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Why the Blazers Can’t Attract Big-Name Players

Portland’s often on the outside looking in when it comes to free agents and stars. Here’s why.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t had much luck attracting free agents and big-name players over the years. From LaMarcus Aldridge departing for San Antonio to Carmelo Anthony hemming and hawing over a no-trade clause, the Blazers have been shoved into the bridesmaid role more often than their fans would like to admit. Blazer’s Edge reader Brent spells out the issue in today’s Mailbag.


I love that Neil Olshey let the league know that the Blazers refuse to settle for mediocrity. Rejecting Houston's dream scenario of using Portland's assets to acquire Carmelo Anthony by simply dumping their garbage on us, and then adding insult to injury by publicly announcing that we will stomp all over the West with Melo and that he should forget the silly Rockets and join Dame Dolla, 3J & the Bosnian Beast in Rip City to form a superteam that rivals those formed by the rest of his draft class gave me chills...Then reality struck.

Melo more than likely will end up in a Houston jersey with the help of some 3rd (and possibly 4th) party scrub team who will agree to move assets and take Houston's garbage in return because that's what they do. I occasionally scan Twitter to check out NBA rumors and to put my finger on the pulse of fans around the country. The popular consensus is that Melo wouldn't ever consider waiving his Non-Trade Clause to become a Trail Blazer because it would mean he would have to play in Portland as a Trail Blazer. In fact, even the idea of playing in Portland is insulting to him. I understand that this is what internet trolls do, but their basic point doesn't appear to be wrong. Our highly competitive squads have been spurned by Hedu Turkoglu (so he could go lose with the Raptors), Greg Monroe (likes not chasing titles in Wisconsin), Chandler Parsons (perennial mediocrity in Memphis), LaMarcus Aldridge (*sigh*), and now, Carmelo Anthony appears to prefer rotting in New York as opposed to challenging the Warriors with the Blazers. I shouldn't even need to mention how Portland doesn't even bother calling guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant when they hit the open market.

We have legitimate star power. We have a great supporting cast that we wouldn't have to deplete to acquire Carmelo Anthony. The style of play would make the Blazers one of the most watched teams in all of basketball. I've heard people reference Melo's son being too far from Portland for him to come here, but a 4 hour flight vs a 6 hour flight to New York is still a flight. I'm not sure what wealthy athletes look for in a city that they spend half the season in, but Portland isn't THAT boring, is it? For a long time I was convinced it was the market size keeping stars away from Portland, but in 2017 with social media and global streaming the way it is, I'm not really buying that anymore.

Dave, why do star athletes avoid Portland?

-Brent in Portland

Some of the explanations you’ve cited provide partial explanation. Portland is the farthest-flung team in the league, geographically. Although the Pacific Northwest is beautiful, it rains most of basketball season. Oregon lacks the beaches and nightlife of other “geographical corner” teams in Florida or L.A., the major metropolitan areas and mystique of Boston and New York. Publicity is harder to come by here, although that’s changing with the democratization of media coverage. Some cite income tax as a deterrent as well.

But all these pale in comparison to the simplest, most overwhelming reason: what do the Blazers have to offer that nobody else does?

Think on that for a minute. If you can’t come up with a clear, objective, persistent answer, you don’t have an argument for any free agent to choose Portland over another destination.

Lack of distinctiveness is hard for a fan base to perceive or admit. They’ve grown up with a single franchise at the center of the universe. Everything about the franchise gets magnified tenfold, eclipsing all but the biggest moves around the rest of the league. In today’s environment, we’re subject to massive doses of salesmanship, not just from front offices but from the media who want to stay tight with them. Until the bitter, obvious end, only the best sides (and best potential outcomes) of decisions will be portrayed. We live in an echo chamber of, “You matter! You’re the best! This is the move!”

A professional athlete looking for an employer uses a different set of criteria. Looking on the bright side of everything won’t cut it. You’ve got to be THE best at something in order to make a credible case for them to join your team instead of anybody else’s. Not potentially good, not aiming at the top three maybe...the best.

The Blazers have been many things over the years, but they’ve not had many unbreakable arguments that they are superior to any other destination out there. They’ve stood among a large group of indistinct franchises, hoping to sign free agents to give them identity rather than ready to give identity to free agents. Since that’s the case, there’s no case for complaining when those free agents ended up signing elsewhere.

Obviously Memphis and Toronto weren’t “the best” either when Turkoglu and Parsons opted for them over Portland. That’s what happens when you’re in the middle, though. If you aren’t a premium destination for a free agent you end up in a melting pot of half a dozen, subject to the vagaries of climate, geographical bias, population density, spousal preferences, BBQ, or whatever. It’s not that you can’t sign free agents from the middle—Portland has signed several—but at best you end up with a 1 in 6 chance. At worst, you don’t even get an audience with your target.

What’s happening to Portland isn’t unusual or unexpected. If they want that to change, they either need distinguished production (hint: 41-41 isn’t distinctive) or an iron-clad, quickly-executed game plan to boost the roster the way we’re seeing Houston trying this season. It can be done, Portland just hasn’t managed it yet.

Thanks for the questions. Keep them rolling to!

—Dave / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard