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Clocking the Trail Blazers in Free Agent Transition

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Portland picked up a couple of names and a couple of role players. How does that compare to what they lost?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers made a flurry of moves at the outset of NBA Free Agency, 2019. Half of their familiar roster is gone; new names and young players will take their place. As the dust settles, let’s look at the transition, gauging the players the Blazers gave up against those they obtained.

What the Blazers Gave Up

Here are the players the Blazers traded or did not re-sign, as well as their rank on the roster by minutes per game and overall minutes:

Al-Farouq Aminu (3/3)

Maurice Harkless (6/6)

Enes Kanter (7/ -n/a)

Evan Turner (8/5)

Seth Curry (9/7)

Meyers Leonard (13/10)

The Blazers lost one starter and four of the top five players in their bench rotation. The jump looks like this:

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood

[insert gap here]

Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Gary Trent

The Blazers will need new acquisitions and incumbent youngsters to fill the space between Hood and Layman, plus compensate for Nurkic’s absence.

Here are basic stats for the departed players:

  • The hallmarks of this crew were strong overall field goal shooting and the ability to eat minutes.
  • Aminu and Kanter were good rebounders as well.
  • Curry and Leonard hit three-point shots.
  • Kanter was the only strong scorer in the group. His 13.1 points per game translated to 21.2 points per 36 minutes, clearly the best of this bunch. The Blazers gave up percentage shooting, but not much individual scoring.
  • PER is standardized so the average NBA player rates 15.0. Of the six departing Portland players, only Leonard and Kanter exceeded that mark last season.

*PER is a “cocktail” stat developed by John Hollinger, an attempt to rate players against each other using multiple boxscore numbers. It requires a grain of salt. It notoriously favors big men over smalls because of high field goal percentage and rebounding. It can be useful for ranking players of the same position against each other based on overall productivity. It also gives you an idea where non-center players rank in the overall NBA pantheon.

Defense is harder to quantify. Aminu stood among Portland’s best defenders, with Turner and Harkless firmly ensconced in the top six. Whether that amounts to good defense depends on the criteria. “Good for Portland” did not always equal great. It’s safe to say that whatever defense the Blazers did display—good, bad, or indifferent—they lost major parts of this summer.

The players Portland gave up were not among the NBA elite. That much is clear. They did serve roles in Portland, however. These players weren’t the spearhead of Portland’s attack, but they had become steady enough contributors on both ends of the court to sustain the stars around them.

That said, moving them was perfectly reasonable. Of the six, only Leonard and Curry had much ceiling remaining, and that was speculative.

The operative question wasn’t whether the Blazers could be good with this lineup. They had shown that. They needed to be better. Reading those names, that just wasn’t in the cards. Portland will miss the reliable shooting, role-filling, and whatever version of defense this cast brought. That doesn’t mean any of these players had a long future with the team.

What the Blazers Gained

Here are the players the Blazers picked up, along with their position in the rotation of their prior teams by minutes per game and total minutes.

Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks, 6/5)

Hassan Whiteside (Miami Heat, 9/6)

Anthony Tolliver (Minnesota Timberwolves, 14/8)

Mario Hezonja (New York Knicks, 14/8)

Not only have the Blazers replaced six players with four so far—with room for only minimum contract signings after this—those players did not have the aggregate importance to their teams that the departing players had for the Blazers. Bazemore and Whiteside played significant roles for the Hawks and Heat. The others did not.

This indicates two things:

  1. The Blazers acquired these players for specific skills and/or to consolidate talent, not as catch-all replacements.
  2. Portland will rely on their younger players to fill minutes and produce more. If the roster remains the same, internal development has to be a major component for the Blazers this year, otherwise they’re going to be nowhere near deep and resilient enough.

Here’s the stat table for the incoming four:

  • Bazemore and Whiteside produced more points than any of the departing Portland players except Kanter.
  • Rebounding is concentrated in Whiteside. Again, the mantra here is fewer players, more talent.
  • Field goal percentage takes a major drop with this group. Whiteside looks good; nobody else does. The Blazers will bank on Terry Stotts’ offense making them better. Otherwise they have lost one of the major steadying components that made their bench work last season.
  • The bigger surprise is the disdain for three-point shooting. The Blazers lost two players who shot 45% from distance last season. They didn’t come close to replacing them. No remaining Trail Blazers player shot better than Tolliver’s 37.7% beyond the arc last year.
  • Bazemore’s 32% clip was significantly lower than Aminu’s. What’s more, Bazemore has topped 37% only once in his seven-year career.
  • PER looks like a wash between incoming and outgoing players, with the smaller players ranking below average and the center looking great.

The Blazers might be able to claim defensive improvement with the transition, but only if Whiteside turns out to be excellent on that end. If he’s allowed to patrol the paint, he should get plenty of shot-blocking attempts, perhaps bringing intimidation into Portland’s defensive repertoire. This could dovetail nicely with Zach Collins and his ball-swatting instincts. Or Whiteside and Collins could turn Portland’s big-man rotation into a foul-covered mess. Who knows?

Either way, it looks like the Whiteside/Collins model will replace the Nurkic/Kanter archetype, at least while Nurkic’s recovery continues. How the Blazers adjust at the beginning of the season, then re-adjust when Nurkic returns, could be one of the big storylines of the season.

Summation

Having recognizable names join the roster is exciting. Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore have the potential to impact the team individually more than any of the outgoing players except Enes Kanter. At this point, though, it remains just that: potential.

Not automatic...

The Blazers are facing more questions than they had with their familiar lineup. Adjusting to a different type of center play, re-integrating Nurkic, and fielding a credible three-point attack lead the list. Portland’s high-efficiency offense may not be as highly efficient. We don’t know whether their ancillary scorers will be able to keep pressure off of Lillard and McCollum. We don’t know whether their defense improved. We know that they’re not as deep with veterans. Plus—elephant in the room—Bazemore, Whiteside, and Rodney Hood are on one-year contracts, but Nurkic won’t play the full season. Opportunity could disappear as quickly as it arrived, perhaps without a decent trial, even.

But still hopeful...

We do know that Portland has more wiggle room in the ceiling than they had prior. Even with a relatively messy forward situation, they should have a stronger Top 6 even if they end up with a weaker Top 10. Plus they’ve created opportunities for their recent draftees—Collins, Simons, Gary Trent, and Nassir Little—to step up.

Ultimately the right move...

The Blazers did what they needed to do, trading in a good-but-non-winning hand for the shot at something bigger. It’s the kind of higher-risk, higher-reward play they’ve needed for a while now.

Just as significantly, they made these moves without changing the financial destiny of the team. They did not take on long-term contracts. Give or take consolidating two players into Whiteside’s salary, they retained flexibility to trade players at the deadline. They didn’t overpay for middling acquisitions. Given the constraints they were operating under, they did well here.

The idea that the Blazers automatically vaulted themselves into contention with these moves is overblown. These moves give them a new chance. That may be all you can claim, but it’s also all you can ask.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com