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Evaluating the Portland Trail Blazers' 2016 Offseason

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Neil Olshey and the Portland Trail Blazers signed several players to new contracts last month. Can we use pre-July 1 standards to evaluate whether or not the money was well spent?

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Evaluating offseason transactions of NBA teams before the season begins is tough. With no on-court product to watch, the after-the-fact grades for teams' actions often reflect the biases of the observer as much as they reflect the reality of the move.

For example, the Trail Blazers struck out on signing Chandler Parsons, but managed to sign Evan Turner as an alternative. Optimists have declared this a smart move as it shored up the team's playmaking and added another perimeter defender, while pessimists have pointed out that Turner can't shoot the three well and is overpaid for his production.

The cumulative effect is that it becomes easy to argue that Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil 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.

Thus the question is raised: Can a team's offseason be fairly evaluated before the regular season begins? The best way to do this is probably to use standards set before the free agency period begins. To that end, on June 30, before transactions had begun, I wrote a column proposing criteria that could be used to evaluate Olshey and the Blazers in August. In that article, I suggested the three following questions be used: 1) Did the Blazers make significant changes to their roster, 2) Did the Blazers fill multiple roster holes?, 3) Did the Blazers overpay to retain/acquire secondary players relative to a $102 million salary cap? Following are answers to those questions.

Did the Blazers make significant changes to their roster?

Olshey made two changes to the roster; he swapped out Gerald Henderson for Turner, and added Festus Ezeli on a bargain contract. The Turner move has been widely panned as an overpay, while the Ezeli signing has been recognized as a stealthy-smart signing.

Unfortunately, it's unclear whether or not these two moves significantly transformed the team's roster. Neither player has ever consistently started for a winning team and questions abound about Ezeli's health and Turner's effectiveness. Without further improvement, neither player is the surefire starter that the team hoped to acquire at the wing or center positions. Ezeli and Turner have improved the Blazers' position slightly in that Ezeli has the potential to become a defensive stalwart at center, but the team will still be reliant on significant internal development to "make the jump" from 44 wins to 55 wins.

In short, these were not the "needle-moving" additions that adding an undisputed No. 3 player like Hassan Whiteside or Chandler Parsons would have been, but they will buy the Blazers time as the team continues to (hopefully) develop its incumbent players.

Did the Blazers fill multiple roster holes?

The Blazers needed a center who can shut down a pick-and-roll and protect the rim to help compensate for the defensive weaknesses of the McLillard backcourt. Ezeli has shown flashes of potential to be an NBA All-Defense-level talent. Unfortunately he has lacked consistency in his career, caused by both injuries and uneven play. Unlike with the Warriors, the Blazers will rely on him to be The Man as far as big man defense goes and it's unclear, thus far, whether or not he can handle that role.

The Blazers' second need was for a legitimate third scoring option who also had some combination of playmaking ability, outside shooting, and/or solid defense. Essentially, they needed a complement to the Lillard/McCollum tandem who could relieve some of the workload placed on the starting backcourt. Turner can be that playmaker but he has not proven himself to be an efficient third scoring option, certainly has no 3-point shot, and plays defense about at the level of Henderson.

Further, the Blazers will likely be at their strongest when only two of three players from the Lillard/McCollum/Turner triumvirate are playing together. As Lillard and McCollum showed last season, they both have the ability to be first options on offense, but can also play well off the ball. But Turner is most effective when he has the ball in his hands. That's fine when only Lillard or McCollum is on the court, but putting all three of them together and asking McCollum to become a tertiary ballhandler would be a waste of his talents. Combine that with the fact that Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu played effectively together as forwards alongside the Lillard/McCollum duo, and it's unclear whether or not Turner will even be part of Portland's best five-man unit.

In contrast, more versatile players such as Chandler Parsons, Andre Iguodala, or Nicolas Batum have shown the adaptability to be major scoring threats in their own right, secondary options off the ball when playing with stars like Lillard and McCollum, and have the size to rebound and defend. Those are the types of players that the Blazers would have optimally signed.

Circling back to the original question: Did the Blazers fill multiple roster holes? The answer is "kinda." As Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated pointed out, Turner is good enough to keep the Blazers from backsliding but he's not the true "Swiss Army Knife" type of player they hoped for at that position, while Ezeli could fill the hole at center but it's unclear whether or not he's up to the task,

Did the Blazers overpay to retain/acquire secondary players relative to a $102 million salary cap?

In 2018 the Blazers will have four players under contract for $26 million, $24 million, $19 million, and $17 million, respectively. Together, those players account for $86 million and roughly 80 percent of the total salary cap. Given those numbers, one would expect the team to have a rock solid long-term starting lineup in place. A lineup that would be on par with the Lillard/Aldridge/Lopez/Matthews/Batum quintet of 2014.

In reality, the Blazers have two All-Star-caliber players in McCollum and Lillard, and then a cavalcade of players who would be somewhere from fifth to tenth best on a championship contending team. Given the team's current salary situation (outlined here and here) it's fair to say that they have overpaid to retain/acquire secondary players.

However, as Zach Lowe and Blazer's Edge have pointed out, once Chandler Parsons and Hassan Whiteside passed Olshey may have had few alternatives but to imitate the Cavs' "Tristan Thompson Strategy" and open up the checkbook to collect as much talent as possible. In aggregate, the massive spending will prevent the team from backsliding this season, but in 12 months fans will likely be asking Olshey the same question they were asking on June 30 of this season: How are you going to get needle-moving third and fourth best players for this team?

Ironically, Olshey may also come to regret Ezeli's bargain basement contract - his only true "below market value" move of the summer. The Blazers signed Ezeli to a two-year deal and so will only have "Early Bird Rights" when the center's contract expires in 2018. Since the Blazers will almost certainly be over the cap at that time, they only will be able to offer Ezeli a contract starting at $13.5 million annually. If Ezeli does break out and become a bona fide starter, he will receive significantly larger offers from other teams, making it difficult for the Blazers to retain him.

Alternatively, Olshey could have opted to let either Leonard or Harkless leave in free agency and offered Ezeli roughly $4 million in additional salary. The increase would have raised the team's 2018 offer to about $20.5 million. These salary decisions imply that Olshey is gambling that Harkless and Leonard are more likely to be breakout players than Ezeli -€” given that Ezeli is the only player on the roster who has even the potential to become the gamechanging defensive center the team needs, it's safe to assume that Olshey has significant reservations about Ezeli's potential.

What's the bottom line?

The Blazers' offseason was a mixed bag. Positively, the additions of Ezeli and Turner and return of the bulk of last season's roster should prevent a regression from last season's success. But the team did not find the players it needed to fill out its starting lineup, and there are significant question marks surrounding their new additions. The Blazers will still need to make significant moves next summer to improve the team if they hope to become contenders.