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How Did Trading for Trevor Ariza Change the Trail Blazers?

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Portland got a new starting small forward. Did that change their prospects or the environment?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ trade for Trevor Ariza is now official. Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver are gone. Ariza, Caleb Swanigan, and Wenyen Gabriel will don the black and red for Portland’s game versus the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. Plenty of people are looking forward to seeing the newest Blazers play, but some are still wondering what the Blazers really accomplished by the deal. That’s the subject of this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Ariza coming on board! Excited? Bitter? I think you said once that you wanted us to keep Baze. I’ve read most of the commentary but I’m a little confused on how this moves the needle at all though. Can you fill us in?

Elayne

I don’t have much more to offer than what you’ve already heard. For a treatment of the options and a bit of minutiae, see Eric Griffith’s article yesterday. I couldn’t put it much better than that.

This trade walks, quacks, and sits under orange sauce like a duck. Its purpose is just what it looks like: cut salary to reduce the overall tax/salary obligation at the end of the season. There’s no salary cap space benefit; Bazemore and Tolliver had expiring contracts. I don’t see a ton of talent surplus coming Portland’s way either. This was, first and foremost, about money.

Ariza is a fine player, but his stats aren’t remarkable. He shot 39% from the field in Sacramento, 35% from the arc. That’s right at league average from distance, nothing special. He hasn’t finished a season above 37% from the arc since 2015-16 and he only topped 40% once in his career. Bazemore was shooting 33% from range. Portland improved a little, but “Average” is still hardly an overwhelming recommendation for a 3 and D guy.

Ariza plays defense, but Bazemore had that reputation coming into Portland too. I actually thought Bazemore would BE a younger version of Ariza when the year started. Given how that turned out, I’m not sure of the utility of any single player slotted into that position right now, outside of a game-changing star.

Even if this is mostly about saving money, that does matter. The Blazers still have the highest payroll in the NBA. They’re closer to the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, and Golden State Warriors after the trade than they were before. Getting in line with the league may not change much in 2020, but what happens when they need to retool their 2020-21 roster? No executive can say with a straight face, “We know we were astronomically above everyone else in cost last year and didn’t break .500, but this time we’ve got it! Honest! Please, let us spend a fortune again!” It’s easier to credit injuries and bad luck when you don’t have to swallow an astronomical tax bill on top of it.

Even as a fan/analyst/whatever, I’m actually pleased that the Blazers made a money-saving move. It doesn’t sit well to pay $165 million for a team you could pay $149 million for with the same basic results. They were going nowhere with Bazemore and Tolliver. They might as well take a chance on Ariza. The worse that could happen is going nowhere quicker.

As for where they are going, I think the most likely move is a similar salary-dumping trade for Whiteside. I don’t think that’s their preferred option. I bet they’d like to move him for a significant player. Blazers fans should hope they can pull off such a deal. It’s a long shot, especially since the value for Bazemore’s contract evidently wasn’t high.

Failing that, keeping Whiteside seems like a waste. Like Sauron and Saruman, he and Jusuf Nurkic will not share power easily. They’d lose him at the end of the year for nothing. They might be able to shave another $5-6 million off their salary cap before the tax bill comes due following Game 82.

The trick is, the Blazers can’t take on longer-term salary without infringing on their cap space this summer. Saving money this year isn’t worth mortgaging the future. They’d need to find a team willing to trade lesser expiring contracts for the chance to play, and perhaps re-sign, Whiteside. That’s not as rare as a star-player deal, but it’s hard.

Evan Turner is sitting on an expiring deal in Atlanta. Maybe the Hawks want a Bird Rights center badly enough to send him and cap ballast to Portland for Whiteside? If you want to really dream, a three-way deal with the Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers works on paper using nothing but expiring contracts. It’d depend on how much the Clippers valued Whiteside when facing the prospect of Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis in their playoffs future. If it ended with the Blazers getting the chance to pitch Montrezl Harrell about staying in town this summer, it’d be worth it.

Those are all fantasies at this point. All we know is that Portland’s situation after the Ariza trade is pretty much the same as their situation before it. They’re not going anywhere this year. They could use a big deal. Failing that, all moves will be incremental and preserving future assets is generally more valuable than expanding current ones.

Thanks for the Mailbag question! Continue to send them along, and please, can you help out with a couple of tickets to send kids to see the Blazers play the ‘Wolves in March? Here are the details: