Though the Portland Trail Blazers ushered in a free agent class this summer headlined by the return of guard Norman Powell, it’s too early to tell whether these additions will move the needle for the franchise. One thing is for certain: The pressure is on for this revamped roster to deliver. With President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and franchise star Damian Lillard both entering their tenth season in Portland, whether they see an eleventh in the Rose City seems to depend on this year’s results.
With so much riding on Olshey’s moves this summer, his track record of acquiring talent in Portland through the years is worth a second look. In a previous post, we analyzed how Portland’s major signings in 2015 and 2016 fared as Blazers and in later stops. Today, we’re looking at how Portland’s signings in 2017 panned out.
The Summer of 2017
During the 2016-17 season, Portland flipped starting center Mason Plumlee for Denver Nuggets backup center Jusuf Nurkic, rejuvenating what was a floundering campaign. The Blazers found their long-term answer at center in the 22-year-old Bosnian big and snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed, but after the summer spending spree of 2016, the franchise didn’t have much money left over to improve through the 2017 free agency market.
Portland made largely inconsequential moves that summer through trades and free agency. The Blazers offloaded shooting guard Allen Crabbe and his $75-million contract to the Brooklyn Nets for forward Andrew Nicholson, who never appeared in a game in Portland. At the beginning of the regular season, Portland signed shooting guard Wade Baldwin, the 17th overall pick from the year before, to a two-way contract and then later to a multi-year deal. He only appeared in 33 games over two seasons as a Blazer before falling out of the league.
Despite a lack of cash, what Olshey did have at his disposal that summer were three first-round picks in that year’s NBA Draft. He utilized them to acquire two centers: Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan.
Zach Collins | 2017 Draft Pick (10th Pick)
Seasons: 3 | PTS: 5.7 | REB: 4.0 | FG%: 44.4% | Postseason Appearances: 20*
*Stint with Blazers
Olshey traded the 15th pick and the 20th pick in order to move up to the tenth spot and select Collins. The 19-year-old had only played in one season at Gonzaga (a season in which he didn’t even start) but he had the size and mobility at seven feet tall to make him arguably the year’s best defensive prospect. His fundamental footwork and solid shooting form made him a tantalizing option on offense who could possibly grow to space the floor as a true stretch five.
In his first two seasons, Collins appeared in 66 games and 77 games respectively as the Blazers’ backup big man. He came in as a project and his first season held true to that analysis, as he scored only 4.4 points per game and lacked the strength to battle with NBA bigs. In year two, he saw improvement in almost every major facet of his game. Although his three-point shot never took off (33.1% on only 1.6 attempts per game), Collins increased his scoring to 6.6 points per game and his field goal percentage jumped from 39.8% to 47.3%. On defense, his rim protection, defensive positioning, and ability to affect the game with hustle were eye-catching skills. He was true to his billing as an impressive defender and provided skill in that area the Blazers had sorely missed in recent years. In the second round of the 2019 playoffs against Denver, Collins played starting forward Al-Farouq Aminu off the floor in crunch time and was a big reason why Portland won the series in seven games.
The 2019-20 season positioned Collins for a possible breakout year. Olshey let Aminu walk in order to clear a starting spot for Collins and Nurkic was out for most the season with an injury, so Collins’ contributions would be heavily relied upon. He had already proven he could be a legitimate NBA role player, but the organization was hopeful he could take a leap with his game and start to live up to his lottery pick hype. But Portland never got to see if Collins could make the leap, as injuries ravaged his 2019-20 campaign. A dislocated shoulder sidelined Collins for most of the season after just three games. He returned to action in the bubble, but an ankle injury cut his play short after only eight games.
Further setbacks would keep Collins out of action for the entire 2020-21 season. After another setback during rehabilitation this June, the Blazers gave up on Collins’ potential and didn’t pursue him in free agency. He signed with the San Antonio Spurs on a three-year, $22-million deal. The size of Collins’ contract with the Spurs, despite his injury history, is evidence of his upside, one that will never be realized in a Portland uniform. At only 23, Collins’ NBA future remains uncertain, but his career with the Blazers concludes as another injury-prone center who has left fans playing the “what-if game.”
Caleb Swanigan | 2017 Draft Pick (26th Pick)
Seasons: 3 | PTS: 2.4 | REB: 3.1 | FG%: 43.5%| Postseason Appearances: 1
The answers about Swanigan’s career and time as a Blazer are much clearer compared to Collins’ career. Selected with the 26th pick, Swanigan was a first-round gamble. The 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year, Swanigan showcased passing chops and rebounding skill as a frontcourt prospect, but he stood at only six feet eight inches tall and lacked speed.
His lack of size and athleticism would be his doom in the NBA. During his two stints in Portland, from the 2017-18 season until February 2019, and then a brief return in the 2019-20 season, Swanigan was only a rotation player when injuries decimated the roster.
Between his time in Portland, Swanigan appeared in only 10 games for the Sacramento Kings in two fragmented seasons. He averaged 1.3 points and 1.9 rebounds in 5.6 minutes per game.
After opting out of the bubble in 2020, Swanigan wasn’t signed to a NBA team prior to the 2020-21 season and hasn’t appeared on a NBA roster since his time in Portland.
With Collins moving to San Antonio this past week, the dust has officially settled on the Blazers’ talent acquisition in the summer of 2017. Just like the players Olshey acquired in the summer of 2016, not a single one remains on Portland’s current roster.
Swanigan was a clear swing and a miss. Collins is ... complicated. Hindsight is 20/20 and you can’t knock Olshey for failing to forecast Collins’ injury-riddled future. But even before injuries deactivated him, Collins’ offensive limitations and inconsistent three-point shot made it seem he wasn’t going to become the transformative stretch five Olshey sold to the fanbase. The fact is that during another crucial summer in Lillard’s timeline and with the Blazers only real route for improvement being the draft, the best Olshey got out of three first-round picks were two seasons-worth of a decent backup center and a player who couldn’t crack an NBA rotation.
In a draft class where talent like Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma and Derrick White all came off the board in the first round after the tenth pick, Portland came away largely empty-handed.
Next Time: 2018 and Beyond