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Re-Imagining the Blazers’ 2016 Offseason

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Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey brought Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli in this summer in free agency. Were there any clear alternatives that would’ve changed Portland’s fate?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In less than one week, Portland will be able to trade Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard. For most teams, trade season has been underway for weeks but because of trade restrictions, it doesn’t start for Portland until January 15. As we approach the team’s next decision point, let’s take a look back and see how we got here.

It’s clear that the Blazers’ summer was a disappointment. Taken collectively, the moves and acquisitions haven’t translated to more wins or an increase in trade assets. Every player, with the exception of Harkless, has disappointed, failing to justify their contracts.

This was never plan A. In fact, it was more like plan F. Portland swung at five different players -- Hassan Whiteside, Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, and Pau Gasol -- before settling for Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli.

It’s tough to blame Olshey for those missed opportunities. The Heat offered Whiteside significantly more money. Noah and Howard went to hometown teams on lucrative deals. Gasol signed with one of the most successful teams in the league at the end of his career. It would be unfair to expect a general manager to outweigh all of those factors.

Chandler Parsons is the only misfire you could lay on Olshey’s shoulders. This would certainly be relevant in evaluating Olshey’s ability to attract talent but that signing wouldn’t have improved Portland’s season. Parsons has hardly played and, if his knees don’t improve, could be one of the worst contracts in the league.

If the only signing Olshey had a shot at would have been a disaster, we have to consider players they didn’t pursue, roads not taken. Portland’s summer has been much maligned but are there any reasonable scenarios that could have delivered Portland a better season and a more promising future?

Olshey and company were reportedly looking for two things in the offseason: a ball handler and a rim-protecting big man. The playmaker market was thin and the presence of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum narrowed the possibilities even further. With those two locked in for the foreseeable future, any new acquisition had to be a strong defensive player and was preferably not a guard.

Besides Evan Turner, Matthew Dellavedova was the only gettable free agent that matches that description. He has a reputation as a hard-nosed defender who can run the point just well enough to keep an offense moving. It’s easy to imagine Delly forming a three-guard rotation with Dame and CJ and always taking the more difficult defensive assignment.

However, he’s having his worst shooting season ever and was never that good to begin with. His True Shooting Percentage ranks 144th out of 175 guards who have played at least 100 minutes this season, according to basketball-reference.com. That’s 34 spots below the villainous Turner.

Of course, the game is more than just shooting and Dellavedova’s toughness would have helped on the other side of the ball. In a vacuum, Delly is a better defender than Turner but he wouldn’t have fit as well. Adding another point guard to the rotation would have forced Allen Crabbe to guard small forwards. The combination of Lillard/Crabbe/Turner has certainly been disappointing to say the least but it’s not clear that Delly/Lillard/Crabbe would have been much better.

The key difference is that Dellavedova is making $7 million less than Turner. That would normally be impactful but the difference is less significant than you’d think. Even at that price point, Delly isn’t much of a trade chip. You could always use him as a throw-in but that’s it. No one is giving up anything of value to get a backup at the most loaded position in the league. And given this year’s draft class, the relative value of backup point guards is only going to decline.

Turner is completely untradeable but the difference between throw-in and untradeable won’t change the trajectory of the team. That’s especially true for Portland, a team with lots of mid-salary role players that could serve as throw-ins or salary filler. Any cap room next year will be eaten up by McCollum’s extension. If Paul Allen is willing to pay the luxury tax, Delly’s signing wouldn’t have meaningfully improved the team’s prospects.

The Elusive Rim Protector

Portland’s first three free agent targets were all rim-protecting big men so it’s not fair to say they didn’t prioritize this as the team’s biggest need. However, maybe they didn’t go far enough. Instead of comparing Turner’s signing with other potential ball handlers, perhaps we should be comparing him to the available big men.

After Portland struck out on Whiteside, Noah, and Howard, the next name would have been Bismack Biyombo. Many people have thrown out Ian Mahinmi as well but he was too old to justify a long-term commitment. Plus, if we’re using hindsight anyway, his injury has made him a non-factor this season.

Biyombo is having a characteristically ‘meh’ season. He’s struggling from the field and has fallen back to his regular season self after a tenacious playoff run. Defense is still his calling card but he hasn’t had the kind of anchoring effect you’d expect from an elite rim protector. This year, teams are scoring 109 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on the court. Not only would that rank 22nd in the league but Orlando’s defense performs at essentially the same level without Biyombo. On/Off numbers are noisy but you’d expect there to be some signal if Biyombo was truly the rim protecting big man Portland needs.

...But he would be an improvement. Portland is desperate for defensive help, implying he would have been a better fit than Turner. Bismack has some trade value, making him the superior asset as well. It’s fair to say Biyombo would have been the better signing in hindsight but Portland’s situation would have been largely the same; Biyombo was not the last piece to the puzzle and he wasn’t going to get them the final piece.

You can understand Olshey’s thinking after they missed out on their top choices. If the only players left won’t move the needle, then why not stock up on the scarcest resource in the league? A solid wing is certainly more valuable than a decent center these days. Just look at how many big men are being actively shopped at the moment. If Olshey and company thought Turner and Biyombo would both be solid but not transformational players then it made sense to go with the wing.

Turner’s subpar play has made that decision a mistake. However, it’s unfair to characterize it as a franchise-defining mistake. Even a Biyombo-Delly summer would have left the Blazers in roughly the same place -- towards the bottom of the Western Conference playoff ladder without the flexibility to climb.

What About an Asset Play?

If we accept that Portland didn’t have a viable trajectory after they missed out on their primary targets then why didn’t they continue collecting assets? This would be the strategy the Houston Rockets used to acquire James Harden.

It’s tempting in theory, but the comparison fails on two important levels. First, Houston was looking for its first star, not its second. The Blazers have Damian Lillard now and his peak is fast approaching. There’s understandably less patience in Portland.

Second, and more importantly, the Blazers are severely outgunned. Portland fans have dreams of Nerlens Noel or DeMarcus Cousins but those are only remotely feasible because of their poor reputations. If both of those guys were consummate professionals, then Boston would outbid Portland’s best offer in a heartbeat. Portland would need to collect some extremely valuable assets before that strategy was likely to pay dividends.

Eric Gordon is the one player who could have been such a valuable trade asset. He wouldn’t be a good fit next to Dame and CJ but the 28-year-old Gordon is having a career renaissance. The man who once headlined a trade for Chris Paul is rebuilding his value immensely after several injury plagued seasons. This kind of brilliant signing would have change Portland’s trajectory but it’s hard to fault Olshey for missing something so few saw coming.

Besides Gordon, there weren’t too many bargains to be found. Perhaps Dewayne Dedmon, Dwight Powell, and Mindaugus Kuzminskas would be considered undervalued contracts. That trio is certainly not moving the needle or creating new trade possibilities. Max deals are usually good value but Harrison Barnes is a fairly limited player. Who knows who Barnes would have chosen if Portland also offered the max. Kent Bazemore and Evan Fournier are solid wings but it would have been difficult to pull them away from their current teams. Same goes for Jordan Clarkson. In a super inflated market, there just weren’t a lot of attractive deals to go around.

Unbalanced Trades?

With free agent signings, the transactions are public. We know how much a player got and if the Blazers could have offered the same amount or more. It’s fairly straightforward to construct alternative scenarios and compare outcomes.

With trades, we have no idea what the asking price was for each player. We don’t even know who was available. We can’t determine if Olshey aggressively sought out trades but didn’t find any or if he intentionally chose to focus on free agents. From the outside looking in, those two possibilities are indistinguishable.

As a result, we should sharply limit trade speculation when evaluating Portland’s offseason. If a player was not widely considered to be available at the time, it would be unfair to consider them a missed opportunity. And even then, we should tread carefully.

In my mind, Rudy Gay is the only player who meets this standard. He fit the Blazers’ stated goals because he can handle the ball and could play next to Lillard and McCollum. His desire to leave Sacramento was clear during the summer. Perhaps, after missing out on Parsons, Olshey could have traded for Gay instead of signing Turner.

If we entertain that possibility, then acquiring Gay and Biyombo seems like the best hypothetical summer outcome. That would have required renouncing Meyers Leonard unless Portland included other salaries in the trade. How would that scenario have improved the Blazers’ season and their future prospects?

Portland certainly would have been better this season. Extra length, better defense, and a reliable third scorer would make them more dangerous on both sides of the ball. However, I doubt they would have separated themselves from the pack or been on pace to win 50 games. Projecting further into the future, Gay would be a free agent next year. Portland would have to let him walk or give him a long-term contract on the wrong side of 30. Either way, Portland is waiting on that trade to take them from good to great.

Exploring the roads not taken last summer isn’t useful to simply second guess Neil Olshey. Instead, comparing the actual results to the best possible alternative provides perspective. The Blazers’ summer was disappointing but it didn’t derail an otherwise foolproof plan. Portland went into the summer needing a high-profile signing. That’s an inherently high-risk play, especially for a small market team like Portland.

Ideally, the Blazers wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. However, that’s a direct result of retooling rather than rebuilding after the Aldridge departure. That was the correct decision given Lillard’s age but it came with its own set of challenges. Portland executed the first summer brilliantly but step two was always going to be more difficult with more things outside their control.

Portland isn’t in trouble because they gave the wrong guy $17 million. Even if they had spent that money more wisely, the team would have a difficult path forward. After Aldridge’s departure, the team was going to need a long shot to come through. It didn’t happen this summer. Here’s hoping the team has a little more luck in the new year.


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