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Should the NBA Start Copying the Portland Trail Blazers?

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The Blazers have made interesting moves, but are they on the road to real success?

We haven't run a Mailbag since the trade deadline. Let's rectify that today! Here are a few questions about General Manager moves and the like. If you have a question about the Portland Trail Blazers, send it to blazersub@gmail.com

Dave,

I'm totally impressed by [Neil] Olshey's trade deadline move.  How long before other GM's catch on and start copying his moves?  Do you think he's teaching the league something?

Warren

Getting a first-round pick with Portland's available cap space was a good and prudent move. Full marks there...I like the deal. Something sure beats nothing.

I don't think other GM's are going to be scrambling to emulate Olshey in this way, though. In order to pull off what he did you have to get rid of all your salary obligations (in this case 4 of 5 starters), register a cap number historically below the minimum threshold, and field a team that (for all the current and well-deserved joy) is ecstatic to be sitting 3 games above .500 in February, 21 games out of the conference lead and 18 games out of second place. All of that to snag the 27th-30th selection in a draft two years from now.

The fairest way to describe things is the way we did in our most recent podcast. Neil Olshey does excellent work considering the position the team is in. Whether being in that position is a good thing--whether the strategy lives up to the tactics or will bear fruit ultimately--is an open question. It's pretty difficult to nickel and dime your way to a title. At some point more significant signings and trades, as opposed to the value moves that internet-smart fans and insiders love, will need to come down the pike. When those arrive, the journey will be complete...or at least open to stronger evaluation. Until then these moves are mostly set-up for the punch line.

Dear Dave,

What are your thoughts on the Nic Batum trade? I feel like BE has not analyzed this much since it went down. I bring it up because others at SBnation recently mentioned it.

Batum is having a career year, relatively young and on a similar timeline as the rest of the team. Obviously, it is hard to judge the trade because of Vonleh's unknown potential, but is it realistic that Vonleh will become a better player than Batum?

Thanks,

Trey

I supposed I'd start by arguing with the characterization of "career year". Batum has done well in Charlotte but he also did well in Portland. In previous years he registered much better three-point shooting and field goal percentage. His offensive rating and VORP dropped off a cliff this season and he's not at his career peak in rebounds, points, PER, defensive rating, or any kind of win shares. About the only true career highs he's posting come in assists per minute and possession, but those are accompanied by much more definitive increases in turnovers per minute and possession. Batum is getting to score more off the dribble now than he did in Portland, perhaps showcasing his stuff more, but I don't think he's truly a better player. He's having a good year, but not the best and not one I'd call remarkable for him.

No doubt Batum could have helped the Blazers, but he's still heir to all the charms and foibles that entranced and frustrated Portland fans in equal measure. The only thing radically different about him in 2015-16 is his contract situation. He's due for a new deal this summer and it won't come in any lower than the $12 million he's making now. Likely he'll demand more. That reality changes the question from, "How nice is Batum?" to, "How nice is Batum compared to other players the Blazers might chase with the money they would have spent on him?"

You're right that Batum is only 27, which is within Portland's age bracket. But his status as a non-star veteran makes the idea of keeping him equivalent to signing a similar player off the free agent market in July. Can the Blazers afford to spend $12-15 million on a good role-player who would enhance, but not revolutionize, the team? Odds are they need a bigger move than that. If they wouldn't sign him off the market at that price, they shouldn't have kept him at that price. Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, and some combination of shooting guards can give them close to what Batum did with more long-term potential at a cheaper cost.

Viewed in that light, whatever the Blazers got for Batum was more or less gravy. Noah Vonleh was a roll of the dice. If he pans out, it's a bonanza for the Blazers. If he doesn't, it's not like Batum would have gotten them that many more wins or made the difference between an early playoff exit and a title. They wouldn't have re-signed Batum in the off-season under these circumstances anyway. Once again they got something for nothing.

Don't sleep on the Gerald Henderson acquisition either. He's performed well over the last month. He gives them flexibility in the off-season that Batum wouldn't have, allowing them to entertain offers for CJ McCollum (keeping Henderson and Allen Crabbe as shooting guards) or potentially to pass on Crabbe if a restricted free agent offer goes too high. Henderson is by far the most likely of the shooting guard trio to leave, but you never know how things will turn out until they actually do.

Given all this, the Batum trade was just fine. It wasn't an earth-shaking deal but it was a smart financial and strategic maneuver.

Dave,

You mentioned a few times that the Blazers might sign free agents like Al Horford or even Kevin Durant.  That seems hard to believe when they haven't had a significant free agent come in forever.  Do you really think that's possible?

Karen

Under the right circumstances, yes. But "right circumstances" needs to be underlined and bolded there. My suggested scenario for Horford involved Larry Sanders signing here first, creating an incredibly potent defensive frontcourt (Sanders-Horford-Aminu) in a lineup that would still allow Big Al plenty of shots, including the three-pointers he's grown to love lately. Durant wouldn't be a guarantee under any circumstances, but if the Blazers were able to pull off some kind of miracle three-way deal that got them DeMarcus Cousins without losing Damian Lillard, Portland would immediately get discussed as a potential destination for Durant. They'd have as strong of a case as anyone.

As I said a couple weeks ago in another podcast, the "Portland can't get free agents" meme is lame and overdone. It's like a guy who hasn't showered in months, doesn't change his clothes, and has boorish social habits saying, "Girls just don't like me." Yeah, right. Take a bath, get a job, and present yourself somewhat decently, then see what happens. The Trail Blazers equivalent is to win some games and look like they have a coherent plan along with some cap space. Free agents are like prospective dates. Nobody likes desperation lunges from people looking to find a savior. They want to know that you've already got something on the ball and that joining up with you will make you even better, if not the best.

The Blazers haven't failed to attract free agents because they play in Portland. The Blazers have failed to attract free agents because they've done nothing to distinguish themselves from a host of other teams out there who are nondescript or outright suck. In the years when they've found success (2013-14, for instance) they've not had the cap space, the roster space, or the right sales pitch to capitalize on it. Then a year later they were back to non-distinguished land again. And then they lost their entire lineup. What free agent with other attractive options is going to sign up for that?

No inherent quality makes Portland less favorable of a destination than San Antonio or the Bay Area. Those aren't marquee markets. The Spurs and Warriors attract attention from LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant because they've made the right moves and built up credit by winning. To those who have much, more will be given. To those who have little, even what they have will be taken away. That's the Law of the NBA and it applies to Portland, both in penalty and promise, just as it does to every other franchise.

The Blazers can and will be able to lure free agents--maybe even prize ones--if they field the holy trinity:

1. Demonstrated success...not a .500 record, not a first-round playoff exit, but real success.

2. Sufficient cap space

3. The ability to look a top-flight player in the eye and say, "Here is the roster we'd field around you and here's exactly where your skill set and talent fit in, complete with sufficient shots and other opportunities for you to fulfill your potential without the burden of carrying the entire team on both ends of the floor."

When those conditions are met--or when obvious strength in two of them makes up for a slight shortfall in the third--you will see the "Blazers can't get free agents" truism fall by the wayside and it'll be happy time in Portland again.

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In case you missed it, thank you all for donating enough tickets to send 2033 underprivileged kids to the March 28th game between the Trail Blazers and Kings. You did it, Blazer's Edge readers! Be proud.

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