The recent surge of energy surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers has caused a corresponding surge in Mailbag questions in my inbox. We'll get to a couple today on our way towards whittling through the most popular topics between now and the draft.
If you have a Blazers-related question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Away we go!
The performance against the Warriors convinced me. Tell me that wasn't one of the best playoff performances we've seen in years or ever! This team is on the right track and they need to just put down the phone and keep with the course. I can see signing a free agent maybe but there's no way they should disrupt the chemistry or break up the team. Let them grow!
Tell me you can see the Blazers keeping this exact lineup minus an minor player or two together next year and going even farther. Didn't the second round convince you? We led the Warriors almost every quarter! Nobody has beat them twice but us! Keep it together! Please say yes!
Errrr...sorry. Gotta say no.
Or, rather, I'll happily say yes to certain things. Portland's playoff performance was marvelous when taken in context. We wholly agree there. I also agree it was one of the best performances we've seen in a while...if nothing else because 2016 and 2014 were the only times they've seen the second round since the century turned. I would change "one of the best playoff performances ever" to "one of the most inspiring playoff performances ever". For me 2016 was about on par with "The Shot" and with Audie Norris hitting the turn-around over Dallas in 1985. Nothing herein can, or should, contradict the good feelings that come with that.
Even with those things being true, the Blazers still have to make significant changes this summer. Letting the rush of the playoffs overwhelm the decision-making process would leave too many holes unaddressed for too little potential gain. Consider:
1. The strongest impetus behind playoff euphoria was the close games against the Warriors. People will tire of hearing me say it but it needs to be lifted up again precisely in situations like this: when we try to make events this spring applicable to decisions this summer that affect seasons to come. The Blazers would not have been in that series with the Warriors had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin not gone down. It's not that the team wouldn't have fared well against the champs, they never would have had the chance to play them. Basically if you wouldn't advocate something had the Blazers lost 4-2 in the first round, advocating it now is pretty risky. I don't think the clamor to keep the roster together as-is would have been as strong had Portland left the playoffs two weeks earlier. One victory in 12 days isn't enough to change the team's direction.
2. No matter what the quarter scores said, losing 4-1 against the Warriors doesn't mean the Blazers came close to beating them. Portland was the only team to earn 2 victories over Golden State, sure...but they were also the only team to play them 8 times besides the Rockets. And, you know...Houston.
3. As Eric Griffith laid out on Friday, Portland's cap money isn't going to stick around if they don't use it. Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe are restricted free agents, Gerald Henderson unrestricted. Even with the cap rising, the Blazers would be hard-pressed to sign a significant free agent while retaining all of their current players. Between possible re-signings and CJ McCollum's huge contract on the horizon, the Blazers have to move soon if they're going to utilize the extra cap space they built up in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge leaving.
4. This roster has great chemistry but also great redundancy. We can start with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as not-quite-similar guards, but similar enough. Chances are the Blazers will keep them both...fair enough. But you also have Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless as 6'9" athletic forwards with spotty offensive games. Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis are offensive rebounders who don't stray more than 4 feet from the hoop except to set a pick. Crabbe and Gerald Henderson are completely different players but they're both 6'5"-ish shooting guards. Of all the players in the regular rotation, only Leonard and Noah Vonleh lack twins. Even if all the near-duplicate players in question are attractive, is retaining them the best possible use of Portland's money long-term or could they find players with different strengths and skill sets? Somebody who can score from the frountcourt or guard an opposing center maybe?
5. Even if you do believe in all of Portland's players, which version do you believe in? Aminu shot an eyebrow-raising 53.% from the field in the series against the Warriors. This followed on the heels of 6 games shooting 36% against the Clippers. Harkless shot 48% against L.A. but followed that up with 36% against Golden State. Crabbe had a phenomenal post-season and it amounted to 12.5 points per 36 minutes. Henderson had an awful playoff run and registered 11.7 points per 36. Do you credit Lillard''s eye-popping 26.5 ppg playoff average or the eye-searing 37% field goal shooting it took to get there? This team yo-yo's worse than the Burgermeister Meisterburger. Figuring out what they did yesterday is sometimes a head-scratcher. Figuring out what they'll do tomorrow is darn near impossible, let alone whether it'll make a demonstrable difference.
For all these reasons, and probably a couple more, the Blazers need to look at making moves this summer. I don't see any way they go into 2016-17 paying this same roster and expecting different results. Experience was a factor in Portland's playoff losses, but ultimately holes in their rotation allowing other teams to put huge pressure on the only two scorers they have proved a greater factor. All the experience in the world won't fix that.
Hi Dave, Sorry for the length of this but I just need to get it out.
I don't expect a lot out of this free agent summer. Fans and local media say "With the Blazers current group of talent and success why wouldn't free agents want to sign?" Easy. To the elite, Portland is a small market backwater in the Yukon. They want to play for teams reasonably close to home, warm, in a big-big city, and for a team with other proven talent that could get them a ring (and more money). Don't expect Durant, James, or even Dwight Howard to come to Portland (PLEASE not Howard!).
When you look at this summers list of free agents, it contains a lot of players I would question as deserving of a max contract. Unfortunately, with the salary cap going up to $92+million, many team will have cap space, which means there will be bidding wars. Welcome to inflation. This means many players are going to be overpaid. So now you have to ask, Is Hassan Whiteside worth a $20 million max deal? Is Harrison Barnes? How much will Allen Crabbe command? You may see on some teams reserves getting bigger contracts than current starters. Just think how that will sit with some players.
I believe Olshey is smart enough to see through this. My guess is he will pay close attention to which teams are trying to clear some additional salary cap space to get Durant, Howard, James, even Whiteside, and the like. One thing Portland does have is cap space. This may mean being able to trade for a quality player who meets a need for little more than cash. Exactly who I don't know. Who last year thought Moe Harkless and Mason Plumlee would be on the radar. I personally don't think Greg Monroe is a fit with this roster. I wouldn't be surprised if Olshey settles for a SG/SF three and D shooter, and focuses on re-signing Crabbe. He will probably want to re-sign Harkless and Leonard but may let the market dictate things. I'm sure he has a price in mind but it isn't on the same page as their agents and their value may not be as high as their agents think. Crabbe is more of a priority at this point.
I really don't expect Henderson, Kaman and Roberts to be back (gee that's obvious). I also don't expect Whiteside, Ezeli, or Barnes will be here either. To me, Portland isn't where they want to be. Olshey hasn't been that persuasive with the best available unrestricted free agents, and the restrictive ones have always been matched by their current teams. He does well with the midrange guys who see what is going on in Portland and can see how they will contribute.
My guess is there will need to be a major trade. If not this year, then next. If history is an indication, the Blazers succeed with timely aggressive trades (see Buck Williams, Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, and the draft day that netted LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy). Another year of development, and this roster will look more attractive. Who knows, if next season is as good or better for the Blazers than this season, and a team like Indiana goes nowhere, maybe Paul George becomes negotiable.
Thanks for letting me get this out of my head.
Usually I edit down questions severely but I'm leaving yours intact, John. It has a ton to chew on. Actually--and this is ultra-rare for me to say--there's not much there to argue with. I can only find a couple quibbles.
I don't believe Portland being an NBA "backwater" has much to do with not signing free agents. Internet fame, cap limits, and huge salaries have enabled professional athletes to become logo agnostic. In general, players will go where there's money and a chance to win. Portland has the money. If Neil Olshey can convince a free agent that the Blazers also have a strong plan for success, they should be able to attract somebody. If he can't, they won't.
I agree wholeheartedly with a trade being as strong of a possibility as free agency. Unless they're willing to part with McCollum, Portland doesn't have the talent to swing an equitable swap for a star. Their cap space could prove huge, though. Imbalanced trades are a boon to teams in Portland's position and the Blazers know it.
I don't necessarily agree that incremental value moves will be enough to "move the needle" for this team. This has been the sticking point in recent years. You can get to 45, maybe even 55 wins that way. At some point you hit the "off-the-rack shopping" ceiling. You need a major signing/trade, a star draft pick, a young guy steal, or a couple of high quality veteran free agents to take you beyond decent. Since Portland doesn't have any draft picks, they have to hope one of the other three options pans out.
Ideally the Blazers would be able to move some of their current frontcourt starters to the bench, letting them develop with decent minutes behind veterans with diverse skills. If they're able to attract a big-swing free agent they can make that shift easily. It doesn't hurt them much if the guy they sign is headed over the hill; those former starters can handle 20-25 minutes per game easily, making the burden on a 30-year-old lighter.
If the Big Signing doesn't pan out Olshey will need to dig deeper into his bag of tricks than he's done so far. No worries...we'll come up with Plan B suggestions before July 1 hits. For now, we'll just marvel at the number of decision points he's facing and hope that the outcome turns out to be worthy of the season the team just registered.
In the meantime, don't forget to send your Mailbag questions to email@example.com. The start of summer is one of the best times to get them answered!