A year ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were flying high. Coming off of a season in which the Blazers finally won the Northwest division and had a "close" second round series against the Golden State Warriors, fans were excited about the future of the team. However, if fans were hopefully optimistic, than the excitement level of Portland GM, Neil Olshey, must have been on another level.
As people who follow the NBA know, last offseason Neil Olshey vastly overpaid to keep the Blazers together; that includes matching an egregious offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets which forced the team to pay Allen Crabbe $75 million over the next few years. Olshey also signed Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless to new contracts while extending the contract of C.J McCollum.
However, the crown jewel of last offseason was Neil Olshey signing Evan Turner to a 4 year/$70 mil contract all but guaranteeing that the Blazers will be over the cap for years to come. While the Blazers may have finished first in the division a few years ago and have always been near the top, staying dormant this offseason might result in them getting leapfrogged by teams that they have been looking down on for the last several years.
While this may all sound bleak, I must also mention that Olshey is a victim of circumstances, albeit the biggest victim. Olshey spent all of his money thinking that the NBA was correct and the cap would rise upward of $102,000,000. Once the cap was set at $99,000,000 making deals became more tough and that is one of the major contributors as to why the Blazers have been hamstrung this offseason (thanks Golden State for sweeping through the playoffs).
Now, the only way to free the Blazers of all these contracts and clear up cap room again would be to do what the Los Angeles Lakers did. They packaged one of their big mistakes from last offseason, Timofey Mozgov, and in order to get rid of him they had to lose DeAngelo Russell as well. For the Blazers to have gotten rid of Meyers Leonard, for example, they would have had to pair him with the 15th or 20th pick in the draft (potentially both) which would be a steep punishment for something they did a year ago.
While the Blazers were out spending big last year, the other teams in their division were more cautious of overspending for mediocre talent and that decision has paid off big-time. Because many of those teams sat out last year they were able to sign bigger names this year. While the Blazers were sitting on their butts, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, and PAUL GEORGE joined the Northwest division and none of them will be wearing the pinwheel.
This offseason, Oklahoma City shocked the NBA world when they announced that they had traded for Paul George. Once again, Sam Presti shows us that he is one of the leagues better GM's (let's ignore the Harden deal for now) by making a deal for a top-15 player in the league while only giving up Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo. Basically, Presti turned Serge Ibaka into Paul George in a span of only two years. On top of that, Presti found a way to get a solid contributor and defensive presence by signing Patrick Paterson to a bargain 3/$16,400,000 contract. While PG13 is only a rental and will more than likely make his way over to the Lakers when he becomes a free agent next offseason, OKC will be a tough team to face and has good odds to finish at the top of the division once again.
While Paul George might be in the division for only a year, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought in a player who will be in the division a whole lot longer, Jimmy Butler. The T-Wolves absolutely fleeced the Bulls in their attempt of reuniting Butler and Thibodeau again. The Wolves will now have multiple potential all-stars in Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and a solid supporting cast in the form of Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague. While Minnesota has shown potential for the last few years and have let us down every time, this might be the year in which they put everything together and challenge for a spot in the playoffs.
The Blazers biggest competitor this year was Denver and they have added the piece that they so desperately needed, a power forward by the name of Paul Millsap. The Nuggets offense was already scary last year with Jokic and Harris running the show, but this year it will be even scarier. While Denver may have lost Gallinari to the Clippers, they will come into the season with a lineup that boasts Gary Harris, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Paul Millsap. While defense might be a problem, the Nuggets will have the firepower to keep up with Golden State, Houston, and Cleveland while leapfrogging Portland in the standings.
The only team in the division that really lost a pivotal piece and will be below Portland is the Utah Jazz. Poor Utah, their rebuild was going so well and they were a playoff team for many years to come up until they lost Gordon Hayward. While Utah may have acquired Ricky Rubio and maintained Rudy Gobert, they lost George Hill, and Gordon Hayward. On the bright side, they won't have to overpay for an aging, veteran guard in George Hill.
While Portland has done nothing this offseason other than draft young talent, there still is a potential for them to make a move. Hopefully it involves them dumping contracts as they are rumored to be involved in a trade which sends Carmelo Anthony to Houston. One potential asset the Blazers might acquire is Ryan Anderson who Eric Griffith writes about here.
Overall, the Blazers did nothing while every team around them was getting better because they didn't put themselves in a proverbial pickle last offseason. While a tandem of McCollum, Lillard, and Nurkic is great and should be enough to finish at the top of the division, they are competing with cores such as PG13-Westbrook, Butler-KAT, Jokic-Millsap, and Rubio-Gobert. While the Blazers can potentially finish at the top of the division once again, they are just as likely to finish the year looking up to teams such as OKC, Denver, and even Minnesota. We won't truly know until next season is halfway through, but it can be said that the Northwest division might be the best in basketball next season.