Today's edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag deals with the Portland Trail Blazers retaining their restricted free agents in lieu of pursuing big-name players on the open market. If you've got a burning Blazers-related question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!
The blazers are looking at one of the most important offseasons of their history there's no question about it. However there are some big questions that need answers that surround their RFA. CJ McCollum is going to demand a significant pay raise after next season and rightly so. His leap from bench rider to star has been wonderful to watch. With that in mind, planning for the future long and short term could be tricky. In every dream scenario signing the big name free agent to get over the hump is what every team wants. As it stands, Portland has the money but has never been a place anyone wants to call home who wasn't drafted there. Would it be more realistic and better to sign and trade some of their RFA's? Obviously retaining all would be great, but offer sheets for Crabb,Leonard and Harkless could ruin all of portlands hopes and dreams. Crabb has began to turn into a decent role player and with the cap increase taking a big leap would it be smart for the Blazers to gamble on him? He was the third leading scorer this last season for the Blazers, and his defense got a little bit better, however was it really all that impressive considering the scoring and defensive options Portland had? Meyers Leonard is also a big question. Coming into this season the expectations were high on him, however his production proved that he wasn't ready. Sure he did better than Vohnle but at this point in his career can anyone really see him being better than Spencer Hawes? Big men that can shoot the 3 and can decently defend are hard to come by which should/ could make Leonard a desirable sign and trade target. Would it be wise to move him for a rim protector? Of all the RFA's Harkless is the one that stands above the pack. He demonstrated at the end of this campaign that he's ready for more responsibilities. His defense and athletic ability was on full display during the postseason. With some serious offseason work on his shooting he could be the perfect 3-D player that is coveted by all. He's younger than the rest and seems to have a higher ceiling at this point in time. So with all that said, would retaining Harkless, and moving Crabb and Leonard for better defensive and scoring options all while signing complementary players for Lillard and McCollum be the best move for the Blazers at this point without losing their identity?
You've set up the situation pretty well. Let's summarize:
1. The Trail Blazers will have cap space to play with this summer should they choose to employ it.
2. The amount of space available will depend directly on the number of their own restricted free agents they sign. Basically, the more of their own players they want back, the slimmer their prospects of signing anyone significant. As explained here, timing is important. If Portalnd's Restricted Free Agents delay signing offer sheets with other teams, the Blazers could sign a new guy before re-signing them. Nevertheless, the chances of the Blazers retaining their rotation from last year AND adding another big free agent are pretty much nil.
3. Whether they sign a new player or retain their old ones, CJ McCollum's salary increase next year will take a big bite out of their future cap space. Other players will come due the year after. The Blazers might be able to wait a little bit before making moves, but they can't wait long. The roster won't stay at its current salary level forever...or even beyond July.
In this environment questions abound. Now or later? Ours or theirs? And most importantly, how much is this all going to cost?
I don't think there's any doubt that Plan A for the Blazers will be wooing a prime free agent to help the frontcourt. They need experience, defense, and scoring at the forward and center positions. Who are we kidding...they need everything up there. Their current players aren't bad, they just aren't sufficient. But even if the Blazers bag their target, they'll probably be able to re-sign at least one of their restricted free agents. If they take on more modest contracts and don't get priced out in a bidding war, they could afford a couple. That makes your "Who to Keep?" question a hot topic.
Not knowing who the Blazers will end up signing in free agency--and thus shooting blind, outside of context--I'd favor re-signing Restricted Free Agents in this order:
Leonard is not the most accomplished of the three main RFA's, but he's the most unusual by far. I understand the comparison to Spencer Hawes in a way, as Leonard shoots from distance like Hawes does. But that's kind of like equating that generic vat of banana pudding at the buffet to a tiramisu dessert from a decent Italian joint. Both are custard-based desserts. Neither is a main course. But one has a little more going for it than the other. Leonard is not just a distance shooter. He moves better than Hawes, he's built better than Hawes, and eventually he's going to defend better than Hawes could ever dream of.
Leonard's chronic shoulder issues are a concern. Even so, I could find you suitable replacements at shooting guard or swing forward multiple times over before I could find another guy with his skill set, size, and potential. Even if he's not star material, Leonard brings a look to the team that's hard to replace. Plus he plays at a clear position of need.
Saying Crabbe was Portland's third-leading scorer last year is accurate, but hardly a rousing recommendation. Technically speaking Robin Lopez, C.J. Miles, and Emmanual Mudiay all would have qualified for that spot as well. They're not exactly offensive powerhouses.
Crabbe's biggest asset is his ability to score from multiple spots on the floor...a distinction rivaled only by CJ McCollum among current Blazers. Crabbe is nowhere near CJ's handling ability but he makes up for it with improving defense which, while overstated somewhat, still sets him apart from his backcourt teammates. Crabbe has size, confidence, and room to grow. As long as McCollum and Damian Lillard remain with the team his position will be gummed up slightly, but he makes a suitable reserve shooting guard when paired with either.
The big argument against Crabbe: spending money on him is like buying a nice love seat for the living room while the whole kitchen is on fire. He's a guard. The Blazers have guards. They don't have bigs. All public signals indicate the front office loves the Lillard-McCollum tandem. If that remains true, those two will start for the next decade and pull down $40-50 million per year doing so. Even if Crabbe makes a more modest $12-15 million, is that backcourt good enough in aggregate to justify spending 50-60% of the salary cap on them? If not, the Blazers might be better off spending Crabbe's money trying to get that big-name big man.
I understand that Mo's the guy you like best. I agree that he's probably the most capable, consistent player of the three current RFA's. Harkless was the answer at power forward for last year's roster. That doesn't mean he'll be the answer at either forward spot long term.
The Blazers already have Al-Farouq Aminu locked up at small forward. He's not exactly like Harkless but the two are close enough in style and frame to make keeping both a luxury, not a necessity.
I liked Harkless at power forward but as we've said a dozen times now, that frontcourt has got to change. If the Blazers get a prime free agent at power forward he'd replace Harkless. An A-list center might complement Harkless' game but he might not. Either way, you're not just comparing Harkless to incoming players but to Portland's incumbents. Does Mo bring more wrinkles to the lineup when paired with a huge center than Leonard would? With Aminu on the roster, Leonard a possibility, and the frontcourt changing around him, Harkless' long-term utility could prove less than we saw at the end of last year.
I will hold out a candle of hope for you and other Harkless supporters, though. I don't foresee Leonard or Crabbe playing for one-year qualifying offers this season in order to become unrestricted free agents next year, but that might be the best option for Harkless if he doesn't get a big-bang offer this summer. He'd only make $4 million but he'd have another year to prove his worth and another bountiful summer in which to solicit offers. If Harkless went this route, keeping him for $4 million would probably be a no-brainer for the Blazers.
So...I pretty much inverted Jared's wish list. Would you do the same? If the Blazers can only retain one of these three, who should it be? Let us know and stay tuned all week long as we continue to ramp up for the free agency period. As Jared's question proves, the Blazers have several choices to make and not enough resources to take advantage of all of them. This is going to be exciting and we'll be there for every minute of it.