My job at Blazer’s Edge is to be the “in-depth” analysis guy. That’s not easy task right now because the Trail Blazers personnel strategy right now is opaque, at best, and bifurcated, at worst.
At the best of times it’s tough to read through General Manager Neil Olshey’s dissembling — he often sells move in isolation, encouraging/demanding that observers inspect the merits of individual transactions primarily and the “big picture” direction secondarily.
For example, in isolation Allen Crabbe’s deal was justifiable (“can’t let an asset walk for nothing!”), Evan Turner’s deal was justifiable (“we had to use the money on someone!”), and Meyers Leonard’s deal was justifiable (“50/40/90, baby!”).
Then you look up and realize the Blazers just handed out a quarter billion dollars to four players that could MAYBE start for a contender. Maybe. Not great.
Seth Curry: 3-Point Savior
I feel the same way about the Seth Curry signing right now. In a vacuum, this is a solid signing. Olshey paid less than $3 million for a guy who is probably an upgrade over Shabazz Napier and can, mercifully, reliably hit a 3-pointer. His per possession stats are also spectacular:
Why the obsession with Seth Curry? Glad you asked. pic.twitter.com/0cDWlbE3cp— Duncan Smith (@DuncanSmithNBA) July 3, 2018
The downside is that Curry’s utility is somewhat limited, as a 6’2” guard it’s unlikely head coach Terry Stotts will be able to play him regularly with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, meaning that his floor spacing will not be implementable at all times. But for his salary this is a solid pickup and, in isolation, it’s hard to complain about this decision.
The big picture, however, makes the calculus of a Curry signing a bit hazier. Because he signed for more than the minimum contract the Blazers had to use about half of their taxpayer mid-level exception — the only asset they had to sign a new player.
To quantify it, the Blazers went into free agency with the following (ignoring Pat Connaughton and Nik Stauskas since those two are basically a wash):
- Shabazz Napier
- Ed Davis
- Full Taxpayer MLE
As of July 3 they have:
- Seth Curry
- Half a Taxpayer MLE
It’s hard to argue that latter scenario is improving the team. Curry may be an upgrade over Napier, but the expense of losing half the MLE, alone, is enough to question the swap since the Blazers have no other way to offer free agents money. Throw in the loss of Davis and, as of now, the team is clearly in a worse situation than it was on June 30.
What is the strategy?
Every move the Blazers have made over the last year has cut salary in the immediate future but did nothing to actually help the on-court product.
Trading Allen Crabbe and stretching Andrew Nicholson’s contract reduced salary. Stretching Festus Ezeli saved money. Trading Noah Vonleh for nothing saved money. Guaranteeing Jake Layman’s contract rather than giving Ed Davis $4.4 million reduced salary. Signing Curry rather than tendering a $3.5 million qualifying offer to Shabazz Napier and using the entire MLE on another position of need saves money. Even leaving a roster spot open while Wade Baldwin played in the D League last season saved money.
The Blazers haven’t made a roster move that both adds salary and is overtly aimed at improving the team immediately since signing Harkless and Leonard. That was forgivable, possibly, if Paul Allen is willing to invest in the team after sneaking under the tax.
Unfortunately, as of now, the team’s transactions during free agency have had a net effect of cutting salary without significantly improving the team. That’s alarming and may call into question the franchise’s motivation to do anything more than tread water until the infamous summer 2016 contracts finally expire.
Olshey still has time to use financial options to improve the on-court product and reverse the trend — it’s admittedly only July 3 — but his assets are slowly dwindling and the initial returns do not inspire confidence.
Ed Davis Note
A final note: Frustratingly, the Blazers did not even save money with maximum efficiency last season. Consider this scenario:
Hell, if staying under tax last year was goal, could've retained Nicholson, traded Ed for value at deadline, retained Vonleh & STILL under tax.— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) July 2, 2018
Hypothetical: Under tax, Nichol. off books quickly, Ed traded for pick.
Actual: Under tax, Nichol. on until 2024, Ed leave for nothing
Trading Davis would have hurt, certainly, but the Blazers were 29-25 at the time of the trade deadline and not a serious threat to make noise in the playoffs. If they intended to let Davis walk then not extracting value for him hurt the team in the long run heading into the season that they are supposedly stocking up on veteran talent to make a playoff run. To say nothing of the potential ramifications of stretching Nicholson’s deal until 2024.