With the 2019 offseason essentially complete, the Portland Trail Blazers’ front office can look forward to 2020 and beyond. There will be moves between now and then to strengthen the current roster, but the prospect of the team having cap space for the first time in a few years should hold the attention of the team as they move through the 2019-20 season. Depending on the player options for Rodney Hood and Mario Hezonja and where the Blazers’ draft pick falls, the team could open up as much as $19 million in cap space in 2020, enough to nab the starting-level wing they’ve been missing over much of the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum era.
As of now, Portland’s assumption has to be that Hood and Hezonja will both outplay their 2020-21 salaries and opt to hit free agency once again next year. Hood is slated to make $6.0 million, while Hezonja will have the option to play for less than $2.0 million on the second year of a minimum deal he signed this year.
However, Hood and Hezonja both hold decisions that are outside of the team’s control. Should both opt in, that would push the team down to about $12.5 million in cap space, though the lost cap space would be the least of their worries in that situation. Should Hood play poorly enough (or get hurt) in 2019-20 such that he opts to take the $6.0 million rather than hit the open market, that would mean far more to the Trail Blazers in each of the next two years than the lost cap space. Hezonja’s play and option decision isn’t nearly as impactful, both because he makes less money and isn’t as important to their rotation.
Assuming the year goes well enough for Hood to opt out, Portland has a very interesting summer ahead of them. They’ll go into July 2020 with eight players under contract: Lillard, McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Gary Trent Jr., and their 2020 first-round pick.
Should they go the cap space route, they’d have about $19 million to spend, plus another $5.1 million on the Room Exception once they’ve exhausted their available space. That should be enough for them to fill out their roster with a starting small forward and a handful of backups to fill the bench. Getting the right player at the 3 will be of utmost importance for them, as they’ve struggled to fill that spot in the past with a player who can produce on both ends of the floor.
While the 2020 free agent class is relatively weak compared to the star-driven classes we’ve seen over the last few years, the Blazers won’t be in the hunt for superstar talent anyway. There are several mid-tier wings and forwards on next year’s market who would be very strong additions for Portland, from unrestricted free agents Eric Gordon and Joe Harris to restricted guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jaylen Brown, and Taurean Prince.
Given where the team is in their success cycle and the ages of their stars at the top of the roster, Gordon is without a doubt the best fit for their group. He’s not necessarily as tall as they’d like for a true forward, but makes up for that with immense strength. On the defensive end of the floor, he holds up just fine against the biggest and best wings and forwards in the league. It also certainly helps matters that Kevin Durant has moved to the Eastern Conference, giving Western Conference teams more leeway in playing shorter small forwards deep in the playoffs. While LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard still lurk in the latter rounds of the postseason, those players’ games are more based around their strength (among other things) than Durant’s. While Durant can simply rise up and shoot over anybody guarding him, James and Leonard have to be met with strength, which Gordon can provide for Portland.
The Trail Blazers may have to move quickly, as they’ll also retain the option of running it back with Hood and Kent Bazemore, should the pair work well with their current roster and they strike out on higher-end options. They’ll have Early Bird rights on Hood, which should give them enough leeway to sign him to a realistic contract next summer, and full Bird rights on Bazemore. If they’d like (or if the market makes it such that it’s the best option), Portland could remain over the cap, bring back Hood and Bazemore on new contracts, and retain the full mid-level and biannual exceptions to add free agent talent to the team. That path doesn’t necessarily solve their small forward issue, as neither Hood nor Bazemore have the requisite height or strength to fully play that spot, but it’s not a bad backup plan.
Little’s development hangs over this entire plan, as his ceiling puts him firmly in the discussion for that starting small forward spot. He had his struggles in Summer League, but the 3-and-D upside is clear; if he puts it together quicker than most think he will, then he could be the team’s longer-term answer on the wing next to Lillard and McCollum. Banking on that for 2020-21 seems aggressive, but they’ll have the opportunity to see what he brings to the table in his rookie year before making a decision on the position in 2020 free agency.
The Trail Blazers will have some significant financial flexibility for the first time in a few years and it will be important for Neil Olshey and his staff to address their most pressing concern once the opportunity arises. While Portland isn’t necessarily a free agent destination in the same way the big markets tend to be, the Trail Blazers can offer a very strong culture and fanbase to go with the team success they’ve had in recent years. The 2020 free agent class isn’t deep on star-level talent, but for what Portland needs to fill out their team, they should have plenty of options to add to what looks to be a winning team for the near-term future.