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The Trail Blazers are Finally Free of the Disastrous Summer of 2016

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Four years ago, the Blazers had plenty of money. Here’s how they spent it.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Chicago Bulls Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 NBA offseason will not be easily forgotten by Portland Trail Blazers fans. That summer the Blazers doled out hefty contracts to three young, unproven players, a journeyman wing, and then a more modest amount to an injury-prone big man who never played a game for the team.

Over the next three years, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey gradually jettisoned each player to lower the burden on the team’s burgeoning player payroll. But the price of that off-season lingers on in memory and, even on the team’s books.

How did this happen?

The Blazers finished the 2015-16 season reaching the second round of the playoffs, just twelve months after tearing the roster down to the studs — those studs being Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Before the season, nobody predicted the Blazers would even make the playoffs, let alone beat the injury-plagued Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. But they did.

Everything seemed to align for the team with young players showing potential and an aspiring young leader in Lillard solidly entrenched among the NBA elite. It was a great time to be a Blazers fan, providing the first traces of enthusiasm experienced since the moment before Wesley Matthews blew out his Achilles 15 months earlier. Combined with a spike in the NBA salary cap from $70 million in 2015-16 to $94 million in 2016-17, hope abounded in Portland.

Unfortunately, this was fool’s gold for the Blazers. Neil Olshey and the late Paul Allen were about to throw around money like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, but their targets would turn out questionable at best.

The Blazers weren’t alone. The cap increase prompted a number of teams to offer big money to players who may not have been worthy of such high prices. (See also: Timofey Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo.) But Portland certainly distinguished themselves.

Who Did They Sign?

Allen Crabbe was crowned a “foundational player” by Olshey after the Blazers matched a restricted free agent offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets worth four years and $75 milllion.

Fellow wing Evan Turner was touted as the biggest free agency lure to the Pacific North West in years. He was given four years and $70 million.

Center Meyers Leonard was handed four years and $41 million after playing scattered minutes over the previous four seasons.

Big man Festus Ezeli agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract, including a team option and $1 million guaranteed on the second year.

Forward Moe Harkless, who ended up having the biggest impact of the five, was given four years and $42 million

Those five players were due to $60,495, 691 in 2016-17 alone against a $94 million salary cap.

We should not forget that Chandler Parsons was Portland’s first priority. The Blazers contacted the Mavericks forward at midnight on July 1 that year to offer a four-year, $94.7 million deal. Luckily for Portland, the offer was rebuffed and Parsons joined the Memphis Grizzlies. (More on that in a minute.)

Where are they now?

Allen Crabbe

As time passed, it became clear that Allen Crabbe was never going to live up to the level of play his contract demanded. Coming off the bench in 72 games in 2016-17, starting 7, Crabbe shot 44% from long range but struggled with consistency.

When 2017 rolled around, the Blazers traded Crabbe to Brooklyn. The Nets finally got their man. The only way the Blazers were able to get out of his contract was to take back out-of-favor forward Andrew Nicholson, whose remaining three years and $20 million was subsequently stretched and waived.

Crabbe spent two years with the Nets before being traded to Atlanta in July 2019. He spent six months with the Hawks before being sent to Minnesota. He was bought out by the Timberwolves a month and a half later. The 28-year-old is currently a free agent.

Side Note: Nicholson, now 30, will remain on Portland’s books until 2023-24 at just under $3 million a year, despite never having played for the team. He currently plays with the Fujian Sturgeons in the Chinese Basketball Association. He was one of a couple “dead money” holdovers from the fallout that summer, the only one still on the books.

Evan Turner

Despite being slightly cheaper than Crabbe, Turner was arguably the more maligned signing at the time. He was a veteran glue guy with great style off the court, but turnovers and poor shooting defined much of his time in Portland.

Turner’s legacy was redeemed in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, especially during Game 7 against the Nuggets where he played a major role in Portland’s first return to the Conference Finals since 2000.

Some have said that single performance was worth the contract, but the jury is out. During the 2019 offseason, Turner was traded to Atlanta — joining Crabbe — for Kent Bazemore. Turner and Crabbe were both traded to the Timberwolves earlier this year. He is now a 32-year-old free agent.

Meyers Leonard

Before re-signing for big money in 2016, Meyers Leonard was drafted 11th in the 2012 NBA Draft, five places behind Damian Lillard.

His career highlight came during the 2019 Western Conference Finals when he started and starred for the Blazers. He scored 30 on 12-16 shooting in his final appearance with the club. Portland was swept by the Golden State Warriors.

In 2019, Leonard and Moe Harkless were subsequently traded to Miami for Hassan Whiteside.

Leonard, now 28, helped the Heat during the regular season but played little during their post-season run to the NBA Finals. He is currently an unrestricted free agent.

Festus Ezeli

We all remember the excitement following pictures of Ezeli arriving at Portland International Airport, walking side by side with Jason Quick, before his physical. We’re not sure what happened during that physical, but they might have missed something.

Due to injury, Ezeli never played a game with the Blazers. They did not pick up the second year of his non-guaranteed contract. Portland ended up stretching the $1 million they owed him. He only just now dropped off the books this summer.

Ezeli is now 30 and hasn’t played since leaving Portland.

Moe Harkless

As discussed above, Harkless was relatively effective during his time in Portland, starting 179 of the 218 games since earning the 2016 contract. He gave the Blazers a reliable wing defender and serviceable on the offensive end.

Harkless was part of the Leonard and Whiteside trade with the Heat. But he didn’t land in Miami. They sent him straight back to the west coast to join the Los Angeles Clippers.

He was traded to the New York Knicks at the 2020 trade deadline and is currently a free agent at the age of 27.

Why not? Let’s do Chandler Parsons

Parsons got that $90 million-plus contract from the Grizzlies and played 95 games over three injury-hampered seasons.

The 31-year-old was traded to the Hawks in July 2019. He played five games in Atlanta and hasn’t been seen since.

He is a free agent, I guess.

Conclusion

In 2016, the Blazers handed out Scrooge McDuck money—more than $244 million in total contracts—to five players they hoped would become mainstays with the team for years to come.

Four years on, the tendrils of that signing flurry have left Portland with unrestricted free agents Hassan Whiteside and Caleb Swanigan, forward Wenyen Gabriel, and the remainder of Andrew Nicholson’s stretched contract. None of the original players remain with the team.

While the Blazers have enjoyed a number of highlights over the past four years, including a Conference Finals appearance, the 2016 offseason is not one of them.