The 2023 NBA Trade Deadline has come and gone. With the Phoenix Suns acquiring future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Durant and the Los Angeles Lakers picking up plenty of young defenders to help their cause, Portland Trail Blazers fans are shaking their heads in consternation. Maybe they didn’t expect to take over the world, but they also didn’t expect to lose a starter and a key reserve for...well...what seems like not much.
Fear not, Blazers Faithful. Here’s the rundown of the players going out, the new ones coming in, the reasons the moves happened, and where the franchise is going from here.
Josh Hart, to the New York Knicks
9.5 PTS, 8,2 REBS, 50.4% FG, 33.4 MPG, 51 games
$13 million with a player option at the end of the season
As you know if you’ve read Blazer’s Edge at all over the last two months, Hart’s fate was decided by his contract. At $13 million, he was a fantastic deal as a starting small forward. Even his reduced scoring and three-point struggles this season didn’t dim the value of a fine all-around player, an asset to any franchise.
The Blazers couldn’t be sure Hart would be satisfied with the final, option year of his contract, especially since he was the fifth option in Portland when he clearly has more talent than that position would call for. If the Blazers were on their way to a title run, he might have had incentive to opt in. Or they might have had incentive to pay him more. That wasn’t happening.
If Hart opted out this summer, Portland would be forced into a nasty set of choices. They know they’ll have to pay their other starting forward—free-agent-to-be Jerami Grant—around $30 million to stay. They also owe Damian Lillard a colossal spaceship full of money. Anfernee Simons ain’t cheap either. Paying Hart, they’d be looking at deep luxury tax penalties for a lineup that’s playing .500 ball.
That wasn’t a tenable situation. Neither was letting Hart walk for nothing. Even though the Blazers wanted to be buyers at the deadline in the abstract, in this case they needed to sell like Tom Peterson at midnight.
No doubt Portland would have liked a higher return for Hart than Cam Reddish, the already-departed Svi Mykhailiuk, and Ryan Arcidiacono. But they did get a first-round pick from the Knicks. That’s likely to be a mediocre asset in its own right, but it opens up trade possibilities that the Blazers didn’t have at this deadline precisely because they lacked available first-rounders.
The pick becomes four second-rounders if the Knicks end up in the lottery, so Blazers fans need to start rooting for New York to win every game.
Gary Payton II, to the Golden State Warriors
4.1 PTS, 2.6 REB, 58.5% FG, 52.9% 3PT, 17.0 MPG, 15 games
$8.3 million with $17.8 million remaining over the next two seasons
The Blazers trading Gary Payton II is how you know things have gone south like a bad fungus. The two parties agreeing on a three-year deal was heralded as one of the smart moves of the past summer: a sign of Portland’s commitment to winning, a signal that they were once again becoming a relevant and attractive franchise. Trading Payton six months into his contract evokes the same feeling as your kids getting a much-anticipated Christmas present then donating it to Goodwill in February.
On the surface, this move was confusing. Payton’s defense was every bit as good as advertised. You could see the difference in his approach and posture the moment he stepped on the floor. His shooting percentages were stellar. He seldom made a bad play.
There had to be more to the story.
While there’s no telling unless the Blazers share publicly—and they have no reason to do so overtly—the “15 Games” portion of Payton’s stat line may have something to do with the disenchantment. The guard spent months recovering from off-season surgery. October turned into November, which turned into December, which became a whole new calendar year before Payton suited up.
Payton first played on the 2nd of January after public comments from Portland’s staff that he was ready...or past due, even. He played a single game, sat out three more, played five, sat out one, played six, sat out one. His availability log reads like a Fibonacci sequence. Whispers abounded.
On top of that, the Blazers went 7-8 in the games in which Payton played. That wasn’t due to his influence. They had plenty of other injuries and scheduling quirks during that span. He was the 8th player, at best, in their rotation. The losses weren’t his fault. But his presence wasn’t transforming them either.
In the end, the Blazers may have presumed that they weren’t going to win this year and needed to retool before they could succeed next year. Their grand, veteran-based revolution has died on the vine. Payton was an artifact of that vision.
Evidently, Portland preferred second-round draft picks to a player who didn’t suit up often enough, had turned 30 on their watch, and was going to cost them money for the next two and a half seasons without any guarantee of team success.
Greg Brown III, waived
1.8 PTS, 1.2 REB, 5.8 MPG, 16 games
$1.5 million with $1.8 million non-guaranteed next season
Greg Brown III was a casualty of Portland’s trade machinations. By rule, they needed an extra roster spot to consummate their planned deals. By rule, they also owe salary cap and luxury tax on all players they keep and/or waive in the process (as opposed to players they trade away). That meant the Blazers needed to waive one player, but have that player be inexpensive enough that keeping his salary on the books (even though he wasn’t playing anymore) wouldn’t push them over the tax line.
Greg Brown was at the lowest end of Portland’s rotation and the bottom of their salary structure. Waiving him cost them the least on the court and in the books. That’s why he’s no longer with the team.
Matisse Thybulle, 25-year-old 6’5 shooting guard from the Philadelphia 76ers
2.7 PTS, 1.3 REB, 12.1 MPG, 43.1% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 49 games, 6 starts
$4.4 million this year, Restricted Free Agent with $6.3 million qualifying offer this summer
The Blazers acquired Thybulle just before they traded away Payton. That leads to obvious comparisons.
Thybulle is a hyper-athlete. He’s a good defender, often great.
Unlike Payton, Thybulle is a work in progress. He fell out of Head Coach Doc Rivers’ rotation this year in Philadelphia. Offensive production is one of the reasons. He’s not an efficient scorer and he’s a fairly poor shooter. In today’s NBA, that’s a deadly sin for a wing.
Thybulle is younger than Payton by a mile, cheaper by half, and taller by a couple inches. Those are the reasons he was attractive to the Blazers in comparison to their former defensive specialist. But the lack of shooting and experience don’t speak well for Thybulle’s potential to impact winning this year, at least not more than Payton did.
If they get a serviceable player out of this exchange, the Blazers should be happy. Anything more would be a bonus. The Blazers have tried “good at defense, not much offense” forwards before. It hasn’t solved their problems.
Cam Reddish, 23-year-old 6’8 small forward from the New York Knicks
8.4 PTS, 44.9% FG, 30.4% 3PT, 21.9 MPG, 20 games, 8 starts
$6.0 million this year, Restricted Free Agent with $8.1 million qualifying offer this summer
Cam Reddish was one of the hot names coming out of the 2019 NBA Draft, a project forward from Duke with enough hops and muscle to become a potential superstar. He fit the 3-and-D mold so prized in the 2010’s. He seemed like a great gamble.
Since then, Reddish has played 2.5 seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and 1.5 with the New York Knicks. The experiment did not go well either place. A colleague who has followed his progress described him as “a 3-and-D player who can’t shoot...or defend”.
The Blazers will likely clean the slate with Reddish, giving him a chance to redeem his career much like Justise Winslow has in his time here. It’ll be interesting to see how Reddish fares in Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ system of plays, though.
This is one of those moves that looks promising on paper and will probably seem great in the isolated moments Reddish gets to fly. It’s a long way from here to reliable contributor, though, and keeping Reddish on a Qualifying Offer next season will cost the Blazers as much as Gary Payton’s contract would have. The math is not adding up for a long and fruitful union.
Kevin Knox, 23-year-old 6’7 swing forward from the Detroit Pistons
5.6 PTS, 2.6 REB, 14.1 MPG, 46.9% FG, 37.1 3PT, 42 games, 1 start
$3.0 million with a $3.0 million team option next season
Kevin Knox stands alone in this group of incoming players; at least he can shoot the three at an average clip. If you only look at this year’s stats, that is. He’s been hot and cold his whole career.
Knox isn’t as good of a defender as Thybulle and he doesn’t have the upside of Reddish, but he’s 23 and 6’7, which at least gives the Blazers a little more size potential at small forward?
Ryan Arcidiacono, 28-year-old 6’3 point guard from the New York Knicks
0.3 PTS, 0.2 AST, 2.4 MPG, 20.0% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 11 games, 0 starts
$2.1 million, Unrestricted Free Agent this summer
Arcidiacono might be waived before he joins the team. It’s hard to see him making a significant impact.
Evaluating the Talent Exchange
If you look at the common elements in Portland’s trade-deadline acquisitions, they run like this: younger, taller, cheaper, with some potential for growth. By those four criteria, the Blazers did well.
Plenty of qualities are missing from that list: experience, production, shooting, consistency/reliability, playing time, and even overall talent.
The Blazers agreed to two trades where they gave up the best player in the deal. That’s never fun. Even less jolly: Gary Payton II is probably better than any player the Blazers acquired, and he wasn’t even the best player they gave up.
In aggregate, judging just by talent, the Blazers got a little more athletic and a lot more hosed this deadline.
That indicates that talent wasn’t the only factor in their decision-making process.
In addition to the players mentioned above, the Blazers acquired these assets, in aggregate, through their trades:
- A first-round pick from the Knicks that will become four second-round picks if New York doesn’t make the playoffs this year.
- 5 second-round picks from various sources give or take 1-2 that might have been sent out in the Thybulle move...that’s still unclear at the time of posting.
- Cap savings of about $5.5 million
As we mentioned above, the first-round pick could provide huge flexibility to the Blazers, especially if they end up keeping their own pick this summer by failing to make the playoffs. That gives them two picks to deal, or one to keep and one to trade.
Anyone who watched the Suns give up 92 first-rounders and the firstborn children of their front office staff in order to acquire Kevin Durant last night knows the price for stars in this league. Without the picks, the phone goes click.
If the Blazers hope to get better quickly via trade, extra draft picks are the way to go. If the Blazers plan to slow down and build organically through a youth movement, extra draft picks are the way to go. Either way, that pick is probably the most significant asset they took in today.
They also got five second-round picks, minus whatever they sent out. If disaster strikes and New York goes into the lottery, Portland will get four extra second-round picks out of this deadline instead. That sounds cool, but teams were trading those second-rounders four and five at a time today, so the value seems muted. They need the first.
Don’t underestimate the importance of getting farther below the luxury tax threshold to the Blazers either. 48 hours ago, they were only $67,000 beneath the border. They couldn’t take on any salary, trigger any unusual contract stipulations, or even sneeze sideways without going into tax territory. That would have been a full-on disaster for a .500 team looking to grow.
Their cap savings isn’t just theoretical. They needed it to waive Greg Brown III and absorb new players without getting taxed. They’ll need it if they plan to pick up a player off of the waiver market.
These deals also increased Portland’s financial flexibility for the summer. Payton and Hart held contracts under their own control. The Blazers either owed money automatically or were at the mercy of what their player decided to do. The players they picked up are either Restricted Free Agents, team options, or minor considerations. Portland gained some wiggle room and power of choice in July, committing themselves to nothing, leaving open every option.
This was not a great trade deadline for the Blazers. They clearly wanted to make moves but just as clearly got priced out and/or nerfed as they attempted to do so.
Portland’s moves did not bring talent upgrades, clear direction, or much assurance. The Blazers are farther in the dark, and farther in the hole, than when they started the season.
Portland did obtain some draft capital, flexibility, and young potential. They got taller and more athletic at the backup wing positions. At the same time, they sacrificed talent and shooting at exactly those positions.
That said, you can see why, in context, the Blazers made the moves they did. That’s not the same as saying those moves were agreeable. “Understandable” is more like it.
We do know—or at least probably know—that the Blazers have no designs on winning it all this year. They either could not improve via trades today or they were unwilling to pay the cost. We also know that they did not believe in their roster as it stood, and were unwilling to overpay for it in the hopes that it would grow and/or change.
This does not mean that the Blazers have given up on winning altogether. Some of their moves were designed to free up resources needed for better players—both on the team and new—to continue forward.
The best explanation of the last 24 hours is that Portland spent their day making the best of the situation they could. They almost certainly knew they were going to lose Hart. They didn’t want to go onward with Payton. With that in mind, they extracted the assets they could, made a few bets on potential, and waited for the next hand to push chips in for real.
We’ll know more about Portland’s future by what they do in the waiver pick-up market this week, how (and who) they play for the remainder of the season, and what they end up doing this summer with trade assets and cap exceptions. Until then, Blazers fans will have to sit tight, knowing that if there’s answer coming, it’s not here yet.
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