As the Portland Trail Blazers recently trudged through games without leader Damian Lillard, it became clear that they were lacking in roster weapons. CJ McCollum is Portland’s clear No. 2 guy, but defenses have frustrated him. Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic range from great to ghastly. Well-paid guys like Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless have packed little punch.
Lack of consistency among mainline players in a struggling offense has led head coach Terry Stotts to look rely on unusual contributors. Shabazz Napier has grown into the darling of Rip City with his steady hand and shot-making ability. Pat Connaughton evolved from camping out on the bench to one of Portland’s few shooting threats. Ed Davis rebounded from a lost season with his signature energy. Noah Vonleh provides double-digit rebounds.
Though the mix in Portland is odd, each of these mostly-minor players has a certain skill, attribute, or trait teams vying to make noise in the playoffs could use. All will become free agents this offseason, all but Davis restricted. Given their current contract status and Portland’s course for another first-round exit, Napier, Davis, Connaughton, and Vonleh all make potential targets during the upcoming NBA trade season.
Let’s assume for now that the market for these relatively-minor players would be populated with contending teams looking to add a cheap reserve with a given skill. Here are the destinations that would be most intriguing for each.
Desirable because: Leads second unit with ease, provides a spark off the bench, steps up in the clutch
Team(s) that should be interested: Cleveland Cavaliers
Top teams in the Eastern Conference are seemingly set at the point guard position—except for the Cavs. Boston (Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier), Washington (John Wall, Tim Frazier, Sheldon Mack), and Toronto (Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet) all have established point guard rotations. Cleveland has asked LeBron James to run point by default with Kyrie Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas out for most of the season. (Note: Thomas returned Tuesday night against the Blazers.)
Cleveland boasts experienced point guards in 36-year-old Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose, but Rose took a break from basketball mid-season and contemplated leaving the sport. Napier would slot in right behind Thomas, just like he does with Lillard, and provide a spark off the bench. He can hold down a second unit while the starters sit. Napier also has history with LeBron, who was complimentary of the former, and a reunion would mean Napier has a shot at a title, something he was robbed of when James left just as he arrived in Miami.
Desirable because: Brings the energy every night, veteran presence, tenacious worker
Two of the NBA’s heaviest hitters could use a player like Ed Davis on their team. Golden State doesn’t lack in bigs, with vets like David West, JaVale McGee, and Zaza Pachulia, and rookie Jordan Bell, but there are rumors McGee is on the trading block. West (37) and Pachulia (33) are on the tail end of their careers, and McGee (30) is bound to lose his athleticism soon, while Bell will be a rookie in the NBA Finals. Davis would be in a sweet-spot age-wise with the core of Stephen Curry (29), Klay Thompson (27), Kevin Durant (29), and Draymond Green (27), opening up the chance to sign long-term and compete into his mid-30s.
San Antonio is currently getting an average of 20.7 minutes per night from Joffrey Lauvergne and Davis Bertans—wouldn’t 20+ minutes of Ed Davis be much more preferable? The Spurs are guard-heavy, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol as the only bigs in their top 12 rotation players (by minutes per game). Davis is the kind of player the Spurs squeeze every ounce out of. Davis would fit right in the middle of their mix of youth and age, while his energy would be appreciated backing up Gasol or Aldridge, two players not known for their scrappy play.
Desirable because: Youth, flashes of athleticism, rebounding fiend
Team(s) that should be interested: Boston Celtics
The Blazers haven’t been able to fully unleash Vonleh’s potential. It’s not dormant or feigned; performances like 11 points, 18 rebounds, and three blocks show what lies beneath. Putting Vonleh with coach Brad Stevens might be just what he needs to reach his ceiling.
A move here for Boston wouldn’t be to solidify their immediate contender status, but their future. He’d be able to learn under Al Horford and hone in on the shooting stroke he’s shown flashes of. Horford is 31 and bound for decline. Aron Baynes is next-highest center in terms of minutes per game, and he too is 31. Vonleh is only 22, and his athleticism projects him as a rim-running five. If he can put it all together, he’d make for a worthy successor to Horford. His pick-and-roll potential with Kyrie Irving is enticing.
Desirable because: Shooting, more shooting, good cutter
Team(s) that should be interested: Houston Rockets
What does the NBA’s best three-point shooting team need? MORE SHOOTING. Well, they don’t need it, but Pat Connaughton could provide it anyway. He has risen as a true shooting threat in Portland, yet remains hesitant to shoot rather than chuck it up instinctively like Lillard or McCollum. Houston leads the league in three-point attempts at 1,516 this season. That’s 43 per game. PER. GAME. Becoming a Rocket would double-down on Connaughton’s development, with an eye to making him one of the league’s premier shooters.
With the likes of James Harden and Chris Paul as dual threats to drive and distribute, defenders would be pulled from Connaughton, leading to more open looks. Connaughton would blend in and find his shots, instead of wondering where he fits in with the Blazers.
Hypothetical versus realistic
These trades are fun to think about, but the chances they happen are slim. The Blazers may want to offload these contracts for financial reasons, but they might prefer to keep these young players and develop internally—especially in the case of Vonleh, as the team has put a ton of time into him while trading off key contributor Nic Batum in the process.
Do you like these fits for Portland’s free agents? Is there another contender that might make more sense? Does Portland keep any of these four this summer?
Let us know in the comments.