If the Portland Trail Blazers could keep just one of their incumbent free agents, who would it be? It’s not clear what the team’s payroll budget is going to be going into next season. After spending the season in the luxury tax, it would be hard to begrudge Jody Allen for wanting to reset the repeater tax stopwatch a bit, particularly with Damian Lillard’s expected supermax extension kicking in for the 2021-22 season. Add in the fact that it’s not clear whether Allen will continue to own the team long-term, and cutting costs would be a great way to increase the value of the franchise in a potential sale, even though there’s been very little public word about it in the last four months.
In the hypothetical situation in which Allen wants to keep the Trail Blazers’ payroll under the tax, or at least as low as possible, there’s a chance president of basketball operations Neil Olshey will have to choose just one of the five incumbent free agents who will hit the open market after last year’s Conference Finals appearance. Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Jake Layman, and Enes Kanter are all out of contract as of July 1 and with the Trail Blazers less than $4.4 million from the luxury tax line (including their draft pick at No. 25 overall), there may be a financial crunch impeding them from getting the band back together.
Aminu is the best player of this quintet and should command the largest salary in free agency. His 3-and-D capabilities from the power forward position make him the only starter-level player the Trail Blazers may lose in free agency this offseason, even though his three-point shooting dried up a bit in the playoffs and he wasn’t enough of a threat to keep smart defenses from helping off him constantly. Aminu is a perfect encapsulation of a very-good-but-not-quite-good-enough power forward; he’s a fine offensive option in the regular season and the early part of the playoffs without enough firepower to be immensely useful on that end of the floor in the later rounds of the postseason. His defense is very good, but once again isn’t necessarily so great that it makes up for a lot of his offensive woes, which is why he didn’t play a single minute in the fourth quarter or overtime against the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Finals. At the highest levels of play, Aminu’s just not quite good enough for what the Trail Blazers need from that spot.
Hood was a huge part of the Trail Blazers’ playoff run after a really strong series against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, though Portland’s limited financial flexibility with respect to his contract will make it difficult for them to bring him back. After joining the team in a midseason trade, he had to forgo his Bird rights and now the Trail Blazers can only spend up to 120 percent of his previous salary to bring him back, unless they want to break into a larger exception. His inconsistencies as a scorer, particularly at the game’s highest levels, make him a tough fit in a larger role, but there aren’t many teams who have awesome players at every spot in their playoff rotations. His best skill, the ability to make tough shots, is a necessary playoff attribute, even if those shots aren’t necessarily the prettiest or most efficient on the grander scale.
Curry’s skillset makes him the most scalable of the Portland free agents. His high-level three-point shooting makes him a threat on every offensive possession and he brought it as well as any Trail Blazers defender in the Golden State series. Whether that level of defense was something he can replicate on a night-in, night-out basis remains to be seen, but given how well he harassed older brother Steph throughout that series bodes well for his utility as a playoff player for Portland or another team who signs him in free agency this summer.
Layman played precious few minutes for the Trail Blazers in the playoffs, essentially finding himself called upon solely in garbage time. He should be a restricted free agent this summer, but the nature of the business is such that he won’t be a priority for Portland to bring back. A useful regular season player for depth purposes, Layman’s free agency may be somewhat protracted in July, but he’s absolutely an NBA-level player despite not necessarily being a playoff-level player at this point.
Kanter had a revelatory playoff run through two rounds, but once the Trail Blazers came up against the Warriors in the Conference Finals, his defensive warts came to the forefront and he was unable to really contribute to Portland’s cause. He’s a fine backup center who has some significant strengths and weaknesses, but like Layman, he shouldn’t be any team’s priority when the calendar turns over to July.
As the Trail Blazers make their attempt to move from mid-tier Western Conference team to a true title contender, it’s important for them to use their limited financial flexibility to fill their roster with players who can help them at the highest levels. If it comes to be that Olshey and his front office can only bring back one of their five incumbent free agents, Curry is the best bet to be the guy who can help them reach their lofty goals as a third guard that can hit shots and defend the point guard position. None of these five free agents are totally devoid of weaknesses, but Curry’s are most manageable and he brings enough as a shooter and defender at the point guard spot to make him a priority for the Trail Blazers this summer.