The Trail Blazers are the top team in the Western Conference 16 games into the season.
That’s something Blazers fans have only been able to say twice since 2001. The 2018-19 season has unexpectedly transformed from a transition year aimed at developing young talent to a “wait a second...what if we try to win NOW?!” campaign.
Suddenly General Manager Neil Olshey has found himself in an unexpected position — tweaking a successful roster to help put it over the top and into the conference finals.
Enter the Washington Wizards.
I won’t waste time reviewing everything that’s gone wrong in Washington, but suffice to say there’s a fire sale coming.
Story on ESPN: Wizards signaling a willingness to consider trade overtures on entire roster, including All-Star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. https://t.co/LM7PiQvweB— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 19, 2018
The Wizards roster, despite the lack of chemistry and wins, is not short on talent. There are several useful players the Blazers could theoretically vulture away to help improve playoff chances. There’s one trade target that stands out: Bradley Beal. FINALLY, an opportunity emerges to get equal value back for CJ McCo...
(Editor’s note: Yeah, we’re not going there. Timmay’s job moderating comments is hard enough already. Beal’s not going anywhere unless CJ is involved and that’s a non-starter for Olshey.)
Otto Porter: Could he put the Blazers over the top?
But, seriously, Otto Porter is the players the Blazers need.
Despite the hot start, the Blazers roster has some lingering issues. Head coach Terry Stotts is starting Jake Layman at small forward — Maurice Harkless might eventually fill that role, but he’s never been a reliable rotation player for a full 82 game season.
The 3-point shooting could also be shored up:
Blazers not named Damian on 3-pointers last year: 36.81%— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) November 20, 2018
Blazers not named Damian on 3-pointers this year: 36.76%
The Blazers are shooting more 3s, but they're not making them at a higher clip, despite the narrative that improved outside shooting has sparked the offense.
Put these two issues together and I’m seeing a fourth consecutive year of Al-Farouq Aminu reliably hitting 3-pointers being one of the biggest factors determining playoff success. Problem is that Aminu’s not perceived as a threat and no team is going to bend their defense to guard this guy:
That becomes an increasingly large problem in the playoffs when starters receive even more playing time than during the regular season — even in last year’s blowout series the Blazers’ starters played 10 percent more minutes than during the regular season.
If the Blazers can find a legitimate starting small forward to replace Layman, and that player can also cash-inmore effectively than Aminu when defenses sell out to stop Lillard in the postseason, they should absolutely take him. Otto Porter fits that bill.
A career 40.2 percent 3-point shooter, Porter has also shown a propensity to score on drives from the perimeter when defenses close out too aggressively. Last season he thrived playing off John Wall and Beal, averaging 14.7 points per game, suggesting he could adapt easily to Portland’s system.
“Like I said last year many, many times, I didn’t know he was a great shooter,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks told CBS last year. “I thought he was a slasher, offensive rebounder-type of scorer, but he can flat out shoot the ball. It’s all over the 3-point line, it’s not just in the corners.”
On the other side of the ball, Porter has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and has proven himself to be a competent defender and has often guarded All-star small forwards like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. His length and versatility would fit well with the switchier defense Portland has used this season, allowing Stotts to pair Porter with any combination of Aminu, Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic, or Zach Collins in the frontcourt. His individual defensive stats don’t jump out, but the Wizards’ defensive rating was three points better with him on the court last season. Possibly an effect of playing against elite opponents. For a full breakdown of his defense definitely check out the CBS article linked above.
What’s the catch?
On the court Porter might be the exact player Portland needs, but his salary could be a catch. Porter has a max deal and is owed $81.5 million over the next three seasons. The last year is a player option, but it’s unclear if he would opt out or not.
Any trade for Porter would likely revolve around Harkless and Meyers Leonard, for salary purposes, with a draft pick and young prospect (Anfernee Simons?) thrown in. Such a trade would help the Wizards get out from under some salary obligation while also giving them a couple lottery tickets in the future. For the Blazers, it’d be an all-in win-now move.
One catch: All signs indicate the Blazers are hoping to be free agent players in 2020. Taking on Porter may eliminate that possibility. In a vacuum, it’s unlikely the Blazers would lure a better player than Porter anyway, so the trade would be a de facto proxy for the 2020 free agency period.
But Paul Allen’s death put the team’s ownership reportedly in transition, and it’s unclear whether the powers that be value a win-now move more than a clean cap sheet that could attract potential buyers. Acquiring Porter would also almost certainly increase the team’s luxury tax bill, something that the Vulcans may wish to avoid if staying in the black is more important than winning basketball games.
Again, in a vacuum, making a win-now trade for Porter makes all the sense in the world for the Blazers, but there’s no way to know what priorities management will choose.
Olshey’s chance for redemption?
The last time Olshey was in this position he floundered during the 2014 offseason, signing Steve freaking Blake and Chris Kaman to reinforce a weak bench — the duo played a combined 74 games after the Blazers’ failed season.
Olshey redeemed himself with a legitimate swing-for-the-fences trade for Arron Afflalo in February 2015 and the team responded by beating up on playoff contenders for several games, before a Wes Matthews Achilles injury torpedoed the season. Fans, unfortunately, never got to see Olshey’s vision coalesce and now kill time bemoaning the loss of the people’s champ.
The question now is whether or not Olshey and the Blazers will take a similar homerun swing and try to contend immediately in an unexpectedly vulnerable western conference. If they do, Porter is exactly the player they need.