For the last two weeks, the Portland Trail Blazers have employed a flurry of trades, signings, and draft picks to rebuild their roster in preparation for the 2022-23 NBA season. If you haven’t been paying careful attention you could be forgiven for missing out on some of the details. Even if you have, it’s time to take a deep breath, recap, and reset.
Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, we’re going to break down Portland’s moves so far this summer, examining each in detail, bringing you up to date and teasing out the significance of each transaction.
In this post, we’ll look at an unsurprising move with interesting implications: the Blazers picking up the team option on the contract of G/F Josh Hart.
The Transaction: The Blazers guaranteed Josh Hart’s $13 million contract for the 2022-23 season, making him a member of the roster in the coming year.
What it Cost: $12.96 million in cap space. Hart’s contract was not guaranteed for the coming season until last week. The Blazers could have released him and not paid any additional dollars.
NBA Reaction: Those that noticed it, thought it prudent. It would have been bigger news had the Blazers released Hart, as he would have hit the free agent market.
The Stats: 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists in 33.2 minutes per game last season over 54 appearances with the Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans. Hart shot 50.4% from the field, 34.3% from the arc.
Portland numbers: 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists in 32.1 minutes, 50.3% from the field, 37.4% on three-pointers.
What Portland Gained
Josh Hart is a Swiss-Army-Knife wing, with more tools at his disposal than any of the small players the Blazers field. He’s a heady passer, a willing defender, a good rebounder for his size. To that, he added 20 points per game scored over 13 appearances with Portland last year. He’s not going to register at All-Star levels in any of these departments, but he’s going to give you all of them, nearly every night, at a more-than-acceptable level. Hart is the classic “glue player”.
Retaining Hart gives the Blazers considerable depth at the shooting guard position, with overlap at small forward. He has played both throughout his five-year NBA career. Portland now has a bench presence in the backcourt, a potential starter (or first reserve) at the three.
No matter what the question, Hart is an acceptable answer. There’s no reason the Blazers wouldn’t want him on the floor. One could even argue that Hart is Portland’s best option at starting shooting guard, given their projected rotation. They’re not going to go that way, but they could. That says something.
Had the Blazers let Hart go, they might have saved cash, but they would not have preserved any cap space. Subsequent re-signings of Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic put them over the line regardless. Since he is already on the roster, Hart’s contract is a “freebie” in relation to the cap, up until the moment the Blazers exceed the luxury tax threshold. Whether they’re one dollar over the cap or $13 million, it all ends up the same unless they go into tax penalties.
Under those circumstances, Releasing Hart would have made little sense. With him on the roster, the Blazers have another contract slot and talent asset available for trade, at least until the contract renews again next summer. At that point it’s a player option. If things go well, he’s unlikely to settle for playing out the last year of that deal.
No pitfalls would make keeping Hart the wrong move at this point. Even if they never planned to play him, the trade potential would argue for retaining his contract at that price.
That said, it’s fair to ask where Hart will fit in Portland’s retooled lineup, and how happy he’s likely to be with the result.
Hart is not a natural starter at small forward, simply because he’s overmatched defensively most nights. Shooting guard would be a better option for him. But the Blazers have Simons slated to start at the two spot. Simons will eat minutes and shots like a buffet. That’s going to push Hart back to the three, where he’ll tangle with Nassir Little and newly-signed Gary Payton II.
The position remains one of the great mysteries of Portland’s new look. What, exactly, will they want their small forwards to do? If it’s stand on the sidelines, shoot threes, and defend well, Little and Payton fit that profile more than Hart. If it’s create enough points to disguise a relative lack of defense, where are the extra shots and touches coming from? Hart is a natural facilitator and should have the ball in his hands. That doesn’t seem likely in Portland’s current lineup.
We haven’t even mentioned Shaedon Sharpe and Keon Johnson pushing Hart from below. Hart’s progress towards minutes looks less like an express flight, more like a maze.
Somehow the Blazers have created a situation where the same player who could potentially be the best fit for position and style of play might also become the odd man out.
Unless injuries clear up the situation for them, the Blazers will need to resolve this ambiguity before the season gets too old. They can’t keep a player with Hart’s capabilities on the pines. Nor can he afford to have his minutes limited unduly, playing in a contract year.
Though they show every indication of keeping Hart for now, this will be a story to watch throughout the season. There’s going to be considerable pressure to move him or move players around him. Either way, tension usually accompanies such decisions. If it’s the good kind that leads to increased competitiveness and chemistry, that’s fantastic. If it’s not, it could become a burr in the saddle for the early season.
The Blazers should have kept Hart and they did keep Hart. Now it’s all about the, “What now?”
A couple of huge re-signings.