The Portland Trail Blazers face multiple issues heading into the 2018-19 NBA regular season, including the viability of the Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum backcourt, the impending free agency of Al-Farouq Aminu, salary cap concerns, and the struggle to stay afloat in the race for the 2019 NBA Playoffs in an improved Western Conference. Blazer’s Edge reader Daryl sent in a half-dozen Mailbag questions covering all these topics and more. Last week we addressed the likelihood of Lillard remaining a Trail Blazer for life, his first topic. Today we tackle the other five.
Here’s Daryl’s submission:
Greetings brother Dave,
Here’s a six-pack of questions. Please give me a percentage you think of the likelihood and a short explanation.
Thank you, Daryl
CJ finishes contract in Portland?
In a rational world, the chances would be small. The Blazers need to make a move, either to get better dramatically or dramatically rebuild. McCollum’s mobility lies near the center of both options.
Several factors color the picture.
McCollum is a tent-pole player of the Neil Olshey era. Drafting him is one of a handful of shining moves upon which management’s reputation hangs. As long as he’s scoring big and looks good—easy predictions, since he’s legitimately talented—moving him is not in the cards.
Over the last few years, the Blazers have been indecisive in these matters. Choosing between rebuilding, retooling, or staying the course, they’ve opted to remain on the straight path until they hit the meridian. Staring at the reality of trading McCollum in 2019 or losing him for nothing in 2020, traditionally they’d opt for the latter, hoping beyond hope that they can keep him while ceding all decision-making power to his camp.
Factor in Damian Lillard’s apparent fondness for McCollum, and he’s probably staying. Or at least that’s the call you have to make with the data available in 2018.
Portland makes a significant roster move between now and trade deadline?
The answer depends on the definition of “significant”. Assuming that means, “Something that will make a marked, positive difference”, I’m going to say the chances are small.
Unless they’re insane, the Blazers would love to move one of their problematic contracts, but it’s hard to see anyone taking on two years of obligation. Perhaps at the trade deadline that might work, but even with a draft pick attached, what will those contracts buy? I’m betting there’s a tacit understanding that they won’t take on more salary, which makes trading younger players difficult, and they don’t seem interested in discussing Lillard or McCollum moves. With stars and rookie-contract players out of the equation and middle-ground players unmovable, who’s left to bargain with?
Aminu is on roster next year?
It’s not looking great right now. If the Blazers come out gangbusters or if decision paralysis hits them, he will make it to the end of the season. If they can trade away a bigger contract instead of Aminu, the point is moot. Otherwise they have to consider three issues.
1. They could save tax penalties and perhaps garner a future asset by moving him at the trade deadline.
2. Aminu is a key part of the current core, but the clock is ticking. Zach Collins can play the four and they hope he’ll blossom. Aminu’s vaunted defense and three-point-shooting improvement haven’t brought the Blazers playoffs success. If they’re looking to make changes in 2019, the obvious target is the guy whose contract just expired, for whom you already have a positional replacement, whose contributions were important, but not conclusive.
3. Many folks hope Portland can improve by utilizing cap space in the Summer of 2020, when their non-star, big contracts come off the books. “You don’t win friends with salad” may be the greatest truism ever spoken, but, “You can’t have Chief and Cap Space” is up there. The Blazers already have $91.6 million in salary committed to 7 players (and a pair of stretched contracts) in 2020. Two mid-level, first-round draft picks in the interim will push that total to $96.5 million. Cap holds or minimum-level players will send the Blazers over the $100 million mark. All of that happens without Aminu on the books. If they re-sign Aminu next summer at $9-10 million per year, they’ll have roughly the amount of a mid-level exception to offer a new free agent in 2020 before they hit the cap. That’s it: not a max-level contract... not a good contract... about the same amount of money that capped-up teams will have to offer.
The only way re-signing Aminu makes sense is if the Blazers believe that the current core—plus a couple draft picks and one modest free agent—will be enough to take them into contention, winning enough to convince the starting guards to re-sign with the team. That’s a stretch.
Olshey is the GM next year?
Why not? He’s made it this far.
It’s becoming clear to most that, barring a miracle, Olshey’s plan isn’t going to carry Portland to the promised land and the ride will be expensive regardless. Normally that’s a disastrous recipe for GM’s. That said, nothing outside of trading the starting guards will change the franchise’s arc right now. They’re not good enough, their supporting cast isn’t developing enough, they don’t have cap space or assets to improve. A new GM can’t change that reality any more than Olshey can.
Olshey is under contract until 2021, firing and replacing him would cost Portland more money on top of what they’re already spending. (They’d pay the remainder of Olshey’s deal plus that of the new chief exec.) Spending extra salary just to remain in the same position wouldn’t be prudent. They might do it if they get frustrated enough, but I think it’s more likely that they’d limit further expenditures, then ride out the string...at minimum until the last year of Olshey’s contract hits, maybe through the whole thing.
If Olshey is dismissed early, I suspect it’ll be because the Blazers see the writing on the wall with Lillard and McCollum and want to move them in 2020 before they leave anyway in 2021. Olshey wouldn’t be happy about dismantling the team he built. The Blazers wouldn’t have confidence in him to start the rebuild. With incoming players probably making less than Lillard and McCollum (because who doesn’t?) and extra money in the bank, eating the last year of Olshey’s contract might not seem so onerous.
Blazers make playoffs?
Oh geez. That’s the tough one. 50-50? If they stay healthy, they’ve still got a good shot. I don’t expect them to finish third again, but hey...who knows?
Thanks for the extended question, Daryl! Everyone is welcome to send a Mailbag question to email@example.com if you wish!