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Defining a successful 2016 NBA free agency season for the Portland Trail Blazers

What do the Portland Trail Blazers and GM Neil Olshey need to do for this offseason to be considered a success?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations and GM Neil Olshey has a tough job over the next month. He has to fill sizeable holes on the team's 44-win roster without disrupting chemistry or overpaying potentially underachieving players. Fans won't know, truly, if he has succeeded until several months into the 2016-17 season and long after 2016 NBA free agency.

Because of that gap between the end of free agency and the start of actual games, observers necessarily resort to post-hoc breakdowns of a team's personnel decisions. Often, these grades are biased by what the observers want to believe -€” people will "talk themselves into (or out of)" a player so that he fits the desired narrative.

As such, conversations about how well the team did often reflect more about personal preconceptions than actual reality. For example, if the Blazers strike out on big-name centers, and sign a lesser player (e.g. Ian Mahinmi or Festus Ezeli), optimists will be inclined to point out that Terry Stotts helps ANY player overachieve, while pessimists will argue that the discount rate free agent center doesn't "move the needle." The cumulative effect is that it becomes easy to argue that Olshey did a great job if one is optimistic about the season and similarly easy to say he did a terrible job if the observer tends toward critique.

The question at hand: Is there a fair way to evaluate the Blazers' offseason moves? The best way to do this is probably to set standards before the team makes any moves, and then compare those standards to the actual moves after free agency/trade season has ended. Here are my suggested pre-free agency standards for how to grade Olshey and the Blazers:

Did the Blazers make significant changes to their roster?

Dave Deckard argued last month that the Blazers cannot stand pat with their current roster and expect to compete for a title in the NBA. The team does have young players who have room for improvement, however those young players are unlikely to improve in the areas of need for the team. For instance, Mason Plumlee may add a 10-15 feet jump shot this summer, but he is unlikely to become the true rim-protecting center the team needs. Moe Harkless may incrementally improve his jumpshot, but it seems unlikely that he will ever develop enough of an independent offensive game to be a scoring threat in his own right at power forward. The Blazers are especially vulnerable to injury to key players; if either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum goes down they have no secondary playmakers among their rotation players to help run the offense.

These weaknesses, and probably others, are not likely to be filled via internal development. Further, if the team does bring back the roster mostly intact, pay raises to the current players will strip them of any cap space in future seasons. Unless Olshey intends a complete overhaul of the roster, it is essential that significant changes be made this summer. From an evaluation perspective, it's fair to say that there should be multiple differences between the 2016 roster and the 2017 roster to rate this July as a success.

Did the Blazers fill multiple roster holes?

Simply adding talented "best players available" isn't sufficient for the Blazers. Because of their limited time left with cap space, they must add players who fill holes on the roster. The most obvious need is a defensively competent center who can also function as a fifth option "relief valve" on offense.

Beyond a center, the Blazers also need an additional starting frontcourt player. Their frontcourt, at the moment, is filled with players who would be highly competent reserves, or sufficient fifth starters. Unlike with the defensive need at center, Olshey could go multiple directions here; adding a power forward who can score the ball on his own and complement the new center would be a solid addition. Alternatively, if they are confident that Noah Vonleh will eventually blossom into that role, the Blazers could try to add a "swiss-army knife" small forward in the Nicolas Batum/Andre Iguodala role. This player would have ballhandling skills, as well as the ability to score via 3-pointer or by creating his own shot, and could act as a sixth man or replace Aminu as the starting small forward. He'd basically be Gerald Henderson Version Beta, or similar to Allen Crabbe but with ballhandling abilities.

On the surface, snagging two players of that caliber sounds difficult, but the "Terry Stotts corollary" comes into play here. During his time as coach, Stotts has proven repeatedly that he can coax unexpected abilities out of his players, and create lineups that become more than the sum of their parts. Consequently, Olshey does not need to make multiple "move the needle" moves -€” rather he needs to acquire players that evidently and obviously fill significant roster needs. If he does that, Stotts can take it from there.

This means that free agency can be a success even if the Blazers strike out on the max contract prospects, as long as the players they do sign very clearly add new skills to the team. For example, Ian Mahinmi, while not a "sexy" pick, would add a defensive presence that the team sorely needs, while not hampering the team on offense. Picking up multiple players of that caliber who do not overlap skills with the current roster could still make for a successful July for the Blazers.

Did the Blazers overpay to retain/acquire secondary players relative to a $107 million salary cap?

For a team to compete in the NBA, they almost certainly need to add players with bargain contracts to their roster. At the league-wide level, Steph Curry is the ultimate example, while at the team level Ed Davis embodies that concept. Curry's MVP-level production for a less-than-max contract, and Davis' invaluable rebounding off the bench for less than $7 million, are both examples of a player's production exceeding his salary.

Thus far, Olshey has done an excellent job avoiding overpayment and filling the roster with bargain contracts. That task may become harder this summer. Rumors have spread that Crabbe is likely to command a 4-year, $68 million contract. Can Olshey afford to pay his third guard 17 percent of the salary cap when he is already going to be paying Lillard and McCollum in excess of $50 million?

It's possible the Blazers would be better off re-signing Gerald Henderson at a lower rate, and then adding a swiss army knife-style small forward who can replace Crabbe's 3&D skills while also adding some ballhandling. These decisions will be partially dictated by which players are available so Olshey will need to be flexible and possibly willing to part with his own free agents if another team offers them exorbitant deals. But for evaluation purposes, it's fair to say that when the dust settles, the Blazers should have no more than one player being paid above his market rate.

Note that when evaluating new contracts they should be considered in light of next summer's $107 million salary cap. GMs will be signing players with that figure in mind and so a contract that might seem like an overpayment this summer could actually be a decent deal by next summer. A quick and dirty way to do this: The 2016 salary cap was $70 million, which means that next season's cap will be roughly 1.5 times greater than the cap that expires tonight. Thus, to convert newly signed salaries to the 2016 cap do the following: 1) Multiply the new deal by 2/3, 2) Consider whether that figure would have looked reasonable if the player were signed last summer, 3) if the answer is "yes," it's likely an okay contract.


In order to fairly evaluate the Blazers' free agency/trade season, it's necessary to set parameters before the first move is made. In light of that, it's safe to say that Olshey and the Blazers have had a successful July if they can 1) make significant changes to the roster, 2) fill multiple positions of need - not necessarily via max contracts, and 3) avoid overpaying multiple players.


Readers - Tell us what you think will define a successful free agency season for the Blazers in the comments below!


Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado |