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What Happened to 3-and-D Wings for the Trail Blazers?

Portland has fielded plenty of defensive-minded small forwards over the years. Where did they go?

Portland Trail Blazer Fan Fest Open Practice Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have sported plenty of good small forwards in the last decade, from Nicolas Batum up to current starter Norman Powell. They’ve fielded shooters, defenders, and scorers at that position. Yet every time we look, the cupboard seems to be bare...or at least barer than it should be. What is going on here, and why are the Blazers constantly in need of 3-and-D guys? That’s the question in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Pat Connaughton is wearing a NBA ring and killing it for the Bucks. Gary Trent Jr playing big minutes for the Raptors. Will Barton at Denver. Nic Batum starting for the Clippers, or Maurice Harkless starting for the Kings

All 3 and D wings who used to be Blazers and now are starters or major contributors for other teams. Meanwhile the Blazers are notoriously weak at this critical position. Why do the Blazers develop these players and then trade them? Thanks!

John

Of the players you mentioned, only one has won a championship. As you’ve identified, that’s Connaughton in Milwaukee. I don’t want to minimize his contributions. He played 23 minutes per game for them during the regular season last year, 24 for the playoffs. He averaged around 7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in that span. That was great for the Bucks.

Milwaukee also had Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and a three-year streak of advancing in the playoffs contributing to their championship run. The Blazers don’t have any of those things. Connaughton’s 7 and 5, shooting 37% from the arc and 43% from the field wouldn’t have done for the Blazers what they did for Milwaukee.

You can repeat that story for almost everybody you named. Trading Will Barton and a first-round pick for Arron Afflalo in 2016 was a huge error in judgment, one of the worst trades the Blazers have made in a decade. He has produced points, constantly rivaling for the Sixth Man of the Year award, and remains a reasonably-priced player for the Nuggets to this day. For most of his career, though, his offense has outstripped his defense by a wide margin. Barton would have made Anfernee Simons redundant, but the Blazers might not have been able or willing to play him 30+ minutes per game behind CJ McCollum and more defensive-minded small forwards.

Nicolas Batum got very expensive, very quickly—to the tune of $23 million per year—after the Blazers traded him to the Charlotte Hornets in 2015. His best seasons had already passed him at that point. Yes, Portland needed him, but they wanted to pay McCollum and Damian Lillard more. They got Harkless, Batum’s replacement, for less than half that price. He wasn’t as good as Batum, but at that point Nicolas wasn’t good enough to make the difference in a serious championship quest either.

Harkless was serviceable, though inconsistent, during his Blazers tenure...almost an analog to what Connaughton has become for the Bucks, just without the hops and the three-point shot. He was always going to be the 5th-8th man in the rotation, though. Again, there just wasn’t enough talent there to invest in long-term.

It’s too early to tell with Gary Trent Jr. The Blazers traded him for an established guard in Norman Powell. We don’t know how either will work out. He probably shouldn’t be judged yet, so let’s leave him out of the discussion for now.

Here’s the point. All of these years, the Blazers really needed a third star, or at least a second Jusuf Nurkic-level player. None of these guys were it. That’s the main reason they didn’t stick. The Blazers should have kept Barton, but he’s the only one to really scream about.

As you’ve probably noted, finances are woven into the story throughout. We can’t underestimate the role dollars have played in Portland’s decisions.

Batum is the odd player in this bunch. He was already established when his contract came up. The Blazers just didn’t want to pay what the market would bear. (Rightfully so, as it turns out.) That’s a different situation than everyone else on your list.

All your other examples were young when the Blazers got them. From the start, Portland was viewing them like a chef does rather than a restaurant patron.

If you’re looking for the best night possible, you go to a steakhouse and drop $45 per plate on prime rib. You know what you’re getting. You also know it’ll set you back plenty. This is what the Los Angeles Lakers do.

If you’re a restaurant owner or chef, you go out and find a cheap, but decent, cut of something, bring it back, dress it up, and sell it for 300% of what you bought it for. Nobody’s mistaking it for top-end product, but this is how you make your margin. This is the technique the Blazers have employed.

Barton, Harkless, and Connaughton weren’t prime rib players. They were the fix-it-up and profit guys. That’s how the Blazers got them so cheaply. That’s how they were able to keep them as long as they did. Unless they turned out to be Giannis himself—or players that any NBA team would trade the farm for—Portland was going to have to let them go.

The Blazers are set up to operate this way. They’re not going to be able to spend into the luxury tax over an extended period of time. They’re paying huge dollars to their starting backcourt. They’ve had relatively few disposable assets and a mixed record when trading away same.

With no cap space and a middling trade record, two avenues remain for talent acquisition: rookie-scale draft picks and bargain-basement free agents/trade targets. That’s where Portland has tried to find their edge.

The problem is, those players don’t stay that way. If they don’t succeed, they remain affordable, but they’re not doing what you need them to do. What’s the point of having them then? If they do succeed, they want more money. At that point, they no longer fit your criteria and they have to go.

This phenomenon actually affects power forwards and reserve point guards, not just 3-and-D wings. Seth Curry was the classic example. He was the best reserve point guard the Blazers had since Steve Blake roamed the hardwood. In 2018-19 Curry shot 45% from the three-point arc and he hasn’t stopped since. But Portland got him for less than $3 million when he was coming off an injury. He signed, essentially, a single-year deal. When he proved he could still play and shoot, he wouldn’t continue onward for that money.

Instead of being able to make a strategic decision—is this guy good or worth keeping in the abstract—the Blazers had to make a more drastic one: is this the player who pushes us over the top and is he worth plunging (further) into the luxury tax for? The answer to the strategic questions was yes. The answer to the drastic ones was no. He was a nice piece of the puzzle. He filled a gap in the roster. They still let him go.

Repeat this for all the players you mentioned, plus Al-Farouq Aminu, plus whomever the Blazers might have gotten for what was left of their mid-level exception this season (and so on, and so on) and you understand why they’ve had trouble keeping the middle of their rotation stocked with competent veterans long-term. They’ve churned through a revolving door of decent candidates instead of establishing a core of their best performers and building on it. This process isn’t a bug in Portland’s system; it’s a feature.

But hey, like we said at the beginning, it’s not like any of these players individually would have changed Portland’s fate. With judgment on Trent, Jr. reserved, they haven’t blossomed into all-world superstars elsewhere either. Barton has been good, Harkless about the same, and everyone else nice enough.

Until the roster structure changes—or performance does—you’re not likely to see this changing. Will the Blazers re-sign Robert Covington after this season? Jusuf Nurkic? They’ve already passed on extending Anfernee Simons. Larry Nance, Jr. only has two years left to go on his contract as well. The cycle remains the same. Only the names change.

It’ll be perfectly possible for the Blazers to spin this system forward until the contracts of McCollum and Lillard expire (or at least go to option) in the Summer of 2024. That’ll be the watershed moment, potentially changing it. Until they, we’ve already seen how they do it. We’ve seen the results so far. Is that enough? I suppose it depends on which priorities you pay attention to.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!