The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t done anything splashy in the 2021 NBA Free Agency period. With options dwindling as free agents come off the table—John Hollinger of The Athletic recently called the offseason “essentially done—the Blazers don’t have a ton of good choices left, even for the remainder of their mid-level exception. One Blazer’s Edge reader wants to know if there are any options left. We’re still holding out hope for a couple, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Give me a move we can still make! It feels like in the exact time we need to change the roster we didn’t at all. Give me hope!
We’ve talked quite a bit about the potential for big trades...the kind that require a starting backcourt player to complete. Let’s presume for a minute that this kind of move isn’t practical. There are still two forwards on the market who would make sense.
The obvious, though less enticing, one is Paul Millsap. He was spoken of in whispered tones at the beginning of free agency. He’s still hanging out there.
The 36-year-old veteran is long past his prime years. He averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Denver Nuggets last season in 56 appearances. His shooting efficiency was down; he hit 47.6% of his shots from the field, 34.3% from the arc. Neither is worth writing home about for a modern NBA power forward. His per-minute and per-possession numbers are down. His defense has sunk from great to passable. None of this is a sterling recommendation.
BUT...Millsap is just about what the Blazers need. He’d back up Robert Covington at the four spot and not embarrass the team on defense. He can hit the shots he’s given without demanding more. Plus he brings a no-nonsense toughness that the Blazers need more of. Appearing in 129 playoffs games doesn’t hurt.
If Millsap can be had for the remainder of Portland’s mid-level exception, he’s probably right-sized for this team. The caveat is that he’s used to making more and he’ll have his choice of teams to join...a few, anyway. It’s a longshot, but if Millsap sees Portland as roughly analogous to Denver and finds a comfortable, 20-minute-per-game fit there, it’s not impossible.
Here’s the problem, though. The Blazers are carrying 13 players and are already over the luxury tax threshold. Would Millsap be worth paying more tax dollars for? The answer to that is likely no.
Happily, tax isn’t counted until the end of the season. The Blazers could sign Millsap, see how the first half of the year goes. If the experiment isn’t working, they could try to engineer a trade at the deadline for Derrick Jones Jr. (or even Millsap himself) that dropped a couple million dollars off of the payroll and kept them out of taxpaying territory.
Or the Blazers could go the other way entirely, trying to find a young, potential starting power forward instead of an aging reserve. In that case, Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen stands out.
The 7’0 Finnish forward was drafted 7th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. He’s young, just 23 years old, making him suitable for help now and any potential rebuild Portland would plot in a post-Damian-Lillard world.
Markkanen has plenty of offensive versatility. Over half his shots last season came from distance. He made 40.2% of his attempts from the arc, the magic number for making you sit up and take notice. He’s perfectly good in a catch-and-shoot offense, a plus with Portland being heavy on scoring guards. Markkanen also has a buttery mid-range jumper and can hit it on the move. His 7-foot frame and wingspan allow him to get either shot up over opposition. He’s also smooth in the air, able to dunk with ease.
Markkanen also has downsides. He’s not a defender. At all. The Chicago Bulls have been waiting on that development for four years and it’s yet to commence. The Blazers would hope that a new environment and coaching staff could pull some progress out of him, but Bulls fans would likely laugh ruefully. He doesn’t rebound well and he’s not a ball-mover either. That’s not a deal-breaker as long as the starting lineup remains intact, but if the Blazers lose passers Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard, it could affect Markkanen’s future utility.
Up until now, the Bulls have been expecting Markkanen to live up to lottery-pick status, tantalized by his occasional outbursts of brilliance. He’s stuck in a wide gap between potential franchise-changer and coach-killing, single-dimension scorer. (Think Kristaps Porzingis with a different skill set.) The fat part of his bell curve ends up in “doesn’t make as much difference as he should” land.
The difference between Portland and Chicago is that the Blazers can probably afford to absorb that kind of player, needing a piece but not THE piece. It’s easy to see Markkanen as a better fit in Portland than Carmelo Anthony was. He even came off the bench half of last season for the Bulls.
Two meta-details complicate this potential deal. First, Markkanen has only played 75% or more of his team’s games once in his career. He’s never logged a complete season.
Second, the Blazers would need to sign-and-trade for Markkanen. They have the juice to do it if Chicago is willing. Derrick Jones, Jr. fits into the correct salary range. (Depending on how much the Bulls value Markkanen, the Blazers might have to sweeten that deal a little.) But a sign-and-trade evokes the specter of the Hard Cap.
Any team receiving a sign-and-trade player gets locked below that ceiling for the season, set at $143 million this year. Needing another player to fill out the roster, plus likely taking on a smidge of extra salary in the deal, the Blazers could easily be staring at a $140 million obligation after this deal without making any other moves. Not only would they be over the tax threshold, they’d have very little wiggle room to make further deals that added salary. Their mid-level exception would be tough to use under those circumstances.
If the Blazers added only another minimum-level player after acquiring Markkanen, they’d have 6 players out of 14 on essentially minimum-level deals: Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore, Tony Snell, CJ Elleby, Greg Brown III, and that last signee. That’d put incredible pressure on their Top 8, four of which are guards 6’4 and under. Their big-man rotation would consist of Covington, Markkanen, Zeller, and Nurkic, with both Markkanen and Nurkic known to be injury-prone. That’s the kind of roster imbalance that makes you tilt the marble board hard to the other side, praying it won’t fall off the edge. It seldom works.
Best guess is, if the Blazers obtained Markkanen, they’d need to make another move to bolster the frontcourt. But as far as first steps go, it’s as good as they’re likely to find given the current state of free agency. If the Blazers fans want more than this, the best bet is still banking on that elusive, big-name trade. They’re not going to find it nibbling around the edges of the free agent market.