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Understanding the Blazers’ Opening Free Agent Moves

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A fan writes in nonplussed about Portland’s signings. We explain why they make sense.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers made two early moves in NBA Free Agency, 2021: re-signing free agent guard Norman Powell and inking center Cody Zeller to a presumed veteran-minimum deal. Blazers fans were underwhelmed with the Zeller signing. Powell is bringing more applause, but it’s muted in some quarters. Is the assessment fair? Here’s what you need to know about Portland’s strategy so far.

Dave,

Cody Zeller and Norm? I’m not upset but this isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. Why should I believe that this does anything to really help? If I’m Dame I don’t think I feel better about this.

Worried Fan Dan

Yeah, the Cody Zeller move is ok. He’s going to be a basic, leave-it-on-the-floor backup center. He’s an efficient scorer at, and off of, the glass. He’s mobile enough to be better than last year’s back-up center defensively (or really, the starting center the year before). Despite his injuries, he’ll give them 50-60 games of service, 20 minutes per. He’s not going to blow it. That’s pretty much all you can ask. He was a good signing on an inexpensive contract...the typical Neil Olshey value deal that looks good on paper, at least.

Portland’s first signing was—if you’ll excuse the term—the Zellery at the front of the buffet that you move past on the way to the prime rib. This isn’t the Bellagio in Vegas. The Blazers can’t afford that. It’s Old Country Buffet all the way, and today the carving station centered around Powell.

Portland didn’t just want Powell, they needed him. As long as they re-signed him, the pathway to improving the roster was open. If they lost him to another team, the outlook would have been pretty bleak.

Two factors came into play: roster construction and salary cap.

With Powell on board, the Blazers now have a second shooting guard besides CJ McCollum who can start, score, and hit a three. That makes McCollum available for possible roster-boosting trades. Without Powell, any McCollum move would face the same scrutiny it had for the past four years: how do you make it more than lateral?

Trading CJ isn’t a light decision. The Blazers have to see results. To get even on such a deal is difficult. To get ahead, they’d need to bring back incredible talent for McCollum. Despite his scoring prowess, he doesn’t have that kind of value on the open market.

With Powell on the team, Portland doesn’t have to put all their hopes of improving in the “Trade CJ” basket. In effect, this signing pre-improves any CJ deal. They now get Powell AND the player(s) they receive for McCollum. That opens up a variety of avenues that weren’t available before.

Name any non-superstar small forward in the league...let’s say a 3 and D guy who can score a little. Place him in a lineup with Damian Lillard, Powell, Robert Covington, and Jusuf Nurkic. Seems like it might work, right? The defense gets better. Portland still has shooting. It may not solve everything, but at least it’s a new look.

Now take that same small forward and place him in a lineup of Lillard, Anfernee Simons (or random shooting guard), Covington, and Nurkic. Maybe you wouldn’t sneeze at that starting five, but there’s no reason to think they could progress farther than the current team.

The key here is that you can put a few small forwards—or even players at other positions—into the equation and still have it come out positive for the Blazers. In the second scenario, the player coming back for CJ better be Jimmy Butler level or higher. With Powell in the two-spot, as long as the small forward coming back in return can legitimately start and shoot, the Blazers can consider a 2-for-1 to get deeper, or a player who’s not quite as good as CJ but comes with a draft pick attached. Both of those scenarios would have been disastrous if they didn’t have Norm.

Portland’s cap situation made the Powell signing even more imperative. They’re obviously over the cap now, but essentially, they would have been anyway. Even had Powell walked, the Blazers wouldn’t have gotten far enough under the cap to replace him with anything more than the mid-level cap exception they already had. In other words, Powell’s departure would have gained them virtually nothing.

If the question is, “Powell and no cap space or No Powell and no cap space,” there’s really only one answer.

Under these conditions, re-signing Powell was critical for the Blazers.

Granted, the move itself isn’t sufficient. The players may make noise about “running it back”, but there’s no reason to think that a three-guard starting lineup will be more successful this season than it was last, particularly with Nurkic perched in the middle expecting to play a bigger role. It’s hard to imagine enough shots for all those scorers plus extra possessions for Nurk besides. It’s also hard to imagine Portland’s defense getting better with the Lillard-McCollum backcourt intact and a 6’4 small forward playing beside them. They’ve got to do something else to balance the roster.

That said, Powell was a necessary first step to achieving future balance. Re-signing him might not make them better, but it keeps them from having to rebuild right away. Make no mistake: that would have been their fate had he departed. In that light, even if you’re not ready to cheer and huzzah at Portland’s off-season moves yet, there’s ample reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

With their lack of cap space, the Blazers were never going to make a huge splash in free agency alone. They’ve done what they needed to on the first day. Step 1 has been completed. Now we wait and see what Step 2 might be.

Update: The Ben McLemore Addendum

Neil Olshey continues to fill in corners with (presumably) veteran-minimum deals, as the Blazers have signed 28-year-old wing Ben McLemore, most recently of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Early in his career, McLemore was known as a scorer. His offensive-minded lifestyle has continued through his eight seasons, but nowadays he’s more of a shooter than point-churner. 77% of his shot attempts last season with the Lakers and Houston Rockets came from beyond the arc. That’s down slightly from 83% the season before. He shot 35% from distance last year.

McLemore is another “Rorschach test” move. Getting a shooter on a vet-minimum contract is usually a good move. McLemore is also capable of scoring 20 on occasion...he has a little pep. He’s 28, not 38, which makes the signing sweeter.

He’s not a defender, nor is he a strong ball-movement guy. He’s 6’3, which should sound familiar, because the Blazers field a ton of scorers who could play in the 6’4 and under league. If the NBA ever instituted that height limit, they’d be world champs.

If things stay as they are, McLemore is no more than he seems: a depth guy, maybe providing a little continuity at small forward if the Blazers really are daring (maybe foolhardy) enough to convert their small forward position into an extra shooting guard slot full-time. But they’re looking right down the barrel of a McCollum-Powell-Simons-McLemore depth chart, so it’s hard to see where Ben breaks through.

If, however, the Blazers do intend to move McCollum, McLemore becomes more of a live option. He’s not likely to be a season-changer, but he’d become a plank in their platform at shooting guard, battling Simons for minutes and shots. (If Anfernee remains...)

Keep in mind that veteran-minimum contracts are the Take-a-Penny, Leave-a-Penny dish of the salary cap system. Teams can sign players to that kind of deal pretty much regardless of where they are. The Blazers filled another roster spot without impinging on their cap flexibility. That’s the least this move did.