Despite making relatively few moves, the Portland Trail Blazers made the news on Day 1 of NBA Free Agency, 2019. They extended an all-time great, said goodbye to a tenured starter, and convinced a key bench player to remain in the fold.
We’ll go in-depth on each of these moves in the coming days, but for now, here’s your Day 1 summation along with commentary on each transaction.
Many things have been, and will be, said about extending Damian Lillard to a four-year, $194 million deal. The most salient point: it was inevitable. Somebody was going to pay Lillard big. It might as well have been Portland.
The move is dramatic, with clear implications, but the ultimate effect is narrower than emotion would paint it. Here’s a handy list of effects (or lack thereof).
The supermax extension...
DOES confirm Lillard as the face of the franchise and an all-time great.
DOES show that the team will do whatever it can, as soon as it can, to reward and show appreciation for its leader.
DOES place Lillard firmly among the NBA elite.
DOES NOT have immediate salary cap ramifications. The extension doesn’t begin until 2021-22. Neither does its cap burden.
DOES NOT prevent the Blazers from entering the 2021 free agency market. Even with Lillard’s sky-high price tag, they’re only on the hook for $75 million or so in salary in the summer of 2021. (The story will change if they plan to keep CJ McCollum too.)
DOES NOT guarantee Lillard will be with the franchise for life. The extension opens the opportunity in the biggest and showiest possible, but the final decision about the matter still resides with Lillard. If he wants out someday, he certainly has the leverage. Dirk Nowitzki and Anthony Davis also had that leverage, with vastly different outcomes.
DOES NOT improve the team from last season.
The Blazers purchased goodwill and confirmed mutual respect between themselves and their best player. This was necessary and good...or rather, lacking same would have been bad. The benefit is important, but intangible.
The Al-Farouq Aminu free-agency question was answered abruptly, as the Orlando Magic offered him three years and $29 million and he took it. The contract averages $9.7 million per year; he averaged around $7.5 million in his four seasons in Portland. The raise was not substantial. The Bird-Rights-holding Blazers could have offered that amount.
Portland’s salary-cap situation likely factored in. Aminu’s salary would have incurred tax penalties, pushing them over the tax apron to boot. Evidence for the player and the team’s chances both need to be iron-clad for that to happen. Neither was.
Portland will miss Aminu’s defense. He wasn’t flashy, but he held his position against most opponents, providing at least one section of the floor where the Blazers didn’t have to look over their shoulders. He gets credit for improving his understanding of where and how to score during his Blazers tenure, plus working on his three-point shot.
In the end, though, the team ended up bumping the Aminu Ceiling. As long as he was hidden in the forest of regular-season games, opponents couldn’t target his weaknesses. As soon as they ventured onto the exposed plains of the playoffs, somebody was going to draw a bead on his offense. Aminu never ended up shooting, scoring, or even defending well enough to turn post-season games.
When Aminu was a bargain and Portland’s aspirations were modest, his contributions were good enough. When he started costing real money and the playoff expectations rose, the metric changed. Letting Aminu go was no doubt a tough move, but it was the right one for this point in time.
The news that Rodney Hood re-upped in Portland for a modest contract brought joy to Rip City. As well it should! He didn’t get the chance to show his entire offensive repertoire last season. His defense in the playoffs was several notches above advertised. He plays at a position of need, he’s a young veteran scorer...there’s nothing not to like about Hood playing for this franchise.
The caveats also matter. As with the Lillard contract, this does not, in itself, improve the team from last season. Because of Portland’s cap situation, Hood’s contract will eat up all of their usable free-agent space. They can ink players to minimum contracts and make trades, not much more. That means saying goodbye to Enes Kanter and Seth Curry.
Hood has a player option on Year 2 of his contract. If he plays modestly, the Blazers might be able to hold onto him until 2021. If he distinguishes himself, they’ll be up against it in 2020, either unable to re-sign him or having to sacrifice other potential free agents to keep him in the fold. The most sensible way to consider the signing right now is that the Blazers got Hood for another year on a trade-friendly deal, and we’ll see what happens after that.
Minimum salaries are the refuge of the thrifty and the damned. Hezonja is a 24-year-old forward...a good athlete with a hard-nosed attitude who is not a great three-point shooter. He’s a project, significant mostly because the Blazers need help at the forward spots and he comes cheap. He’ll have to prove he makes a difference before he’s credited with doing so.
Today the Blazers grabbed feel-good headlines with their superstar and didn’t lose all three of the bench players who turned them from good to special last season. They also lost their starting power forward and signed a minimum-salary replacement.
Hope/confidence in young players, combined with financial reality, explains Day 1 of Free Agency more than personnel moves do. Realistically, the Blazers lost more than they gained. If they’re going to reverse that impression, trades, not free agents, will be their salvation.
How do you think the day went? Was it good outright, good with all things considered, nor not good at all? Share your impressions in the comments.