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Were There Better Options for the Trail Blazers in the 2017 Draft?

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Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan weren’t what Blazers fans expected. Did Portland do the right thing?

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In this special weekend edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag we tie a bow on the Portland Trail Blazers’ performance in the 2017 NBA Draft. Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan proved to be a slight swerve away from the draft expectations of the Portland faithful. The reaction was swift and, in some cases, brutal...

Dave,

Months of talking about the three picks and then a guy who didn’t even start and a player nobody’s heard of? lolwut? Convince me the Blazers didn’t blow this draft. I think this is insane and I’m seriously wondering about management. I’ve followed this team for years and I’ve been more discouraged but I’ve seldom been more confused about what they’re doing. Help me.

Phil

If you asked whether I was doing cartwheels over the prospects of Collins transforming the team, I’d say no. Overall, though, I was not displeased with Portland’s performance on Thursday.

In the final lead-up to the draft I published a Mailbag that said, among other things:

The Blazers hold picks 15, 20, and 26. Unless something goes wonky, no player with a high probability of improving them immediately is going to fall to those positions. If a legit player slips to 10 or 11, they need to be on the phone offering multiple picks for the surer thing. The current draftees will fill the final three open spots on their roster. It’d be better to have one guy they love and a couple undrafted players on minimum deals than having three so-so or speculative players, even if they are on rookie contracts.

From a process point of view, the Blazers did the right thing going after Collins, whom they coveted. That’s distinct from saying that Collins will actually succeed or that they’ll succeed with him. Prognostication of that sort is difficult; most draftees don’t live up to their initial hype. But if Neil Olshey came to me and said, “We have a guy at 10 that people won’t be excited about, but we think he’ll make more of a difference than the two we’d get at 15 and 20,” I’d support the move to 10 no matter who the player was. If Collins doesn’t work out we can all justifiably say it was a bad move in retrospect. But from the front end, if you can’t pull the trigger on this kind of deal when you feel it’s right, you can’t sit in the GM’s chair.

Two alternate scenarios have come up in response to Portland selecting Collins: why not Malik Monk at 10 or why not keep the lower picks and select the players the Sacramento Kings eventually got: Justin Jackson and Harry Giles? Giles’ athleticism and promise, combined with the high-potential offenses of Jackson and Monk, opened wounds. That both Jackson and Giles were connected with Portland pre-draft put salt in them. The draft rake would have been splashier with those names involved.

Splashy does not necessarily equate to useful, though. Monk is a sizzling shooting guard with range on his shot. He’s also 6’4”, offensively-oriented, and will have trouble defending counterparts at his position in the next level. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Blazers already have equivalents. If they thought Monk could replace CJ McCollum, allowing them to trade the veteran for an asset at another position, I’d be all for it. I doubt they’d assess things that way; those are big shoes to fill. Absent that move, Monk would be redundant, his production blunted. The same is true to a lesser extent of Jackson. He’d play small forward—a position of need, offensively—but you’re getting him because of his potential as a scorer. If he’s not putting up 16+ per game, his weaknesses begin to eat away his benefits.

Collins is not an all-around player yet. His shortcomings might be more evident in his rookie season than those of his more-polished counterparts, including Monk and Jackson. But the ask for him is different. The Blazers won’t want 20 ppg out of him. They want a player who can play off of their Big Three instead of languish beside them. They want a guy who will hustle without the ball, hit a corner three when it’s open, pass enough to keep the defense off-balance, and maybe be able to block shots. Giving Collins 15 attempts and asking him to score 20 points would be a disaster. Asking Monk, Jackson, or Giles to fulfill Collins’ job description wouldn’t work either.

I do not believe for a second that Collins is the combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Dikembe Mutumbo that Olshey seemed to be describing in his glowing, post-draft press conference. I doubt there’s a consensus that he was the best player available at #10, even. But the Blazers had him tabbed high enough to get at that level and had the resources to do so. He seems to fill an open role for them. Until we get other data for good or ill, that’s adequate. Draft night didn’t light the world on fire but that doesn’t mean they made a mistake.

It seems to me that ill-feelings about Portland’s performance on draft night have less to do with the actual players selected than with the fact that the issues facing the team could not be resolved in a single night by a single move. The Blazers could have distracted us better, were that their mission, but no combination of players from this draft outside of the Top 5 picks could have patched their holes and lifted their immediate win total. The Blazers are what they were: a .500 team with an enormous payroll and an imbalanced roster, hoping that Jusuf Nurkic will pay huge dividends. Whether the draft-night haul included Collins and Caleb Swanigan or some combination of Monk-Jackson-Giles, that assessment would have remained true. The bigger issues are the real puzzle, issues that, “Jeepers, we’ve got three second-half draft picks!” can’t solve.

The litmus test of Portland’s off-season will not be what happened on the evening of June 22nd. The draft will be taken in context with whatever happens in the free agent/trade season which begins next weekend, plus whatever internal development incumbent players evidence when camp opens in October. If the roster remains overpaid, under-performing, and has to be blown up, Portland may regret not taking a player with more immediate star power in this draft. If they do turn it around and Collins becomes that corner-shooting, smart-passing, shot-blocker they think he can, things will turn out fine.

We’ve got a week until the NBA’s fiscal year ends, Portland’s salary obligation hits $133 million, and the Blazers go fishing for trades to improve the team. Do you think the draft resolved most of their issues? If not, what do they need to do in July to continue the process? We’ll be discussing these things over the next week. Have at them in the comments if you wish, and keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com.

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard