Portland Trail Blazers Off Season Report

portland-trail-blazers-sign

2015/16 Record: 44-38 (5th in West, lost West Semi’s)

Ins:

Evan Turner FA – 4 Years / $70mil
Festus Ezeli FA – 2 Years / $15.1mil
Shabazz Napier TR – Orlando
Jake Layman DR – Pick #47
Grant Jarrett FA – 2 Years / $2.2mil (non-guaranteed)
Tim Quarterman FA – 2 Years / $1.5mil (non-guaranteed)
Greg Stiemsma FA – 1 Year / $980k (non-guaranteed)

Outs:

Brian Roberts FA – Hornets
Gerald Henderson FA – 76ers
Cliff Alexander FA – Magic
Chris Kaman FA – Unsigned

Off Season Analysis:

The Portland Trail Blazers were the talk of the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge, gone. Nicolas Batum, gone. Robin Lopez, gone. Heart and Soul Wesley Matthews, gone. The core of a 50 win team, gone, replaced by “who’s that?” and “he’s still playing?” players. Everyone picked against the Blazers to have a successful season, how wrong they all were.

The group that shocked the NBA World largely returns to the intact for the 2016/17 season, but they are not the same. Thanks to a massive cap spike, the Blazers found themselves in position to capitalize on significant cap space and a budding young roster. How did that all work out? Well, that depends largely on your perspective.

Glass Half Full:

There are a couple of things that successful teams have in common. Elite players are a must. Top rated offence or defence is necessary. A mix of vets and young players entering their primes; and continuity. The key to sustained success in the NBA hinges on allowing your core to marinate and grow. Think OKC, think the Warriors, Spurs, even the LA Clippers! Give your core time; add some key pieces and Hey Presto! You have a contender.

Look at the Blazer roster, and you can see those same traits. Portland had gone all in on a guard heavy attack shouldered by the creative offence of Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum. Surrounding them are role players who performed well above expectation (outside of Portland’s coaching staff and front office anyway) and they are poised to grow and develop together.

CJ is now locked in along with Dame for the next 5 years. By committing to an extension now, McCollum agreed to sign for slightly less than his true max, which aids Portland going forward. McCollum certainly earned his raise. There was a stretch of 5 games where CJ averaged 27.4ppg while Lillard was injured, and you could hear whispers asking: is CJ better than Lillard? The answer is no, but the fact it was a questions showed CJ as a legit second star to Dame.

Terry Stotts showed he could create a passible defence if given time with a group of players, and Portland’s stability in the roster should aid that. The Blazers improved from 26th in Defensive Effiency in 2012/13 to 10th in 2014/15. On top of that, the acquisitions made by GM Neil Olshey were made with defence in mind.

Ezeli projects to be a significant upgrade in the middle (once healthy), ranking 4th for all Centres in defensive FG% at the rim (min 50 games). He was also in 2 of the Warrior’s 3 best defensive line ups.screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-2-06-45-amscreen-shot-2016-10-06-at-2-18-30-am

Evan Turner is a passable wing defender, ranking top 20 according to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus. Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee should only grow more comfortable with their required defensive responsibilities in the conservative scheme that Stotts employs andLillard has reportedly made strides in his PNR defence, which would ease pressure on the bigs.

If Portland can get into the top 3rd of the league in defence, then look out. By keeping Crabbe and Leonard, Portland retains important shooters for its second unit.

Mo Harkless stays as a wildcard athlete who can defend, rebound and slash to the basket. Ezeli was good as a roll man with Golden State, which is a staple in Portland.

And then there is Turner. No, he’s not a shooter. Neither was Aminu. Chief was able to carve out a decent % from beyond the 3 point line after virtually showing nothing as a 3 point threat:

Aminu vs Turner.png

Aminu 2014/15 vs Turner 2015/16

Turner is as crafty with the ball as they come from the 3 spot, and will give Dame and CJ more time to work off the ball, where they are both deadly in catch and shoot scenarios. The depth assembled is impressive, and the team is now built to weather any prolonged injury hits. Portland won 65% of their games from Jan 10, which would put them on 54 win pace. The inclusion of Harkless in the starting lineup at the end of the season saw the team take off, winning 7 of their final 9 games to solidify their playoff spot. It also happened to create the Blazer’s best lineup:

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-2-06-45-am

nba.com/stats

They showed the firepower to keep up with Golden State (mostly) in the Playoffs and they added solid offensive players without losing anyone of major consequence. In addition, the individual cost of the contracts handed to Harkless, Ezeli and Leonard also make the players moveable if a consolidation trade opportunity arrises. Olshey has positioned Portland to grow over time (average age was 24 last season) whilst having the pieces ready to compete now.

Glass Half Empty:

There are a couple of ways to see the Portland off season as a waste of money. The first that came to mind was Batum. Batum was traded to Charlotte for Henderson and Vonleh. Whilst Vonleh showed flashes, he was not a world beater, and I don’t think he is the long term answer at PF. He is currently on the very outside of the rotation at the 4 given Aminu, Harkless, Davis and Leonard all figure to get a look there before him. Then you have Henderson, gone on a cheap 2 year deal to Philly. Hendo started slow, but came on strong and proved to be an important part of the Blazer’s bench.

Imagine, for a moment, that Batum was still on the Portland roster. Instead of signing Turner as a secondary ball handler, you have Batum instead. Both can defend, but Batum can shoot, and had existing chemistry with the roster. batum-vs-turner-per-100

batum-vs-turner-per-36

basketball-reference.com

You add Batum instead of Turner/Vonleh and your rotation is Dame, CJ, Nico, Chief and Mase, with Leonard, Ezeli, Harkless, Crabbe, Davis and Napier as your bench.

That team offers better shooting and arguably better defence, and costs about $5mil more. Paul Allen showed he wasn’t scared to spend to compete when he splashed out $349 million in contracts. What is a couple more million to have a better team?

OK, lets say it wouldn’t have all worked out the way it has, so you continue with Turner and Vonleh instead. Portland is still right up against the luxury tax for this year and next. After missing out on main targets Hasaan Whiteside and Chandler Parsons, Portland settled by matching Brooklyn’s offer for Crabbe, and making the huge bid to secure Turner. Both players are on 4 year deals worth over $70 million each, and they might both be coming off the bench. Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless will be paid $10mil per year each to come play somewhere around 15min per night. Ezeli’s contract was a steal, but the guy is already injured.

Portland tied up so much money it seems implausible they could retain Mason Plumlee, only the team’s starting centre; a player who showed great growth as a facilitator and should improve on defence. His brother just got $52 million, and he’s not even a World Champion Gold Medalist.

To really understand how tied up the Blazer Cap is, have a listen to Nate Duncan explain it to Blazer’s Edge. Hosts Chris and Brandon were all ready to defend Portland and he dismantled their arguments effortlessly. They sounded stunned. Portland is banking a lot on players who basically had an out of body experience last season, playing out of their minds. That is a huge gamble.

So where do you sit? Where do I sit? I really don’t know. The fan in me would like to think this can all work. The offence should top 5, the defence should be a lot better than last year, and the team is deep. But if this team stalls, there aren’t many avenues to improve unless you attach Dame or CJ to a deal, and that seems very unlikely (and makes Blazer fans angry just to see written).

(Speaking of making the fans angry, Chris McGowan continued to make friends by firing the divisive but popular Mike and Mike from the team broadcast. I won’t miss Rice, but Barrett was a home grown guy who always dreamed of landing that gig. Tough loss to swallow.)

There were suggestions of a McCollum for Kevin Love trade before K-Love became a World Champion, and some would like to see the Blazers test Kings shrewd decision maker GM Vlade Divac with an offer of CJ and someone (likely Leonard and Vonleh, Sac loves bigs) for Boogie Cousins and someone (Ben McLemore, Omri Casspi, NOT RUDY GAY). I would do that trade in a heartbeat, but one wonders about chemistry and shaking up the dynamic of the team, along with how many picks it would require Portland to give up. I’m doubtful Olshey would do it even if it were on the table, which leaves the roster as is. It’s feast or famine.

Neil Olshey has largely been praised for his time with Portland, and rightfully so. But this season could paint everything in a whole new colour. Portland fans just have to hope its Rosy.

Grade: B-

2016/17 Prediction: 49-33

League Pass Meter: 8/10.

This team, for all the concerns I have, will be flammable. Lillard, McCollum and Crabbe are ready to catch fire at any moment. They have some excellent rivalries with the Clippers, LaMarcus Aldridge, Utah Jazz (oldie but a goodie), Warriors and are generally very pleasing to watch. Expect a ton of 3s and high scores on both sides of the ball.

Depth Chart:

PG Lillard Napier
SG McCollum Crabbe Connaughton Quarterman*
SF Turner Harkless Layman Montero*
PF Aminu Leonard Vonleh Garrett*
C Plumlee Ezeli Davis Steimsma*

*Salary guarantees 10 Jan, 2017

Salary Cap Situation:

2016/17 Salary: $112,354,979

2017/18 Salary: $123,707,515

Max Room: -$21.7mil

Min Room: -$41.8mil

Future Assets:

Incoming:
2018 1st (Cavs, top 10 protected)
2019 2nd (Lakers or Wolves, more favorable)
2021 2nd (Miami)

Outgoing:
2017 2nd (Rockets)
2018 2nd (Kings have swap rights)
2019 2nd (Magic or Pistons depending on Cavs and Rockets)
2020 2nd (Cavs, top 55 protected)

2016/17 Questions:

Can CJ improve off his Most Improved season?

Can Lillard raise his efficiency playing off the ball more?

How does Stotts juggle a rotation that is legitimately 12 deep?

Can Turner prove everyone wrong and hit 34% from deep?

Will Ezeli play in more than half the team’s games?

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