans that had complemented LaMarcus on the current roster and build around young players on favorable contracts, or with restricted free agent status the road, that were on the same career arc as Damian Lillard. That's the path we chose. We went straight ahead in that direction without looking back.
As a fan, this is the kind of stuff you want to hear. You want to know your GM has a plan - not just a strategy for each individual personnel move in a vacuum, but a long-term vision for the franchise. This is Olshey's. He's committed to building around a point guard who's entering the fourth year of his career. He's going to surround that guy with other players in seasons two, three and four - the Meyers Leonards, C.J. McCollums and Noah Vonlehs of the world.
Now. Having said that.
Part of me wonders if maybe, just maybe, Olshey would be willing to deviate from that plan if the right trade candidate came along. We're entering a weird season in the NBA, salary cap-wise - we're 10 months away from a July 2016 free agency period that's slated to be an absolute bloodbath. The cap is going way up with the new TV money, almost every team in the NBA will have money to spend, and the fights to secure next summer's hot free agents are going to be unbelievably fierce. If you think it was tough for the Blazers to compete for Aldridge this summer, you're in for a whole 'nother degree of competition next year.
Which means maybe, elsewhere around the league, there will be teams who give up early on retaining their star players. If it's February, and you're a GM with a star player on an expiring contract, and you can tell that guy isn't likely to re-sign, and your team isn't seriously in the running to win a championship, does that mean you cut bait and deal him? And if you're the Blazers, a rebuilding team with a fairly malleable roster that could certainly use more talent, do you pursue the next big target?
To be clear here, I'm not talking about the absolute biggest superstars of the 2016 class. The most sought-after guys next summer will probably be Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley and Dwight Howard (who has a player option for a cool $23.3 million, but he can just opt out and chase even more money on the open market if he so desires). Those four stars are basically untradable, and they're on teams that would love to make a run at the title this season. So they're out. But beyond the big four, there's another tier of good players whose status beyond this season is in doubt, and they might at some point become gettable for the right price.
Here's a list of names I've got in mind. Think about these players - how would they fit on the Trail Blazers, not just now but for the next few years? Would you be interested in dealing for anyone on this list, convincing them to re-sign through 2020ish and adding them to the long-term nucleus alongside Lillard? Would you give up Leonard for any of them? McCollum? Vonleh? A draft pick (not the 2016 first-rounder, since that was already promised to Denver for Arron Afflalo, but maybe the 2018 one)?
If nothing else, it's an interesting thought exercise. Let's toss some names out there.
1. Roy Hibbert, Lakers
Why L.A. might deal him: Hibbert has bizarrely gone from one of the most revered players in the NBA - the focal point of one of the league's best teams only two years ago - to an overpaid albatross that teams are avoiding like a hot potato. He's now on the Lakers, who traded nothing but a second-round pick for him, and he's getting paid $15.6 million to play out the final year of his contract. The Lakers are gearing up for one last run with Kobe Bryant, surrounding him with veteran guys like Hibbert and Brandon Bass, but what if that doesn't work (which it almost surely won't)? Hibbert once again becomes expendable.
Why he might fit in Portland: Even though Hibbert has been cast away from the Pacers and largely written off, he's still a very useful NBA player. Rim protection is still an immensely valuable skill, and Hibbert is one of the best at it - according to SportVU data released by the NBA, he allowed opponents to shoot only 42.6 percent around the basket last season, a lower percentage than many dominant shot-blockers including Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis.
Most teams look at Hibbert and see the huge contract as an issue, but for the Blazers, that's no problem at all. They're way under the salary cap, meaning they're allowed to accept lopsided trades that eat up more cap space, and acquiring Hibbert would give them a formidable paint presence for their money.
2. Hassan Whiteside, Heat
Why Miami might deal him: At the moment, there's no chance of Whiteside leaving Miami, but that could change at some point this coming season. For one thing, the Heat might grow tired of dealing with Whiteside's disciplinary issues - he already alienated countless allies in Sacramento, the D-League, Lebanon and China before catching on with the Heat, and he was no saint last year, either. Check out this elbow to Kelly Olynyk's neck that got him suspended in March.
Oh, and here's the other reason the Heat might deal Whiteside: What if the 2015-16 experiment doesn't work out? What if the Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh/Luol Deng tandem is too old and injured, and the team starts losing? Then you start to deal assets and rebuild, and Whiteside is one of your best assets.
Why he might fit in Portland: Simple - because when his head's on straight, he's really good. Whiteside averaged 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in only 23.8 minutes per game last season. He's a monster, and if you've got a rebuilding team like the Blazers, he's the kind of monster that's worth taking a flyer on.
3. Luol Deng, Heat
Why Miami might deal him: For the same reasons as Whiteside above. The Heat have built an impressive roster, but it's a vulnerable one - there are questions about age, health, defense, shooting and depth. Especially if Wade or Bosh struggles to stay on the floor, it could be a long year. If so, it makes sense to unload Deng, who's on an expiring contract and making over $10 million. No sense in paying a guy like that if you can't contend.
Why he might fit in Portland: For the Blazers, Deng would be an upgrade at their weakest position. Al-Farouq Aminu is really the only small forward on the roster, and there are serious holes in his game. Deng would give Portland a better option right away. It might even be worth re-signing him past 2016 to give Lillard a veteran partner in the team's core group.
4. Ryan Anderson, Pelicans
Why New Orleans might deal him: The Pelicans are a weird team. They have quite possibly the most talented player alive in Anthony Davis, and they just hired a coach in Alvin Gentry who loves to play a fast-paced, floor-spacing, shooting-at-all-positions style of basketball. It would make sense to use Davis at the five in such a system. Why, then, did the Pelicans just sign not one, not two, but three centers this summer? They re-signed Omer Asik for five years and $60 million, Alexis Ajinca for four years and $20 million and they even added Kendrick Perkins at the vets' minimum.
This, to me, implies that Davis is still a power forward for the time being. Which means Anderson, who's an excellent stretch four, won't get the minutes he deserves. So now you've got Anderson in a situation where 1) he's undervalued, and 2) management just fired Monty Williams, a coach with whom he was very close. It's not unreasonable to wonder if a trade is coming.
Why he might fit in Portland: Anderson's had a rough couple of years injury-wise, but he's still a great shooter. He was 38 percent or better from 3 in four consecutive seasons. Terry Stotts could do some fun things with a stretchy big like that on his roster, no doubt.
5. Eric Gordon, Pelicans
Why New Orleans might deal him: Gordon is the highest-paid player on the Pelicans' roster by far, making $15.5 million a year. If injuries strike this season and they're not in the mix, the Pels will probably decide to unload the inconsistent shooting guard at the deadline and get something back for him. He's 26 and hasn't played more than 65 games since his rookie year - Gordon's not exactly a lock to be part of the Pelicans' core long-term.
Why he might fit in Portland: Again, the Blazers can afford to absorb massive contracts into their cap space, and Gordon's a useful player. (He shot 44.8 percent from 3 last season - ridiculous!) Maybe Portland swings a trade for Gordon, he fits in well, and he decides to stay for a few years at a reasonable cap number. He's not a max player like many expected early in his career, but he's definitely worthy of consideration as a starting NBA shooting guard.
6. Joakim Noah, Bulls
Why Chicago might deal him: The Bulls have a bit of a logjam at the big man spots. They're trying to fit Noah, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson into the rotation all at once, and there are only 96 minutes to go around between the four and five - you do the math. Noah, to me, smells like a guy who might be gettable at the right price. He's far from done as a productive NBA player, but he's also now 30 and not showing the same energy he did at 25. If he ends up not fitting in under new coach Fred Hoiberg, he could be a candidate to move.
Why he might fit in Portland: As for the Blazers, Noah might be exactly the veteran presence they need. He's a fiercely competitive guy, sure to push Portland's youngsters hard to reach their full potential, and his on-court skills are also not too shabby - he's a versatile defender and a great playmaker offensively. Noah's been a Bull his whole career, but Portland is one spot he could fit nicely if Chicago ever dared to move him.
7. Taj Gibson, Bulls
Why Chicago might deal him: Another member of the Bulls' horde of bigs, Gibson is also a candidate to be the odd man out under Hoiberg. He's arguably the least skilled of the four offensively, and at least under Tom Thibodeau previously, he wasn't as pivotal to the team's success as Noah or Gasol. His trade value might be higher than Noah's, as he's cheaper and under contract for an additional year (making just $8.9 million in 2016-17). If the Bulls want to deal one of their bigs and get back something real, Gibson might be the guy they shop.
Why he might fit in Portland: Gibson's a consummate professional - hardworking, energetic, really skilled as a defender and rebounder. On a team full of young big men who are known more for their offense than their D, he could be a great mentor. Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis could benefit a lot from playing with a teammate like Taj.
8. Al Jefferson, Hornets
Why Charlotte might deal him: Back in the summer of 2013 when Jefferson signed with the Hornets for three years and $41 million, there was a great deal of optimism about the high-scoring big man turning Charlotte into a perennial playoff team. That hasn't exactly happened yet (33-49 last year), and now Jefferson is entering the final year of his deal with little incentive to come back for another tour. If you're the Hornets and you think Big Al is leaving next summer, why not deal him now, see if you can't get something back?
Why he might fit in Portland: Jefferson is still only 30. He's one of the best low-post scorers in the NBA, and he's in his prime. If you can convince the big fella to re-sign with the Blazers for the next three years or so, he'd be an offensive centerpiece right away - exactly the kind of second star who could help Lillard and company get back to the playoffs.
9. DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
Why Toronto might deal him: This one might be a reach. But here's the thing about DeRozan - he was actually kind of low-key terrible for the Raptors last season. He was an All-Star in 2014, and he's generally seen as one of Toronto's core guys, but his 2014-15 track record includes a ton of bad shots and turnovers. The Raptors actually scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions last year with DeRozan on the floor and 113.1 (significantly better!) with him off.
DeRozan might be a "change of scenery"-type player. And this year might be the time to make a move - the 26-year-old shooting guard has an opt-out in his contract next summer, and he's likely to take it, what with the cap going up. If the Raptors get the sense at midseason that this isn't their year to chase a title, they might try to get real value back for their star scorer.
Why he might fit in Portland: DeRozan has flaws, but he's a proven high-volume scorer who could breathe new life into the Trail Blazers right away. Perhaps, if he's coached well and used in lineups that best utilize in talents, he'll thrive in a new situation.
10. Rajon Rondo, Kings
Why Sacramento might deal him: Like Hibbert above, here's another guy who's gone from a high-profile star to a much-maligned team cancer that no one wants, all in a couple years' time. Rondo's fallen hard since 2013 - first he tore his ACL, then he came back and was widely criticized for his poor shooting and defense, then the Celtics traded him and became far better, then the Mavericks hated him and benched him during a playoff series. Now he's in Sacramento, basically because no one else showed any interest.
The Kings are gambling on Rondo because they're ambitious about breaking into the West playoff picture. The hope is that uniting Rondo with fellow big-name players DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay will make the Kings a 50-win team overnight. It shouldn't take long for Sacramento to realize that's not realistic, and when they do, they might try to flip Rondo, who's on a one-year contract and can leave next summer anyway. The current CBA stipulates that newly signed free agents can be traded anytime after Dec. 15 - it wouldn't shock me if Rondo were on the block then.
Why he might fit in Portland: Eh, he might not. This is admittedly a weird suggestion. (A year ago, I wrote an article ridiculing the idea, in fact.) But if Rondo fails spectacularly in Sacramento and the Kings are looking to dump him for basically nothing, why not take a flyer on the guy? See if he thrives as a third guard in Portland for a couple of months. He can back up Lillard at the point, or even move Lillard off the ball for a few minutes a game and see how they play together. If it works and you get vintage Rondo in a time machine from 2010, great. If not, fine - you weren't expecting much anyway. It would be a bizarre move, but a low-risk one. When you're a small-market, rebuilding team that can afford a mistake or two, this is the kind of gambit you can afford to try.
That's what's fun about being in Portland's position. When you're a title-contending team, every single personnel move is scrutinized to death, and unsuccessful ones reflect really poorly (ahem, Afflalo). But now? Olshey and the Blazers are under no such pressure. They have the wiggle room to experiment - to take in players that other, more risk-averse teams would be afraid to touch. Any of the 10 players above would be a risk, to be sure, but there's no better time to gamble than right now.