The Tuesday edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag explores the three routes open to the Portland Trail Blazers for improvement this summer. If you've got a Blazers-related question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Everybody is talking about trades and free agents like they're interchangeable. Which prospect is better? Or do you go off the board and into the draft? What can the Blazers pull off this summer realistically?
All three avenues can bring success. When judged by bang-for-the-buck value the best of the three is the draft. But value isn't the only consideration when judging potential acquisitions. Need and stage of growth influence which path is likely to bear the most fruit.
Teams in the early stages of their developmental cycle depend on the draft--or on acquiring recently-drafted players still on rookie-scale contracts--for growth. Here's why:
- Superstars who can take a team from the lottery to serious contention can be numbered on four fingers. They aren't likely to be traded. When they enter free agency they generally choose between elite suitors, not 30-win franchises.
- Decent veterans won't raise the bar high enough for a struggling team. A team can acquire one or two for "coach on the floor" continuity purposes, but stocking the cupboard with multiple B+ level players gums up the cap. It robs the team of resources needed for the later stages of growth.
- A better record also translates into lower draft picks, lessening the chances of sustained success.
Teams in the middle stages of the growth cycle often get a bump from strategic trades. They carry decent, reasonably-paid players--some of whom are in their prime--and maybe even prospects or picks they'd be willing to part with. Those trade assets give them the means to net veterans to put them over the top. This can also happen through free agency...there's no particular bias towards one or the other. But trades carry with them a measure of surety and control that free agency doesn't. Plus they don't require scads of cap space like free agent signings do.
Teams at the apex level can make hay in the free agent market. Their needs are usually more modest. They're contending (or close to it) already. They'll sign an extra superstar if they can court him successfully but they can also take their pick of mid-level exception players. They're not looking for the guy to push them over the top, rather a player or two to cement them there. Attractiveness and cap loopholes make finding those players relatively easy.
The Trail Blazers are in an interesting situation...one which may turn all this on its head. The Blazers aren't quite in the first category anymore but they're not firmly in the second either. They don't need more youth. Neither are they one easy trade away from contending. Filling in with mid-level veterans won't do the job either. They need evolution any way they can get it. In most cases the status of the current roster determines the future path of the franchise. In Portland's case the ability to negotiate that future path may well determine the viability of the current roster. As such, any path is open to them. That said, they're set up to take advantage of some more than others.
The draft holds attraction for the Blazers for the same reasons it entices everybody: small investment, huge potential reward. Portland's main rotation players range in age from 24-27, not far from the 20-22 age range of most draftees. When Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum hit their full primes, the draft class of 2016 should have their wits about them and be ready to start contributing seriously. Drafting would be Portland's easiest, clearest road to long-term improvement.
But the Blazers don't have a draft pick of any kind this year. Given the climate, acquiring one may prove difficult. In fact this is the worst year possible to be a draft pick buyer. The value of picks has never been higher and may never be again.
Why? It's simple economics.
The salary cap is about to rise to $92 million. The year after it may hover near $107 million. Rookie scale contracts aren't attached to the value of the cap, though. They're the only payouts which will remain stable in a rapid inflationary environment.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the #1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, made approximately $4.7 million in his rookie season against a cap of $70 million...a great deal for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The #1 pick this summer will make $4.9 million against a $92 million cap next season. The cap increases $22 million but the superstar rookie's salary increases only $200,000.
Theoretically the 2017 #1 pick would make $5.1 million against a $107 million cap but labor negotiations that summer will probably force the rookie scale higher. The bar is open and it's Happy Hour. Draft picks aren't going to look any sweeter than they do right this minute.
To put those numbers in perspective, let's consider an NBA Lottery Pick like a mortgage payment. The size of the house may vary, but teams are depending on these guys to provide foundation-level stability for the next decade much like your home does. Snagging a good player in 2016 would be the equivalent of a homeowner with a $50,000 salary paying off their annual mortgage for no more than $2660...in most cases much less. Imagine how much money you'd have left over for other things! That kind of deal is impossible in real life, but if someone offered you'd jump on the opportunity instantly. There'd be no way you'd trade it away unless, perhaps, your house was already paid off and you really needed a car instead. Few NBA lottery ticket holders fit that description. That's why fingers will be tight around draft positions this June.
The higher the pick, the tighter the grip will be, but the value of picks will extend throughout the first round. The old, "ducking out to avoid a guaranteed contract obligation" routine is as relevant as a pay phone right now. Most incoming rookies will end up costing their teams 1-3% of the salary cap...non-factors financially. If a franchise has any use for a rookie prospect, they're going to want to keep those picks. They're like free rolls at the craps table.
Portland does have leverage to pry away first-rounders. CJ McCollum has the talent to make teams look twice. Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Ed Davis combine experience with reasonable contracts...also an asset in a soon-to-be-crazy financial market. But the Blazers probably can't get enough utility out of a rookie to justify moving McCollum. How far into the first round Plumlee, Aminu, or Davis can get them is open to debate.
That said, the Blazers can probably buy or trade their way into the second round (as has been their wont in the Paul Allen era). Second-round picks are more hope than plan. The effect of such a move won't be known for a couple years, but the chances for legitimate improvement less than drastic. Still, it's there.
The same players who could draw first-round draft picks--McCollum, Plumlee, Aminu, Davis--could also garner veteran help. But Portland's trade calculus doesn't resolve much easier than their draft prospects.
The Blazers need more than one player to reach conference elite status. Even if they were only one player away, though, how would they get their man? McCollum is the most attractive player on their roster, the only guy outside of Lillard who would garner major-league interest from other teams. But moving CJ also leaves a major-league hole in the lineup that the incoming player wouldn't fill. At best the Blazers would end up marginally ahead and better balanced between frontcourt and backcourt. Take McCollum out of the equation and the chances of drawing an impact player lessen. Neither option leaves the Blazers where they want to be.
If the front office does consummate a significant deal this summer, it'll likely come in one of two flavors:
1. Moving younger players at the bottom of the rotation for a steadier, more experienced player who might slide into the 8th or 9th spot.
2. Signing a free agent veteran to the starting lineup, then trading away the former starter plus an asset or two to bring more talent and fill a different positional deficit.
The second option is the most tantalizing. In essence the Blazers would leverage cap space to acquire a superior starter and another bench player at the cost of the lesser starter and a minor player or two. On paper that's one heck of a deal. But the crux of it lies not in the trade, but in signing the superior starter to begin with.
For all the reasons stated above, if the Blazers are going to hit a home run this off-season, it'll probably happen in free agency. It won't come without cost--they'll have to relinquish restricted free agents and maybe make an ancillary deal to make it work--but no other avenue offers the promise of team transformation like luring a prime free agent does.
Blazers fans have already bandied about possible names: Al Horford (Yay!), Larry Sanders (Cool!), Hassan Whiteside (Whoa!), Dwight Howard (OK, but pass the Tums). If Neil Olshey can put one of these guys in a Portland uniform, the promise of 2016-17 will look different, if not brighter.
The Big Issue: 20 teams with sudden cap space options are thinking the exact same thing. This isn't going to be a leisurely stroll through Whole Foods, picking up the perfect ingredients to complete the dish. The Blazers have 60 seconds to shop in the Cutthroat Kitchen pantry and their time starts...now. If somebody else snatches up the tortillas and they can't get their hands on some quality flour, they'll be left selling a burrito that didn't quite turn out like they'd hoped, praying to survive to try again in the next round.
The odds of success in the free agent bazaar aren't great for anyone outside of Golden State and San Antonio, but unless McCollum and Lillard are on the market free agency is the venue the Blazers are best equipped to take advantage of right now. When the surest doors start closing, you have to jump through the window and hope it works out.
As you can see, Phillip, these three options are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. Each carries its own risk and reward. More importantly, the Blazers are set up to play in one arena while they'll have trouble even getting through the turnstile of another.
Realistically the front office will have to work hard to make a splash anywhere, but keep in mind that all the possibilities they've generated so far have been for the purpose of setting up other possibilities. Without those progressive moves, the road forward turns to gravel, if not mush. One would assume a plan is in place for this summer. We'll have to see how well they execute it.
Send those Mailbag questions along to email@example.com whenever you wish! Stay tuned for the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast, dropping this afternoon. Dan Marang and I will talk about draft possibilities in greater depth, shedding further light on a third of today's question.