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Do the Portland Trail Blazers Actually Struggle to Sign Free Agents?

The Blazers struggle to attract free agents. Or so the story goes...

Portland Trail Blazers v Houston Rockets - Game One Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers struggle to sign free agents. The city is too boring, the weather is too dull, and the population too white to appeal to the modern NBA player.

Or so the logic goes.

And if we take a moment to examine the team’s top free agent signings of the last 25 years, it does seem like the Blazers struggle. Here’s the list (note that compiled the lists I’m using in this article):

  • Rod Strickland 1992
  • Kenny Anderson 1996
  • Brian Grant 1997
  • Greg Anthony 1999
  • Ruben Patterson 2001
  • Joel Przybilla 2004
  • Steve Blake 2005
  • Andre Miller 2009
  • Wes Matthews 2010
  • Jamal Crawford 2011
  • Al-Farouq Aminu 2015
  • Evan Turner 2016

But contrary to rhetoric, this list is actually reasonably impressive. Anderson was coming off an All-Star season when he signed with the Blazers and several players — Strickland, Grant, Matthews, Miller — were all bona fide starters, if not fringe All-Star candidates. Even the lowest regarded player, probably Blake, spent time as a starter for a 54-win team in Portland.

Compare that to the Toronto Raptors:

  • Tracy Murray 1995
  • Walt Williams 1996
  • Rafer Alston 2003
  • Jose Calderon 2005
  • Anthony Parker 2006
  • Jamario Moon 2007
  • Hedo Turkoglu 2009
  • Jarrett Jack 2009
  • James Johnson 2014
  • Bismack Biyombo 2015

A couple of those players — Murray and Jack — were literally Blazers castoffs. None of them, with the exception of Turkoglu, even enter the “fringe All-Star” discussion.

The Indiana Pacers, while slightly more impressive than the Raptors, still have few significant free agent successes in their history:

  • Byron Scott 1993
  • Sam Perkins 1999
  • Anthony Johnson 2003
  • Stephen Jackson 2004
  • David West 2011
  • CJ Watson 2013
  • Rodney Stuckey 2014
  • CJ Miles 2014
  • Monta Ellis 2015
  • Al Jefferson 2016

West was the only bona fide All-Star candidate the Pacers attracted in his prime. Beyond that their signings have ranged from unimpressive (Watson) to serviceable role players (Scott and Perkins).

Several big city teams haven’t fared much better. The Clippers peaked by luring Baron Davis in 2008 and J.J. Redick in 2013, but those two don’t really surpass Portland’s history of Anderson, Miller, and Matthews. In fact, the Clippers’ third most relevant signing in recent history, Jamal Crawford, originally chose to play in Portland!

The Lakers have been even less impressive than their intra-arena rivals, with Metta World Peace and Lou Williams as their only major signings since they picked up over-the-hill Karl Malone and Gary Payton in 2003.

Even the Boston Celtics, who have snagged Gordon Hayward and Al Horford the last two summers, struggled for 20 years to attract impact fee agents:

  • Dominique Wilkins 1994
  • David Wesley 1994
  • Dana Barros 1995
  • Mark Blount 2000
  • Eddie House 2007
  • James Posey 2007
  • Shaquille O'Neal 2010
  • Evan Turner 2014
  • Amir Johnson 2015
  • Al Horford 2016
  • Gordon Hayward 2017

Several solid role players are on the list, but, overall, the Celtics made few notable signings from 1994 to 2016.

So, why, exactly do the Blazers have such a poor reputation for attracting free agents?

No Stars In Recent Memory

Fifteen teams have signed an All-Star caliber player since 2002. The Blazers are not one of those teams. That seems to have unfairly biased observers into believing the team cannot attract quality players, despite a history of signing decent role players.

In reality, half the teams in the NBA have failed to sign All-Stars, and several that have do not otherwise have sterling free agent histories. The Pistons, Wizards, Jazz, and Suns all signed one All-Star in the early years of the millennium, but have not had overwhelming success since then.

In failing to sign an All-Star, the Blazers have been more the rule than the exception.

Lack of Cap Space and/or Talent

Evan Turner signed with the Blazers because of money. Greg Monroe did not sign with the Blazers for basketball reasons. It’s reasonable to assume that money and chance for on-court success are two major motivating factors for many players around the league.

Unfortunately for Portland, the Blazers have rarely been able to offer both. On the rare occasions that they did have a playoff team and the means to sign an impact player they have managed to pick up Miller, Matthews, and Crawford. Hardly a shoddy track record.

Bad Timing

Many will point to last July’s disastrous signing of Turner and failure to attract a bigger name player as evidence that the Blazers are not players on the market. That summer, however, was an extreme case — nearly every team had cap space for the first time in league history and the Blazers were in the middle of a retooling.

As Dave outlined earlier this summer, the Blazers will have difficulty competing in a true open market for free agents, like the one we saw in 2016. But the cap explosion that created the de facto open market will not be repeated in the near future.

Certainly factors other than cap space and on-court potential will matter to free agents (Hedo Turkoglu’s wife says “hi”), but the Blazers and other franchise’s lacking distinctive appeal have overcome those concerns in the past. Last summer should not be taken as a reason to give up on free agency for cities like Portland.

One Big Name Lost Player

LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to leave still hangs heavily over the team and creates the illusion that the Blazers struggle with free agents. In reality, Aldridge is the only big name player the team has ever lost. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Brandon Roy, Zach Randolph, Rasheed Wallace and many lesser players have all re-upped in Portland. Aldridge himself even signed a max extension at one point!

Bottom Line

The Blazers have had several big name failures in free agency — Whiteside and Turkoglu jump to mind — but those failures are not indications that the franchise struggles to attract players. Rather, they are just one of many teams that has not signed an All-Star in recent history, but has landed impact role players.