2016/17 Record: 41 – 41 (First Round Exit)
2017/18 Salaries: $122,197,921 (Luxury Tax Team) – full POR salary cap situation here.
Incoming Draft Picks: LAL/MIN ’19 2nd (more favourible), MIA ’21 2nd
Outgoing Draft Picks: DEN/SAC ’18 2nd, ORL/DET ’19 2nd, CLE ’20 2nd (56-60)
The Blazer Offseason finds it’s roots in the 2017 trade deadline. The popular but somewhat undersized Mason Plumlee was shipped off to Denver in what immediately became the best trade that GM Neil Olshey has executed, and the best trade Portland have made since this one. At the time, it was assumed the reward for losing the services of Ma$e would be a First Round pick in the loaded 2017 Draft. Portland were hedging their bets on whether or not they would be a playoff team, and didn’t see a viable avenue to re-sign Plumlee as a Restricted Free Agent given the type of money that was thrown around in the 2016 summer.
But, the Diamond in the Rough was big man Jusuf Nurkic. Buried on the bench in favour of Nikola Jokic by Denver Coach Mike Malone (and justifiably so), Nurk exploded on the scene for a Portland team that was desperate for an inside presence to fill the void that LaMarcus Aldridge left. The Bosnian Beast transformed Portland instantly, and not surprisingly became a fan favourite overnight.
Olshey is lucky Nurkic turned out so well, small sample not withstanding. Most teams in the league miscalculated the salary cap increase and Portland’s extravagant spending really didn’t return much value. Olshey landed the Blazers with arguably three albatross conracts in Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard; when you look at the cap sheet, make sure you are wearing protective goggles.
All of this is important as Portland are going to have to make some difficult decisions. Nurkic’s arrival unlocked parts of Noah Vonleh’s game that the team had been hoping to see for the past season and a half. Vonleh doubled his scoring and increased his percentage from the field by 17 points after the All Star Break, and generally looked like a confident and competent power forward instead of a beta version of Thomas Robinson. Nurkic proved to be a surprisingly deft passer, hitting cutters like Harkless and Vonleh from the wing or short corner, not to mention a great fit with the lethal back court of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. Owner Paul Allen has deep pockets, and the Vonleh/Nurkic pairing looks strong, but with both players eligible for extensions, the improvement will be costly.
Meanwhile, Dame and CJ are intent on landing themselves a whale. Both players have made no secret of wanting nine time All Star Carmelo Anthony. Melo has, according to sources, agreed to waive his no-trade clause only for Houston, but that hasn’t stopped McLillard from recruiting him anyway. If Melo did the somewhat unthinkable and agreed to a West Coast move, would the Knicks be satisfied taking an improved Vonleh? Would Portland be willing to part with the promising 22 year old? (hint – YES). Would the Knicks take a package of Harkless, Aminu, Davis and picks? So far the answer is no, but the closer training camp gets, the more realistic a Melo trade is.
None of this would be possible without the Nurkic – Plumlee trade. That extra pick allowed Portland to trade up to select raw but promising Zach Collins at #10 in the draft. Coupled with fellow draftee Caleb Swanigan, Portland have some cheap, skilled players to plug in if they lose some of their front line. They also have two players to add to a trade for a team that desperately need cheap assets. Again, all of these scenarios are unlocked by the revelation that Big Nurk proved to be.
The collateral damage from the 2016 signings has already been felt. Portland had to give up the sweet shooting Crabbe – 44% from 3 last year – in a straight up salary dump to the very team that caused them to commit so much money to him in the first place. One would have to assume the team would happily move Leonard, despite his cool new work out videos. Crabbe was a very expensive luxury last season, but someone is going to have to make up for his shooting. Moe Harkless stopped shooting triples because he didn’t want to risk the money, and Evan Turner shot only 26.3% from downtown last year. These are who Portland will need to replace Crabbe’s scoring.
Given the cap situation the Blazers found themselves in, they will have to rely on internal development rather than outside help, barring a Melo Miracle. And while both McCollum and Lillard have improved on offense every season, the defensive end is where it needs to change. Portland flashed a better D when Lillard was off the floor, and were better on D in general once Nurkic arrived. It seems like a stretch for CJ and Dame to get significantly better on O, but even incremental growth on defense will reap huge dividends for a team that finished 21st in defensive efficiency.
Surprisingly enough, the area that Portland showed real growth on defense after the trade was defending the three point line. According to NBA.com, the Blazers went from giving up 38% shooting from 3 pre All Star (28th in league), to 34.2% post (10th in league). While this could be attributed to small samples or the general variability of shooting relative to the competency of teams played, there is another layer to this. Portland went from giving up 30.6% to just 25.8% of all opponent shots from three. Having Nurkic lurking at the rim emboldened the perimeter contingent to stick closer to their marks, resulting in fewer attempts from distance.
For the Trailblazers, all roads to improvement lead back to Nurkic. If he can sustain, let alone elevate, his play from what he did with Portland after the trade deadline, the Blazers boast a deep, talented roster that should be able to adapt to it’s surroundings with multidimensional players dotted across the roster. Even without a trade for Melo, Portland should be confident of Nurkic’s presence helping to maximize his teammate’s strengths. Most of the team played better after the All Star break, and there was only one major change that occurred.
If Nurk proves to be a Linsanity-level flash in the pan? Portland are faced with having to cough up more big bucks to keep an injury prone centre or rely on Leonard and the very raw Collins at the pivot. Add in the already bloated contracts to role players with little to no room for development and Portland continue to live in salary cap hell with no way to improve without splitting it’s flamethrower back court.
It’s a boom or bust scenario, and it could be a make-or-break season for both Olshey and coach Terry Stotts. No pressure big fella.
Projected Starting Five:
Projected Depth Chart:
Overall Offseason Grade: C+
2017/18 Prediction: 46-36
Portland should be better. Despite the potential doomsday scenario, expect Portland to finally get off to a good start this season, particularly with a home heavy start to the season. Vonleh and Harkless should continue to be better and if not, then Swanigan and Aminu are there to pick up the slack (Collins is going to take a while). The problem for Portland is so many teams in the West project to be better too. Five extra wins in this environment will be a very good outcome.
Player To Watch: Evan Turner
ET appeared to leave his game back in Boston for much of the past season. But with Crabbe gone and no incoming wing to challenge him for minutes, Portland really need to see him seize his opportunity. Turner played much better down the stretch of the season, and was one of the few Blazers to turn up for the playoff series against Golden State. A 13/5/4 season on 33% from downtown isn’t out of the question, and might be necessary for the team to make a jump in the standings.
Four Key Questions:
1. Can Stotts get his team off to a fast start?
The two years post Aldridge have been defined by poor play up until mid to late January, coupled with top-four worthy play for the back third of the season. It has been enough in season’s past to make the playoffs, but this year feels different. Start slow and you will be left behind.
2. Will Nurkic stay healthy?
Everything was going great for Nurk when he first came into the NBA, then he got hurt. Then he sulked on the bench while watching Jokic cement himself as a top five big man. Then The Trade happened, suddenly the Bosnian Beast was unleashed…then he got hurt again. There is no chance for Nurk to lose his starting spot this time around, but he needs to prove he can stay on the floor.
3. Will the back court (and team in general) defend?
Portland were servicable on D with either Dame or CJ on the floor with 4 taller players to compliment them. They were both better after Nurkic arrived. Will they be able to extrapolate that out to 82 games? Can they defend and still drop 50 between them?
4. Is it possible for Portland to steal Melo?
Conventional wisdom says no, and even if they manage to, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he stays past just this season. Which begs the follow up question, would he be worth it? But make no mistake, Portland would be a better team with him – presuming that acquiring him won’t cost any of the ‘big three’ – than without.