With the passing of Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, the franchise is forced to chart a new course. The 2018-19 regular season will start with ownership in limbo, preparations for sale imminent. That’s bringing up a lot of questions for Trail Blazers fans, many of which are populating my inbox. Queries cover fears about the team moving, executive changes, player loyalty, and roster adjustments. We’ll try to address the most common topics in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. If you submitted a question in the last 48 hours, hopefully it’s covered here.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. I don’t believe the Blazers are in any danger of moving. Nobody I’ve talked to has expressed much concern over the possibility. Despite falling off the cap bandwagon lately, the team has proven it can stay in the black in Portland. The fan base is strong and supportive. The arena isn’t new, but it’s serviceable. The NBA still gets flack for the Seattle Supersonics relocating. I doubt they lose sleep over it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be quick to repeat it. They’ll prefer owners dedicated to the local community, with proximity to Portland a bonus.
Whether the principals and the league can find local owners remains to be seen. The kind of money needed to purchase a professional sports franchise nowadays doesn’t grow on forests. Huge alliances between multiple owner-partners are sub-optimal. Acquisition by a small group outside the area seems the most likely eventuality. That will probably come with assurances that keeping the team in Portland is a priority.
(P.S. Where are they going to move that’s better? Seattle still doesn’t have an arena, though that could become a bargaining chip in the inevitable “we need to upgrade facilities” stage of new ownership. Las Vegas has little local culture and is problematic for other reasons. That leaves Kansas City or becoming the third team in one of the two huge markets. Neither seem as attractive as Portland.)
Even if location stays stable, the franchise course will change. That’s inevitable with new leadership. Some shifts will occur even before a buyer becomes known. Anyone who’s ever moved houses can tell you that there’s a difference between living in a home and getting it ready to sell. You spruce up the weird spots, shore up the foundation, and put the best face forward even if that means telling your kids, “Do not touch ANYTHING in your bedroom for the next six months!”
Vulcan, Inc. and whoever represents Jody Allen will be looking to entice buyers and maximize price on the sale. Running in the black helps. The Blazers already signaled that they aren’t going to plunge headlong into tax territory and will leave themselves “outs” even when they cross the border. Don’t expect spending to accelerate now. Inaction may become the new action. This could affect the future of guys with short-term contracts like Al-Farouq Aminu and Seth Curry. If the Blazers do make moves, they’ll have to pass the examination of Vulcan executives and they’ll likely be to dump, not add, salary.
I don’t imagine the team will be looking to trade away future assets until new owners come on board either. They’re not in fantastic position: out of championship contention, talent cupboard stocked a little thin, no high lottery picks in their future. Trading away the draft picks they do have for a veteran that they’ll end up paying, but who still won’t make them elite, would make the optics even worse. “Here are the keys to your brand new franchise! You’re capped up extra now, you still don’t have a high-profile roster, and you won’t be making a meaningful draft pick until at least 2020. Enjoy!”
The good news is, fans who like the current team will get to enjoy it, largely unadulterated. Trading CJ McCollum (or, God forbid, Damian Lillard) would present a huge risk without knowing the new owners’ priorities. Your favorite players may not be safe long-term; new ownership will probably precipitate a significant rebuild. For now, though, Portland’s high-profile and inexpensive players are probably secure. Watch out for guys in the middle ground though.
In the end, we have to admit that this is mostly the same course the team has been following since they inked the big contracts in 2016. They didn’t make major signings the last two summers, getting away with relatively inexpensive reserve point guards and a wing or two. Re-upping Jusuf Nurkic was their biggest move, and that was kind of a no-brainer. Wherever they were already headed this year, they’re still headed. No worries there.
The long game will look different than it did, but even the current regime wasn’t going to hold course forever. Big changes were afoot by 2021 no matter what. We didn’t know what Paul Allen, Damian Lillard, and Neil Olshey had in mind past that point, nor do we know how new owners will influence decisions.
Portland’s certainties remain fairly certain. Their unknowns remain unknown. That’ll change at some point, but probably not soon. Until then, we wait and watch...which was pretty much what this season was about for the Blazers anyway.
The Mailbag will be picking up with the start of the season, so get your questions in to firstname.lastname@example.org!