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Small Forward Stands at the Crux of Trail Blazers Off-Season Decisions

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The Blazers have plenty of decisions to make over the next few months, and the three-spot stands in the middle of them all.

Neil Olshey
Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey sits on the bench before a game.
Getty Pictures

Editorial Disclaimer: This article centers heavily on Trevor Ariza. It was written before the allegations about Ariza came out. It is not intended as a blanket endorsement or any kind of judgment about those allegations. This is a one-time article about Ariza’s contract status and utility on the floor, with this one-time disclaimer attached.

It is officially offseason time for the Portland Trail Blazers after their first round exit against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday. It was one of the strangest years in recent memory; several key players sat out due to significant injuries, Carmelo Anthony somehow found his way to Portland, and there was a literal global pandemic that forced basketball to stop entirely for over four months. The 2019-20 season was certainly one we won’t forget anytime soon.

This offseason is hugely important for Portland. The Blazers once again don’t have much cap flexibility. They have to figure out what to do with key free agents such as Anthony — who wants to be in Portland — and Hassan Whiteside while trying to find ways to maximize their window with Damian Lillard.

One of the most interesting players to keep an eye on will be Trevor Ariza. Depending on how you view him, he is either a key forward who provides shooting and defense for a team that could certainly use those things or he’s an asset that can be waived to save money or traded for another piece. He’s technically under contract for $12.8 million next season, but only $1.8 million of that is guaranteed.

The Blazers have to make a decision about whether or not to guarantee that extra $11 million by October 18, the same day that free agency begins this year. Whatever they choose to do with Ariza is arguably the most important move they’ll make. So what do you do if your Portland? Let’s take a look.

Let’s start with the benefits of keeping him. Ariza played well in his 21 games with Portland, averaging 11 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 40% shooting from outside. As I broke down back in May, Ariza provides two things that Portland needs: three-point shooting and defense. If this past series with the Lakers showed us anything, it’s that having players capable of those two things are highly important.

Unless the Monstars steal his talent or something, he’ll probably have the shooting next year, so how much he helps the defense is the real question. It’s hard to judge really how good he was defensively considering the Blazers were so atrocious on that end, but the numbers (1.6 steals per contest) and tape suggest that he was one of the best on the team. Could this team with Ariza and a healthier Jusuf Nurkic at least be competent defensively? It might be worthwhile for the Blazers to try it.

Age is a concern with Ariza. He’s 35 and will be coming back after not playing basketball since March. We won’t know how much he’s lost defensively until we see him out on the court, but with the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. and the draft coming up, there’s an argument to be made that Portland can find an Ariza replacement. The Lakers series showed that having a competent wing defender like Ariza is helpful, but is he replaceable?

If you find yourself asking the question above, then it’s possible that you think trading Ariza is the best move. In a COVID-19 world with so many questions about the cap, Ariza’s contract makes him an interesting asset to play with. If you’re the Blazers, he could be packaged with either a pick or another asset (such as Zach Collins or Anfernee Simons) for a potential upgrade at the 3.

But that’s the thing; if you’re trading away Ariza, it HAS to be for a player that is a notable upgrade over him. Otherwise, you’re trading away a player whose tendencies fit perfectly with what Portland needs for someone that could potentially just provide more of the same. You don’t trade someone just for the sake of making a trade. Portland has to use it to find a wing that provides a significant boost to the team.

So who’s an example of a better player? Dylan Mickanen of NBC Sports Northwest recently brought up the idea of potentially trading Ariza along with a first round pick for Robert Covington of Houston. It sounds great in theory, but it’s highly reliant on this idea that Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta is cheap enough that he’s willing to trade away someone who fits perfectly with what Mike D’antoni wants to do (but even then, it’s up in the air if MDA is even in Houston next season). It’s difficult to see something like this coming together, although owners LOVE doing everything they can to stay under the luxury tax.

Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey suggested last month that the Blazers move Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood to San Antonio in order to bring back LaMarcus Aldridge (this move assumes that Portland lets Whiteside walk so that they have a bit of cap space to work with). As interesting as a reunion might be, it feels ridiculous to sacrifice depth when your team is in desperate need of it. We don’t know what Hood will be like when he gets back, but he was a big wing who was shooting almost 50% from three before he tore his Achilles. We’ve already discussed what Ariza does. Why would the Blazers sacrifice wing depth for a twilight run with Aldridge?

Trades are hard! And it’s even harder when you’re the Blazers and you don’t have a ton of trade-friendly contracts readily available. There’s plenty of big potential trades (Dan Marang had an idea for one not involving Ariza), but finding the right trading partner is difficult. But if the Blazers can find a readily available trade partner who provides a genuine upgrade at the wing, then it might be worth it. But I repeat: you don’t make a trade just to make it.

The final option would be to waive Ariza outright. It would save Portland $11 million, and if you’re a team that lacked cap flexibility in a pre-pandemic world, it’s a somewhat attractive option. But then it becomes a question of how far will $11 million actually take you. Is that $11 million actually enough to help the team improve significantly?

This is why I’m skeptical that waiving Ariza solves all problems. If you’re the Blazers you want to find a way to maximize the Lillard era, and just waiving players who can help instead of either paying them or exploring trade options is not the way you do that. By opting to waive Ariza, the Blazers do nothing to improve their team and only save money. And while there’s always a chance that you could sign someone equivalent to Ariza for (potentially) less with that money, it’s well known what he provides and he seems capable of continuing to provide it. Why risk striking out and losing a solid 3-and-D player?

So what is the best option? Like I said back in May, keeping Ariza seems preferable right now. The Blazers will take a cap hit but he provides everything Portland needs from a wing, and having Ariza takes a lot of pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum on offense and makes life easier for players like Trent and Nurkic on defense.

That being said, if the Blazers can find someone better via trade, then that’s something worth exploring. In my opinion, a trade like this would have to come at the cost of another asset though, and the Blazers don’t exactly have the contracts to make a simple trade. It might come at the cost of a player like McCollum as Marang pointed out above. A solid 3-and-D wing is a must-have if you’re Portland, but how big are you willing to swing in order to get that?

These are all things that the Blazers will have to grapple with as the season’s end date grows near. It’s not clear the direction that Portland will go, but it is clear that the Ariza decision is vital to that process. Whether or not they make the correct one remains to be seen.