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The Trail Blazers Losing Skal Labissiere Hurts

Kyle Garcia pens an ode to Portland’s departed big man, then produces the shot charts to back up the grief.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA trade deadline does not care about your feelings. That was what I was reminded of after the Portland Trail Blazers traded away big man Skal Labissiere for everyone’s favorite trade target: cash considerations. The move cost the Blazers a big man but did save them $4.7 million in both salary and tax.

But I personally didn’t care about the savings because I will very much miss the Haitian sensation that was Skal Labissiere, not just because he was one of the first players I wrote about for Blazer’s Edge, but because he is someone that I think still had value to the team, even with the looming return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and the re-debut of Caleb Swanigan. After trading away Swanigan a year ago for Labissiere, it doesn’t make sense to now replace Skal with a combination of Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

It feels weird to bash on Swanigan after writing an article just two weeks ago about how I didn’t think he was actually playing horribly. Well, that was two weeks ago and recently Swanigan’s deficiencies have become more apparent. The two weaknesses that I worried about with Biggie — his defense and his floor-stretching capabilities — have been exploited time and time again these past few weeks.

The difference on defense between Labissiere and Swanigan is stark. Labissiere had started to grow into his own defensively. His block percentage this season is a career-high 4.6% as well as his blocks per game per 36 minutes at an even 2. Swanigan’s numbers don’t come close to that at 1.9% and 0.6 blocks per 36.

Labissiere also brought more offensively than Swanigan does. Labissiere’s ability to face up and hit mid-range shots and very occasionally step out for three was a valuable tool the Blazers could take advantage of. Swanigan is capable sometimes of knocking down the mid-range shot but hasn’t done it so far at as good a clip as Labissiere, granted with way fewer attempts from out there.

Shot chart for Caleb Swanigan
Shot chart for Skal Labissiere

Gabriel is intriguing when compared to Swanigan. As raw as Gabriel is (and that is VERY raw) he plays with an energy and motor that Swanigan usually doesn’t have. But that energy still needs time to be harnessed, something which his debut against the Lakers showed (although, I must say that anyone who can foul out in just 13 minutes is a hero in my book).

But this isn’t about Gabriel. It’s about Skal, a more refined product who has experienced some foul trouble of his own (5.7 fouls per 36 minutes) but is way more polished on both ends of the floor. Gabriel may one day grow into a fine role player while costing considerably less than Labissiere, but banking on raw players to consistently just figure it out instead of keeping already solid players to surround Damian Lillard can’t be the best strategy for a team that wants to contend.

Trading Labissiere isn’t totally unjustified. As our very own Dave Deckard pointed out, it made some sense to trade Labissiere at the deadline from a financial standpoint. Blazer’s Edge cap maestro Eric Griffith, as mentioned above, noted that the move saves Portland $4.7 million. Add that to the fact that he was still nursing a knee injury and wouldn’t occupy a huge spot in the rotation and it makes sense that Labissiere would be the odd man out.

But if this year is an indicator of anything, it’s that injuries happen, whether that’s Collins hurting his shoulder or Rodney Hood tearing his achilles in December. Bench depth has been an issue all year, and trading away one of the only serviceable big men available to get closer to clearing the luxury tax line seems shortsighted.

Neil Olshey was not totally wrong to trade Labissiere. Once Collins and Nurkic get back there will be limited minutes available at the 4 and 5 spots anyway. But Labissiere was a good player that had a value to Portland that I believe was greater than both Swanigan and Gabriel. I think this Timmay! Tweet just about sums it up.