The Portland Trail Blazers made three significant moves on the first day of 2020 NBA Free Agency: trading for Enes Kanter, re-signing Rodney Hood, and signing Derrick Jones, Jr. to a free agent contract. Here’s a look at the mechanics of each deal, along with the changes each player brings to the team.
Mario Hezonja for Enes Kanter
This deal wasn’t just about the who, but the how. Hezonja was destined to be a lower-rotation player in Portland. He didn’t always look good doing that. When he announced that he would pick up the second year of his guaranteed contract on Monday, the news was met with more groans than cheers.
Turns out, the Blazers had it covered. With the help of a trade exception left over from dealing Kent Bazemore last season, Portland sent Hezonja to the Memphis Grizzlies. In return, the got Kanter from the third partner in the deal, the Boston Celtics. The Blazers created something out of nothing, a Neil Olshey specialty.
Kanter returning as a former fan favorite is also very Portland. Nobody will forget how he helped the Blazers to the Western Conference Finals in the 2019 NBA Playoffs when Jusuf Nurkic was injured. He filled 28.8 minutes per game in that post-season run, scoring 11.4 with 9.7 rebounds. He wasn’t awful on defense, either.
Kanter is the only acquisition this off-season who breaks the defense-first mandate the Blazers have established. He’s... not great at that end of the floor. But that’s less important to Portland than the fact that he platoons with Nurkic. Kanter doesn’t have the skills or talent of the Bosnian Beast, but he can score out to 20-foot range, provide offensive rebounds, and he won’t change the basic framework the way a more classic pivot would. Throw in a couple screens, and the Blazers are set. If they require a more mobile, defensive center they’ll call on Zach Collins. Otherwise, Kanter fits the bill.
The Blazers traded a player from the hind end of their rotation for a player who will stay firmly in the middle of it, at the cost of a Traded Player Exception and about $3 million in salary. That’s an absolute win in any book.
Re-signing Rodney Hood for 2 Years, $10 Million Per
Again, the secret sauce in this deal comes around the edges. The Blazers re-signed a player they like, maintained wing depth, and gave Hood a hefty raise while staying under the luxury tax threshold. The signing checks multiple boxes at a reasonable price.
Hood hasn’t played since tearing his Achilles last winter. Signs look good, but you never know. We do know that his absence would have left a hole in Portland’s lineup. Signing Derrick Jones Jr. and bringing along Nassir Little are both fine, but neither one of those guys is going to light it up off the bench. Hood can. He can also play some defense, the only one of these three players who can come close to being described as “two-way”.
Without Hood, the Blazers would be relying on Gary Trent Jr. to cover both the two and three positions off the bench, perhaps accompanied by Robert Covington swinging over from power forward to small. Neither one of those are natural fits. Neither is Hood, but at least he’ll be able to provide steady minutes there, allowing Portland the luxury of running three-guard lineups without using up all their guards at once.
Hood is also the only reliable three-point shooter among the trio of “new” acquisitions. That makes him a natural, seamless fit.
Finally, re-signing Hood preserves his contract and salary slot for trade purposes. The Blazers would have lost both had he walked. Over the cap, they couldn’t have used the money for anybody else beyond a minimum-level player. $10 million works far better than $1 million for leverage in future trades.
Using money they couldn’t have spent any other way for a player who fills shots and minutes they wouldn’t be the same without makes this deal another easy win.
Inking Derrick Jones, Jr. with the Mid-Level Exception
This is clearly the most speculative of Portland’s moves. Jones, Jr. is young and athletic. If he develops into a well-rounded player, the Blazers will have nabbed one of the more exciting prospects in the league. He’s not there yet, though.
Jones, Jr. can defend. He’s got that Al-Farouq Aminu gene, begging to guard the best player on the opposing team under 7-feet tall. He can swing to the perimeter or stand firm inside with equal ease. He will battle with Covington for the designation of the best pure defender on the team. A month ago, Blazer’s Edge writer Corey Randall cited Jones’ footwork on defense. He produces a good number of steals and rebounds for a small forward. There’s nothing to dislike on that end of the floor.
Jones instantly becomes the best athlete on the squad as well. If the team can ever get out on the break—one of the side effects of better defense—Blazers fans will love seeing the 2020 NBA Slam Dunk Champion throw down.
This is where the story ends...for now. Jones is not an efficient offensive player anywhere outside of the restricted area. He’s particularly sketchy at the three-point arc, making Covington, Aminu, and even Mo Harkless look like Steve Kerr by comparison. He’s not a great passer either. His entire offensive game has to develop. The capacity to hit any kind of stand-still three consistently would make up for a whole host of sins. Portland will hope it develops quickly.
It might, too. Jones, Jr. is only 23. He’ll be entering his fifth season, theoretically ready to transition into his early prime. Both he and Portland will deem his two-year deal friendly. If he falls of the face of the earth, he still gets $20 million while the Blazers get out of the obligation quickly. If he flourishes, they get to re-up him in a couple years at something closer to a star-level salary. Neither one can lose. Whether either will win is the critical question.
Unlike the Kanter and Hood deals, this signing was not a no-brainer. The cost of the move will be determined, in part, by other players who sign for the MLE after this point. There’s no guarantee that the Blazers could have convinced any of them to come to Portland, of course, but if more accomplished players go for the same price, pressure will mount on Jones, Jr. to come through quickly, lest this be deemed a lost opportunity...close to the last during Damian Lillard’s prime.
If we were to describe these moves in a single word, it would be “depth”. Portland didn’t get a true starter here, at least not in the classic, 35-minutes-per-game sense. By default, either Hood, Covington, or Jones, Jr. will start at small forward, but they’ll all be mixing positions and sharing minutes.
Nor did the Blazers get what they needed most this off-season: a bankable, big-minute, two-way player. Hood and Covington come close. Jones, Jr. might become one. None of them are guaranteed. For the most part, Portland will still bring offense or defense into the game, having to compensate whichever way they go. As they’ve done for the past few years, they’ll patch together layers of players, hoping the mix turns out strong.
Redundancy is the big advantage to the layered approach. Portland has much more of that now. When Nurkic sits, Kanter and Collins will fill. Dig beneath Hood and you’ll come up against Jones, Jr. (or vice-versa). Collins and Covington will spell each other at the four spot, with Covington potentially swinging up to five or down to three for brief periods. You can’t dig into Portland’s rotation without coming up against a legit, occasionally scary, NBA player. The Blazers haven’t had that luxury for years.
These were not new moves by Olshey. These are classic “Neil” tendencies turned up to 11.
This won’t be a brand new Portland team, either. Give or take some forced turnovers and better close-outs on the perimeter, Portland didn’t get that much different. Instead they sustained their ability to play their favored style longer, adding or preserving compatible talent at every position between shooting guard and center. You’ll probably see what you’re used to seeing out of the 2020-21 Blazers, just for longer stretches, with fewer gaps, and hopefully with more overall effectiveness.
The team will also duck back under the luxury tax, returning to a sensible cost per win ratio after last year’s ugliness.
The new Blazers probably won’t end up dominating the league. They will have a fair chance to support each other, position by position, camouflaging individual weaknesses with complementary talent and extra depth.
If it all works out, the Blazers should be able to make a credible showing in the playoffs, perhaps occasionally plagued by the ongoing need to choose between offense and defense. If it doesn’t work out, they will find themselves either free of these contracts or in position to trade them for players who can make more impact.
Absent questions about who else they could have acquired with the MLE (or drafted with their 2021 first-rounder in the Covington deal), there’s nothing to dislike about these moves. We may quibble about how effective they are in the long run, but in the microcosm of the moment, the Blazers just made themselves better at a reasonable price.
(P.S. They could still use a back-up point guard.)