Real GM's "F-Plus" Grading of the Blazers' Offseason

[Note from Tim: I just wanted to link up the Dunc'd On podcast homepage, in case you're interested in listening to their direct comments]

Hey there everyone. I thought I'd share some outside perspective on the Blazers' offseason that I found pretty thought-provoking.

Dunc’d On is a podcast hosted by Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux of Real GM, and it’s a pretty fantastic podcast if you’re a hardcore NBA fan (i.e., the kind of person who will listen to three hours of NBA podcasting a week in the middle of July). They are generally very savvy commentators on the game, the kind of guys who will have informed debates about who should take the 9th rotation player on the Orlando Magic or whether the Indiana Pacers made the right choice with the number 50 pick in the draft.

What I’m saying is, when these guys have something harsh to say about your team, it stings a little more than it does when a regular jabbering talking head does it. And man, do they have some harsh things to say about the Blazers.

It comes in their recent Western Conference Offseason Grades episode, in which they assign letter grades for the offseason work each team has done. I found it as informed as usual, but I couldn't get on board with this being the disaster they say it is. So I wanted to take some detailed notes to wrap this fanpost around, and ended doing a pretty thorough if rough transcription. A few caveats:

  • This is a pretty extensive pull of Real GM's content. I'm not trying to hijack it, I want more people to consume it, so I hope this more-than-fair use is cool for everyone involved.
  • I'm sure I got a few things wrong, as much as I tried to get it right. Apologies for any errors.
  • I wasn't always sure how to create paragraphs or sentences from the free-form conversation, so I at least bold-faced the stuff I found most interesting and provocative.

My response is below the transcript. And again, I wanted to make sure I said nice things about them up top here because I'm going to disagree with a lot of things later, but these two really are generally pretty sharp observers of the game and I recommend their podcast.

Dunc'd On - July 28, 2016

Nate: Next in alphabetical order, let’s hear it.

Danny: Portland Trail Blazers…straight F.

N: I was toying between an F+ and a D- for them. And we’ve been critical of them, this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular listeners….I didn’t arrive at that without a lot of thought. You talk about Crabbe and also Turner and those are big overpays kind of, in a vacuum…to me, when you look at the larger picture, it didn’t get any better. And this is a misevaluation both of where the team is as a franchise, number one, and two, what their team needed. And I think that Evan Turner is not what they need, we’ve explained that ad nauseam before, that is a contract that instantly I think is one of the worst in the league. His lack of shooting, the fact that he’s OK on defense but not amazingly good. And he’s not a great fit offensively with what they do. They are so capped out now, and this doesn’t change how I think about this franchise’s ceiling in the slightest. So you’ve used up every chamber to sign these guys and now you just have really not gotten – maybe, MAYBE if everything breaks right this is a 50 win team next year?

D: Maybe. I don’t think so though, considering how much stronger the middle of the West is going to be, there are going to be fewer wins in that range to just gobble up.

N: Maybe you can say, stay where you were on offense, get to top 10 on defense somehow, and you can maybe get to that level, but I think there are a lot of guys who just played a little over their heads last year. I thought that they misevaluated what they needed, I thought they just needed a better option defensively at center, and maybe they got that with Ezeli at the end, but I think that looking at their future…I guess this is the question, we’re very critical of what their strategy was, what were the alternatives to what they actually ended up doing, that they forewent in favor of this luxury tax monster?

D: Getting a center that was the right long term answer. Because getting someone who was a lot more stable there, depending on how early they did that, they could have also re-assessed on Mason Plumlee. Now they’re in this weird position where they’re trapped on all these guys and the center market is oversaturated – so you can argue that would’ve been oversaturated anyway for Mason Plumlee – so you’re doing it that way and you’re getting support pieces….they did bring back Harkless on what is a reasonable contract which is definitely a good thing, and there are elements of this offseason that I like –

N: Yeah 4 years, 40 million that they just agreed to…. I think that’s solid value for him, considering his age and what he was able to do at the end of the year and in the playoffs playing a combo forward role alongside Aminu – sorry, continue –

D: When we did both the Mock Trade Deadline and the Mock Offseason I was kind of obsessed with the potential for Portland, going after a center, resolving those problems, because they have so many pieces locked in at reasonable prices and an owner that is willing to pay the luxury tax, that they could’ve done this you know, fill up the boat, and pay the guys that you know, you can build a really good team that way…and Portland did that, they just did it for the wrong guy.

They also have this problem now with Alan Crabbe getting in my opinion overpaid, and Evan Turner, where they have a lot of money tied up in players that might be hard to move, and they’ve created a couple logjams for themselves, and so resolving those is going to be – could be – an issue. Players like Ed Davis are on such cheap contracts that it might actually be harder to use that for a big upgrade, because a team’s not going to give up a first round pick for Ed Davis…I think they’re more limited in their options than some people think. And they’re good, they’re definitely good, I don’t want to knock them saying they’re garbage or anything like that. They’re better than the Rockets and the Rockets spend a lot of money as well. But they had potential to do something legitimately special, and they went so hard in the opposite direction, for reasons that I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

N: If Turner is the best you can do, to me, you just don’t sign him, and you try to bring back Gerald Henderson. Henderson got basically 1 year, 9 million in terms of guaranteed money, second non-guaranteed year, they could’ve paid him that very easily, that was about what his cap hold would’ve been. I think he actually almost helps them more than Turner, he’s better on defense than Turner is in a lot of ways because he can guard bigger players with his strength, and I don’t think any of them are great shakes offensively. Henderson can protect the rim a little bit to, and he would have come about a thousand times cheaper than Turner, they’re about the same age. Another option could’ve been, they could’ve just paid Luol Deng close to the contract that he got with the Lakers, I think that would’ve helped them more, at least in the short term, than Turner. Remember CJ and Dame are kind of older than you think, they basically both are in their primes right now. They could’ve gone after Marvin Williams as well with a pretty big deal, or the defensive center you talked about – Biyombo, Ian Manhinmi. Or they could just chill until next year when they didn’t get Parsons, and I think they just reacted so quickly in going after Turner. I think they probably should’ve let Crabbe go, I don’t think he is…is he a starting shooting guard in this league? Probably not. Maybe he gets there, but I don’t see a lot of room for growth in his game. They could’ve tried to get the best guys they could on one-year deals, they have all these guys that are pretty cheap, I don’t think they’re even that much better with the signings that they had this year. Harkless and Meyers…maybe let them twist in the wind a bit longer, force one of them to take the QO, or at least sign a shorter deal, that could be a little more tradable if you wanted. And I think I maybe would’ve tried to hold onto Harkless, I don’t think Leonard really moves the needle, and tie up a bunch of money with him, but maybe he can be Plumlee insurance. And then they could’ve had as much as $37M in cap space with the Plumlee and CJ cap holds, if they hadn’t given CJ the max extension, which I don’t see a ton of advantage to doing right now. I get why they did it in the context of the other moves, but it’s a little risky. If they could’ve just avoided taking on any more long term money, at least kept open max space or the ability to get to max space for 2017…they really overreacted to this 44-win season, which admittedly was better at the end, but this team is going to be $19M over the tax, which is $42M in luxury tax payments also. And that’s before you sign Plumlee. Sign him at $12M a year, and now you’re $66M in tax payments. So we’ll probably see some of these guys go. And the other concern too is probably two of Harkless, Crabbe, Turner, or Leonard, are not really going to play, and those guys are all making eight figures. So it could make them very difficult to trade. Then they went after Pau Gasol which had some opportunity cost while they were waiting around for him, and I don’t think that he would’ve helped them either.

D: Nope!

N: Um. OK. So I ended up going I think, F-plus, probably. Which is one of the more hilarious grades you can get.



OK. Let’s all take a moment to apply some salve to that extensive burn.

Now. Clearly these guys aren’t dumb. And there are a few points on which I share their concerns (e.g., the Pau Gasol flirtation was a head-scratcher). But I have reactions. They are ten in number.

  1. Those are good contracts. Nate and Danny have repeatedly thrown around the idea of Meyers Leonard or Mo Harkless at 4/40 type deals as good fits for a variety of teams that were still shopping when they were both still on the market. But somehow they’re worse for coming back to Portland....? Even in this podcast, Nate praises Harkless’ deal and his play in the playoffs. But no credit in the final evaluation, apparently.
  2. 10M is the new 6M. On that note, eight figures is not wacky money for a non-starter anymore. League average 36-minute starter is worth about $14.1M per year now, so significant rotation players making 10+ is going to be common going forward. Though our situation is a bit more extreme, granted.
  3. What if there were no hypotheticals? I hate – HATE – armchair GM’s saying, ah, they should’ve just signed Guy X. While that’s sometimes feasible – we could’ve gotten Henderson back, probably, but more on that in a minute – most of the time, there’s not much at all that you can do. We threw mad money at Chandler Parsons, at Dwight Howard, at presumably a lot of guys. Who’s to say Luol Deng would’ve wanted to be in Portland at any price? Or Biyombo or Wiliams or anyone else? To ensure such a signing, you have to overpay significantly, like we did for Turner, and then the shine comes off the signing, like it did with Turner. But more on that in a minute. Point is, suggesting a specific free agent as a 'shoulda woulda coulda' is a bit of a cop-out, because reality of the players you do sign can never, ever best the hypothetical team you assemble in your mind, where everyone says 'yes' to your offer.
  4. Is it prime time or what? They emphasize that CJ and Dame are getting into their primes right now, but then Nate suggests that the best approach would have been a slew of one-year deals. That would do nothing to further build a core, and that strategy leaves you in exactly the same place that you are this year, only with your stars one year older (and with CJ a pending free agent, if you take Nate’s advice on delaying that extension). That sounds like a team on the precipice of bottoming out, not a team that building for contention.
  5. Festus who? The Ezeli deal seems to be a complete afterthought in their analysis. They both talk about how Portland should’ve gotten rim protection and all Ezeli gets is an ‘oh yeah by the way, maybe that signing helps.’ Yeah. Maybe! I wonder if that was even part of the front office's thinking.
  6. The kids are alright. They clearly take a dimmer view of some players than I (and probably many BE readers) do. I wouldn’t call Leonard a future HoFer, but if he can provide merely not-terrible defense, then he can bend the floor like few 5’s ever have – that seems like a good gamble. Harkless is admitted all around to be a good signing. Ezeli for 2/16 (8 guaranteed) is fantastic, even risk-adjusted. Most of all…
  7. ET found home? I think Evan Turner is a WAYYYY better fit on this team than Henderson was, and moreover, is a very DIFFERENT fit. Is he an overpay? Yup. That’s what you do to get a UFA to the most remote corner of the NBA landscape. I don’t care, I don’t pay his salary. What I do care about is his fit on the floor, and how he finally gives the Blazers a third ballhandler, addressing what I considered to be their single biggest need going into this offseason. Dame and CJ are fantastic off-ball shooters, but could never play that role last year because of personnel limitations. No longer. Gerald Henderson is a nice player, but his game is a pure iso game. I loved that we could dump it to him to manufacture something when nothing else was working, but he is most assuredly not a facilitator and not a flow-guy for the Stottsfense. Turner has potential to be exactly what this team needs on the wing. And if we can get his 3-point shooting to non-liability levels then he’ll be a legit game-changer for us. The fact that Nate equates their roles on the floor, much less ascribes superiority to Henderson’s game, is a bad opinion, surprisingly so for someone as smart about hoop as he is. Similarly, the lack of recognition that Blazers desperately needed to acquire ballhandling on the perimeter this offseason is a bad oversight for a team that rarely overlooks anything.
  8. Show me something better. Clearly much of the low grade comes from a low opinion of Turner and his contract, along with the Alan Crabbe match. While those moves do cap- and tax-out the Blazers, the alternatives aren’t very appealing; it’s worth noting that Nate’s alternative scenario basically amounts to a Blazers roster of Damian, CJ, Davis, Plumlee, Henderson, Harkless, and then crossing your fingers for free agents and the bottom of the roster. It is certainly hard to see that coming out better than last year’s team. And if you get spurned by all the FA’s, maybe CJ starts thinking twice about doubling down early…things could get ugly in Portland.
  9. Mind games at work. This is ancillary, but I think it matters that some commentators get psychologically anchored to initial evaluations of a team. For these two, last year’s preview centered on whether the Blazers would be bottom-5 defense or merely bottom-10 and how they could maybe eke out enough on offense to get to 29 or 30 wins. So while we see evidence of players that are "continuing to grow," they see candidates for "regressing to the mean." This isn’t a knock on them, this is just how humans work. Studies have shown this. Depending on your preconceptions, the evidence in front of you is interpreted as "yep, I’m right" either way : if the evidence confirms your preconception, great, and if it doesn’t confirm it, then it must be outlier data, it must be faulty, it doesn’t tell the whole story, etc. I just thought it was very interesting to get a completely different interpretation of the same evidence, I see a team full of guys on growth trajectories, while others might see overachievers due to come back to earth.
  10. Cap space doesn’t wear a jersey, and salary flexibility can’t hit a three. But none of that gets into my biggest beef with Real GM’s analysis here, which is that it places far too high a premium on cap space and flexibility, and not enough emphasis on what a good coach can actually do with a given collection of players running a certain system. Cap space and salary flexibility are easy to quantify and they are the armchair GM’s greatest ally: you can never go wrong if your strategy created cap space to land Kevin Durant and LeBron James, it’s your (actual) GM’s fault for not talking them into joining your team.

    Real GM is being very much like a, well, real GM here, in that their strategy would be completely risk-averse, avoiding commitment to any non-blue-chipper, and banking on the fact that 2017 would somehow, against all evidence to the contrary, be the year that a marquee free agent chooses Portland as his home.

    I’m glad our real real GM doesn't overvalue salary cap space at the expense of the actual players that win games.

    I'm glad he isn’t afraid to put his chips in the middle of the table and make a specific bet on a defined path, rather than peddling the unfalsifiable promise and eternal optimism that so many of his peers have chosen as their low-risk path to career safety. It may work, it may not, but I am glad he is trying.