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Who’s Still Available In The Frontcourt?

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The Blazers still have the taxpayer midlevel exception. Are there any decent forwards and centers waiting for a new home?

Toronto Raptors v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers front office has so far secured three smallish wings and one center after six days of free agency. There’s still time to improve the roster and convince Damian Lillard to hang around; however, these underwhelming additions — outside of the no brainer Norman Powell re-signing — have left this roster imbalanced.

Along with Powell, sharpshooters Tony Snell and Ben McLemore have joined the team. Cody Zeller was also brought in to support Jusuf Nurkic; but with Robert Covington, rookie Greg Brown and two-way player Trendon Watford the only others standing taller than 6’6, this team is officially small.

That’s right: Nurkic, Covington, and Zeller are the only rotation players above 6’6 with two spare roster spots and one remaining two-way contract left.

The roster as it stands:

  • Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Covington, Nurkic
  • Anfernee Simons, Snell, Derrick Jones Jr., Nassir Little, Zeller
  • CJ Elleby, McLemore, Greg Brown (Trendon Watford - two-way contract)

This team is going to face serious challenges on a nightly basis, especially when lining up against larger opponents: namely the Los Angeles Lakers who start LeBron James, 6’9, Anthony Davis, 6’11, and Marc Gasol, 6’11, at the three larger positions.

Nurkic and Zeller’s injury history

Over the past two seasons, the pair have collectively played 151 regular season games out of a possible 239 (63 percent). If this percentage is to remain true next season, both will only be fit for 52 of 82 games. Who is going to man center minutes for those remaining 30 games? Covington? Jones Jr.? This is starting to look pretty bleak.

Either a trade is coming or President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey will use the final one or two spots — he typically goes into the season with 14 players — to sign taller frontcourt players.

But who’s available and capable? More importantly, who is willing to come to Portland for the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel exception (TPMLE), the best asset the Blazers have?

They’ve already struck out with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Nicolas Batum, although this pair wouldn’t have addressed the power forward and center position shortfall.

Is there anyone else?

Lauri Markkanen, PF, 24, Chicago Bulls

The young forward appeared destined for the Charlotte Hornets if you believe The Athletic’s Shams Charania. But things may have changed with the Hornets signing Kelly Oubre Jr and Markkanen possibly asking for too much money.

It now looks like the Bulls are trying to move Markkanen via sign and trade, good thing too, because the Blazers’ TPMLE is unlikely to get the deal done.

At 7’0, the 24-year-old Finnish sharp shooter is good enough and young enough to make a difference for the Blazers. His weaknesses are pretty obvious — he doesn’t defend or rebound well enough for someone his size.

But his scoring ability outweighs these two flawed traits. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on more than 40 percent from three in just 25 minutes a game. The Blazers haven’t had a power forward this offensively minded since LaMarcus Aldridge. Mind you, he’s nowhere near Aldridge in his prime, but Markkanen still packs a serious offensive threat. I don’t think he supplants Covington in the starting unit, however he does give Simons and co. a clear target with the second unit.

If the Bulls are open to a sign and trade, did someone say Derrick Jones Jr. and a first round pick?

Paul Millsap, PF, 36, Denver Nuggets

Yahoo Sports Chris Haynes has already highlighted the Blazers’ interest in Millsap who turns 37 in February.

During his Atlanta Hawks years (2013-2017), Millsap was considered one of the better power forwards in the league, offering impactful play on both sides of the ball for a team that came ever so close to the pinnacle. Last season, 6’7 Millsap registered 9 points (34 percent three point shooting), 4.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists with the Nuggets, splitting his time between starting and bench roles.

While his production will continue to slide, he might still be able to provide that reliable heady presence off the bench, alongside Zeller or as a backup center, helping guide some of the Blazers’ younger players.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F/C, 26, Portland Trail Blazers

From here, we move into the vet min names. I suggested the Blazers retain Hollis-Jefferson earlier this offseason He’s a little shorter than you’d like at 6’6 but can competently play small-ball center when called upon. He wouldn’t require more than a vet min contract for the simple fact that he doesn’t shoot at all.

He won’t be the first, second, or third off the bench. But when it comes time to clamp down on opposing wings, I’d much rather see a player of Hollis-Jefferson’s skillset thrust into action than other names mentioned in this list.

Aron Baynes, F/C. 34, Toronto Raptors

It wouldn’t be an Adrian’s Angles column without mentioning a fellow Australian. Two seasons ago, Baynes made the Blazers look stupid as a member of the Suns. While there has since been a drop off in production — recording only 6.1 points in 18.5 minutes with the Raptors last season — he can still play and is a near immovable force standing 6’10 and carrying 260lbs. Baynes, who is currently nursing a neck injury, also has championship experience thanks to his time with the San Antonio Spurs, which will no doubt come in handy for any team looking to make that next step.

DeMarcus Cousins, C, 30, Los Angeles Clippers

The four-time All Star and two-time All-NBA Second team big man is still finding his way back after a slew of injuries derailed his career. He’s probably not worth more than a vet min contract but you never know where his demand is at the moment. Last season, first with the Houston Rockets and then with the Clippers, Cousins played 41 of a possible 72 games, recording 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists so there’s still some work to do. Although, if he can get to even half of his All Star-level play, Cousins is definitely worth a look.

Mike Scott, PF, 33, Philadelphia 76ers

Scott spreads the floor and offers passable defense as a stetch big man off the bench. With a career long-range shooting average of 36 percent, Scott is a similar prospect to former Blazer Anthony Tolliver with a little more athleticism and a slightly more effective offensive punch. At 6’7 with a 7’3 wingspan he’s capable of playing understudy to Covington for 15 to 20 minutes a night.

LaMarcus Aldridge, F/C, 36, Brooklyn Nets

Ok, let’s not get too excited. It appears Aldridge, who retired just a few months ago following ongoing issues with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, could be looking at a revival. Nothing is set in stone with the obvious issue being his ability to stay on the court. This is magnified by the fact that the two players ahead of him on the depth chart (Nurkic and Zeller) probably won’t be able to compete for a full 82-game season.

But, if we are discussing hypotheticals, sure, it would be great to see Aldridge in Blazers colors again on a vet min deal, even if he played sparingly.

Honorable mentions: Frank Kaminsky, Ed Davis, Bismack Biyombo, Isaiah Hartenstein.

Conclusion

Markkanen is the pipe dream, given his age, ability, and physical features. It’s almost surprising he hasn’t signed elsewhere yet. The problem is that Portland is probably not the only team knocking on his door and with Olshey’s track record luring free agents to Oregon, hopes aren’t high.

Bringing him to Portland for the price he wants might require a sign and trade with a pick and player, if that’s possible. Millsap seems the most likely move here, particularly following Haynes’ report earlier this week. He’s the quintessential Olshey signing, brought in years after passing his prime but possibly with some tricks still up their sleeve.

Millsap can play both power forward and center spots and is capable of hitting a three and his stats with the Nuggets aren’t awful. Aldridge would also be a passable vet min signing and for sentimental reasons it would be a massive addition to this team, especially if it’s Lillard’s last go-round as a Blazer.

Markkanen is clearly number one, but I’d settle for Millsap. It is sad that we’re having to settle at this stage.