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Portland Trail Blazers 2022 Moves So Far: Gary Payton with the MLE

Portland’s big free agent signing was a wing. Here’s why.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

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.

Throughout the week, 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 the final post of the series (to this point in the summer, anyway), we’re going to look at Portland’s big free agent acquisition: Golden State Warriors veteran Gary Payton II. The Blazers made Payton the primary target of their discretionary dollars, passing up potential big-man signings to add a 6’3 wing who will now have played for 5 teams in 7 NBA seasons. Let’s examine why.

The Transaction: The Blazers sign Gary Payton II to a three-year deal.

What It Cost: $28 million over three seasons, averaging $9.33 million per year. This occupied the bulk of Portland’s mid-level exception for the year, the main vehicle for signing free agents who weren’t already on the team.

NBA Reaction: The reaction was substantially positive. The Warriors would have liked Payton to stay, helping them repeat their 2022 NBA Championship. Portland’s offer exceeded what Golden State was willing to give. Analysts viewed this as a “smart” signing...not a superstar or franchise-changing acquisition, but one of those moves that basketball people love. Payton is well-regarded across the league and his contributions to the Warriors last season were notable.

The Stats: 7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals with 61.6% shooting from the field, 35.8% from the three-point arc in 17.6 minutes per game over 71 appearances in 2021-22.

What Portland Gained

Over the course of his career, Payton has grown from a springy, young go-getter to a relentless veteran defender. He’s kept himself in the league by tenaciously refusing to back down from any opponent on the defensive end. He’s known for steals, but also for smarts. The Blazers lacked those qualities in their backcourts of the last decade.

Payton theoretically played point guard and small forward for the Warriors last season, but realistically he can guard any of the three small positions interchangeably, with the caveat that he will be at a size disadvantage against some NBA threes.

Payton’s offense hasn’t languished either. He’s neither a volume scorer nor a pure shooter. He is one of the most selective, heady offensive players in the league, as his 62% field goal percentage indicates. He led all participants in the 2022 NBA Playoffs with a 75% effective field goal percentage.

Payton is capable of starting if necessary, but he’s a true, energy-based bench player. He will slot into the exact role and minutes the Blazers have open for him. He’s not an overreach. He’s not being shoehorned into a new, lesser position, as was typical of Portland signings past. Payton doesn’t just fill a hole in the system, he’ll overflow it without becoming a distraction.

Potential Pitfalls

There are few downsides to the Payton signing. Opportunity cost is one. The Blazers already have Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson, Nassir Little, and Greg Brown III manning their small positions. They had one, healthy mid-level exception to spend on free agents, bolstering the roster. They got a player who is going to crowd into the elevator alongside Lillard and Simons, pushing Hart, Sharpe, and Johnson towards the wall.

If they don’t move somebody, players are going to be underutilized. Payton will probably earn his spot, but Hart, in particular, is already too good of a player for the role the Blazers will likely ask him to play. Payton’s acquisition will intensify the situation.

Hart has one more year on his current contract with a player option after. Payton II has three. Hart already makes $13 million per year and will likely want a raise. Payton II is locked in at $9.3. The writing on the wall is probably math, and it looks as if this signing will force the Blazers to do something with at least one of their existing wings, if not more.

It’s also worth noting that Payton is a near-perfect player for Portland because of the team’s needs That doesn’t mean he was empirically the best player available. If the shape of the team shifts, so might his utility. This is less true of the well-rounded Hart or even of a potential powerhouse like Sharpe. Getting Payton is like drawing the 9 of Clubs as the last card to complete your straight. As long as the 10-K line up, you did great. Transfer that card to another hand and its value might be less.

Final Verdict

There’s nothing wrong with this move at all. Payton should help out with a team in “win now” mode. He fits everything the Blazers want, bringing nothing they don’t. If, for some reason, the experiment falls apart, he isn’t costing them much. His contract should be tradeable well into the future.

As a bonus feature, the Blazers should have plenty of goodwill from Payton. They just gave him 2.8 times his entire NBA career earnings to this point, combined. Portland wanted him. They showed it. Along with Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks, Payton should become part of the “new” Blazers bench, full of enthusiasm for the franchise and their role in it. This is a radical change from the “highly-rated hired hand” approach during the Neil Olshey era.

With Payton at or near the top of the order, Portland’s reserves should provide intensity, spirit, and most importantly, defense. That could become a secret-sauce ingredient allowing the Blazers to take the next step, or at least open the door to it.

Up Next

In case you missed any of our earlier entries in the series, here they are:

Trading for Jerami Grant

Drafting Shaedon Sharpe

Bringing Back Josh Hart

Keeping the Big Free Agents

Give or take a minor move, it appears the Blazers might be done for the summer, willing to ride into training camp with a slightly-bulging sack of guards and small forwards, a slightly-lean list of power forwards and centers. If they do make other moves before the season, we’ll recap and analyze those as well.