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Larry Nance Jr. Trade Good for Blazers, Cost to Be Determined

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We break down the on-court and off-court ramifications of Portland’s latest swap.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have traded Derrick Jones, Jr. and a lottery-protected first-round pick in a three-team deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, netting Portland Larry Nance, Jr. The 6’7 forward-center is a talented rebounder and active defender who should help the Blazers in the short term more than Jones, Jr. could. If Portland’s goal was to improve the roster this summer, they just did it.

The move doesn’t qualify as stellar, but it’s more than incremental. The questions at hand now: What’s the payoff for the Blazers, and at what cost?

Pros and Cons on the Floor

This trade balances Portland’s roster in a couple of ways.

First, it gives them another legitimate bigger player. Prior to the move, Portland’s frontcourt consisted of starters Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington, plus reserve center Cody Zeller. They had lost forward Carmelo Anthony and center Enes Kanter this summer without replacing them. Nance, Jr. has the capacity to fill in for both.

Nance, Jr. will also help Portland’s defensive attack. He’s not a one-man stopper, but he’s active. He’ll get his feet in the passing lanes and have busy hands against opposing dribblers. His defense alone outclasses Kanter, Anthony, and Jones, Jr. combined. This is roughly the same as saying 1 is greater than .2 + .05 + .3, but when you’ve been living with .55 of a defender spread across three positions, a solid contributor looks plenty good. When Nance, Jr. is completely healthy and right with the world, his defense gets even better than that. He’ll make a nice trio with Nurkic and Covington, supporting the attributes of both.

This is true to an extent on the offensive end as well. Nance, Jr.’s best quality on offense may be his brain. He sees the game well. Like Nurkic, he’s an underrated passer. Just as critically for the Blazers, he won’t have to swallow shots or possessions to be effective.

Nance, Jr. is an opportunist more than a mainstay. He’s never averaged more than 8 shots per game, and seldom more than 10 shots per 36 minutes, in his career. He registered 12.3 shots per 100 possessions with Cleveland last season. Jones, Jr. averaged 11.3 with Portland, but Kanter put up 15.6 and Anthony 22.4. You might expect Nance, Jr.’s shooting rates to go up in Portland, but he’s going to be more Kanter-esque than ‘Melo.

Three-point shooting has not been Nance, Jr.’s forte. He posted a career-high 36.0% success rate last season on 3.3 attempts from distance per game. That’s not blindingly bad (plenty of forwards have come to town with worse reputations) but it’s not up to the usual standards. The Blazers will benefit if their newest acquisition gets the fabled “Portland Bump”, adding 2-3% to his three-point percentage because their shots are so wide open, courtesy of the starting guards.

Nance, Jr. has been a good overall-percentage shooter throughout his career. At first that was because his offense stayed within 10 feet of the hoop. He’s stretched out to the arc without losing efficiency, which is a good sign. He’s not going to be a ball-in-hand, all-ranges scorer, but the Blazers don’t need that from their frontcourt players anyway.

The big asterisk came last season, when Nance played only 35 games. He didn’t exactly shoot the lights out. He didn’t even make the bulb wiggle. He posted a dramatic career-low of 47.1% from the field, watching his True Shooting Percentage plummet alongside. Part of that was injuries. Another part, frankly, was Cleveland. But the Blazers can’t absorb that version of Larry Nance, otherwise this trade was a big mistake.

Overall, Nance, Jr. should be more effective in the halfcourt offense than Jones, Jr. was. It’s far more plausible to imagine him whipping passes, grabbing offensive rebounds, and throwing down the occasional dunk than imagining the entire team—including its walk-it-up starting guards—shifting into a running game to suit Jones, Jr.

Even in a down year, Nance, Jr.’s rebounding remain strong. That, along with sneaky-good defense, are his hallmarks. As long as he can make an open shot, he provides just what the Blazers needed. On paper, this was a solid deal.

Basketball-Reference Larry Nance Page

Ramifications Off the Floor

Injuries

Nance, Jr. is only 28, headed to 29, and is still in his prime. At 8487 regular-season minutes logged, he’s relatively low-mileage. (That averages to 1415 minutes per year. By contrast, Damian Lillard averages around 2750.) But there’s a reason for that.

Injuries have been a big part of the Nance, Jr. subtext. He has never played 70 games in a season. Two years ago he appeared in just 56 games, last year 35 (out of 72). Portland didn’t just trade for a guy coming off an injury, they traded for a player who’s suffered chronic injuries.

Cap and Contract

The salary-cap ramifications of this trade aren’t huge. Jones, Jr. was scheduled to make $9.7 million this season. Nance, Jr. will earn $10.7 million. That’s going to push Portland further over the luxury tax threshold, but not so far that they’ll be unable to escape. Watch for another trade, perhaps mid-season, to shave enough off of their salary ledger to bring them back under the tax bar. That would have been the story had Jones, Jr. stayed too.

Unlike Jones, Jr., Nance, Jr. has a second year on his contract at a very reasonable $9.7 million. The Blazers were not expected to re-sign DJJ following this season. This deal bought them another year of service from a good forward. It also gave them another trade chip next summer if needed. That makes this deal a sensible investment cap-wise.

The Draft Pick

The Blazers had to throw in a first-round pick to get this deal done. That could be the hitch here.

In a perfect world, Nance, Jr. shines, Damian Lillard stays, the Blazers contend, and the pick ends up being an afterthought, sitting in the low 20’s. Life isn’t always perfect, though.

If Nance, Jr. is injured during his Portland tenure the way he was in Cleveland, the Blazers will have a hard time extracting a first-round pick out of him in a deal two years down the road. He’ll be heading towards 31, carrying a spotty health record. Any return would be modest.

If the front office has to deconstruct the team over the next couple of years, Nance on his own is not enough to build around. He’s not likely to boost the Blazers into contention even with everyone surrounding him now. They won’t be able to rebuild around him either. His contract may remain neutral, but the pick they traded to get him might not. The shadow scenario in this deal is that Nance, Jr. won’t make a big difference, the Blazers have to recycle over the next couple years anyway, and they end up a first-round pick behind for essentially nothing.

Conclusion

This was a fairly typical Neil Olshey move. The Blazers got a good player at a reasonable price. In the microcosm of the moment, the rating on the deal is high. In the big picture, it might not matter as much as they hoped. And, continuing their pattern from recent years, they’re mortgaging the future in order to look better in the present. As we’re going to talk about in a couple days, the debt on these decisions is going to come due over the next two years, both financially and with roster depth. Getting talented, rookie-contract players in the draft is one of the main ways to mitigate the hefty interest. The Blazers are losing the ability to do so, opting to charge more on their credit card today instead.

This trade would have been an A+ without the first-rounder thrown in. We pretty much knew that wasn’t going to happen. Considering context, the combination of losing the pick and having to cross fingers on Nance, Jr.’s injuries probably makes it a B+ move...still clearly an A for talent exchange, but with a couple of significant asterisks.

If Blazers fans can look back in three years and say, “That was clearly awesome,” it’ll revert right back to the highest grade. If they’re ruing the loss of buying power, traded away for playoffs disappointment, that’s a different story.

Nance, Jr.’s talent and skill set make this one of the better Portland trades in recent memory, but it’s still a Portland trade.