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Do Great NBA Small Forwards Even Exist Anymore?

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One Blazer’s Edge reader wants to know if the Trail Blazers could swing a deal for a small forward. That brings up an obvious question: Who?

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers head into Training Camp, 2019 with plenty of hopes, but plenty of questions as well. No questions are more pressing than those surrounding the starting forward positions. Long-time stalwarts Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are gone. In their wake stand a host of possibilities, none of them firm. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question!

Hey Dave,

If I’m NOPOBO, I’m looking for trades this year (assuming Nurk gets back to full health). We would be a much more complete team by pulling off a trade with Whiteside/Bazemore contracts than if we were to gut the team to get some cap space (my opinion, but if both are realistic options, the trade market seems to put us in better position). So let’s say your favorite power forward is available for trade at the deadline (LMA, Griffen, Love, whoever it is you want on our team). How good does Collins have to be playing for you to consider finding a trade for a 3 instead of a 4?

Thanks,

Charlie

This question has multiple levels to it. Let’s tackle them in brief. This will be a good catch-up post for anyone who’s been away since the playoffs.

Power Forwards

We’ve covered the power forward trade angle repeatedly this summer. Blake Griffin would be a no-brainer. The Blazers should go and get him without question if Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore get the deal done. LaMarcus Aldridge is a pretty easy “yes” too. His contract makes him low-risk. Kevin Love is more complicated. I’m in love-hate with that idea, but the money owed on his contract skews it more towards hate at the moment. I could probably be convinced otherwise if the deal gets made on the grounds of, “What else are they gonna do?”

Trades versus Free Agency

The Blazers have a couple options with their current personnel.

Portland could execute a trade mid-season if they fall in love with an available player. Whiteside and Bazemore would become stepping stones to a longer-term roster. That’d be legit.

The Blazers could also let the contracts expire next summer, waive the rights to both players, and open up cap space. I’m assuming Rodney Hood will opt out of his $6 million salary for 2020-21. If the Blazers were also willing to part with Skal Labissiere and Mario Hezonja, they could be looking at $26 million for potential free agent signings.

This is a valid route, though not as sure as the trade. If they plan to use that amount on one massive signing, they have to ask whether they can entice a free agent worth that amount of money. They could credibly split that amount into two, or even three, players, but then they have to ask whether they’d get ahead enough after losing Hood.

Signing fewer players also brings up issues of depth. They could generate a starting lineup with four great, mostly-highly-paid players in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Expensive New Guy. After that Zach Collins would be the next player on the depth chart, and he’d stand far above everybody else on the roster. Is that enough to get it done over 82 games and the playoffs, or would the Blazers be looking at excellent first and third quarters, a mediocre record, and a constant battle versus fatigue and injury?

This is the advantage to making a trade versus waiting for free agency. Though the incoming player would no doubt push the Blazers near, or over, the salary cap in 2020, they could re-sign incumbent players (like Hood) using Bird Rights, retaining more talent overall. This would not be possible if they needed to lose the contracts of current players in order to sign a big-name free agent.

The Question of Zach Collins

Opinions vary on the future of Zach Collins as an NBA player, and further on his ultimate floor position. Conventional wisdom leans towards Collins being a decent center. The Blazers would be better served if he were more than decent played power forward.

Collins has the mobility to play the four. He might be more suited by size and body type to roam the floor than to bang down low on defense. If he can develop a face-up shot from range, the Blazers should be able to use him there. If that shot remains shaky, they might suffer offensively. Collins doesn’t have the ancillary offensive skills or intensity to make up for not being able to score. Still, I find the idea of Zach at the four enticing. I have long thought that will be his eventual settling place.

If Collins does not develop, or does not develop as a power forward, the Blazers may consider including him in trade packages. If they plan to consolidate salary into another high-impact player, they have to get the best out of the 5th and 6th players on their depth chart. Collins would be one of those players. Without room or the ability to step up, keeping him wouldn’t make sense in any way save financial.

Absent a no-brainer trade involving Collins, the Blazers have plenty of time to sort this out. I expect this to be another experimental year with Zach.

The Other Forward Position

Finally we get to the crux of your question: small forward possibilities. Its resolution depends on all of the above factors. If the Blazers do not have a superstar trade in the works at power forward and Zach Collins can adequately fill that position, then why not go for a small forward instead? Few would object to them clearing enough space to make a run at swing-forward Draymond Green, as an outside example.

The thing is, great small forwards are scarce. It’s hard to name a transcendent star playing the position in today’s NBA. Most of the great ones have migrated to the four. Paul George and Kawhj Leonard will mix it up in L.A., but neither one is available in trade. Does Jimmy Butler count? Khris Middleton probably would. One could see either of them joining a super-solid version of Collins alongside Portland’s Big 3 and drool, but there are still plenty of variables. That plan could still end up an expensive mistake if Collins doesn’t pan out or if Butler were to flame out.

That said, the Blazers are cobbling together the three position out of young players and converted shooting guards now, simultaneously cobbling together the four position out of young players, low-rotation vets, and perhaps a converted center. That makes the real answer to your question simple: filling EITHER position with a remarkable starter would make a difference. It’d be easier to find a remarkable power forward, but if they can do it at small forward, they can make up the power forward gap in other ways.

If I’m the Blazers, I pull the trigger on the best trade possible, then try to re-sign my expiring veterans and restricted free agents to improve depth. I don’t care whether the trade return is a starting three or four, just so long as talent and fit are right.

My question back to you, Charlie, and to all our readers, is whether they can name a small forward who might be available via trade or free agency, who could also make that kind of difference. Possibilities are plentiful at the other forward position. Who do you see as a three worth getting?

Thanks for the Mailbag question! Keep them coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave