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Trail Blazers spend to keep problems from compounding, but not enough to get better

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Trail Blazers didn’t extend Shabazz Napier his $3,452,308 qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Portland replaced him with Seth Curry, who signed for $2,795,000 for one year. It appeared to be a cost-cutting swap.

But Napier signed with the Nets for just $1,942,422 next season (with an unguaranteed second year, to boot). Maybe the Trail Blazers were actually paying to upgrade their third guard.

Or maybe they just misread the market.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Portland is still hamstrung from its summer of 2016, when the salary cap skyrocketed and the Trail Blazers splurged on several subpar players. They haven’t won a playoff series since, and the last two offseasons have included a slow bleed of talent from Portland.

At least the bleed is truly slow.

The Trail Blazers’ biggest loss was Ed Davis, who signed a one-year, $4,449,000 contract with Brooklyn. He was a solid backup who fortified the rotation. Portland will surely bank on second-year big Zach Collins to play a larger role, and maybe he’ll be up for the challenge. But it would have been reassuring if Davis were available as insurance in the event the younger Collins isn’t ready.

On the bright side, the Trail Blazers are fast-tracking Collins only into a larger reserve role – not into the starting lineup.

Portland re-signed starting center Jusuf Nurkic to an astonishingly reasonable four-year, $48 million contract. It seemed possible the Trail Blazers would be content to let Nurkic take his qualifying offer, play cheap next season then walk next summer as Collins ascends. But Nurkic agreed to this team-friendly number, and Portland wisely spent more than necessary this season to secure him for the following three years.

The Trail Blazers also paid cash as part of a trade for the No. 37 pick to get Gary Trent Jr., a superb shooter who should be more ready to contribute than No. 24 pick Anfernee Simons, a de facto high schooler.

Portland is still on track to pay the luxury tax this season. The cost-saving moves of the summer might just reduce the bill. Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen is far more willing to spend than most, and it’s to his team’s benefit.

The panic of Portland quickly agreeing to a minimum contract with Nik Stauskas in the opening moments of free agency was overwrought. Nearly all teams fill the end of their roster with minimum players. The Trail Blazers just aggressively targeted the minimum player they wanted before conducting other business or hoping a better player fell into the minimum tier. It’s a strategy more teams should take.

But Portland getting the clear-minimum player it wanted is not exactly inspiring. None of this offseason was.

The Trail Blazers seem to be just waiting out the contracts of Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard and hoping for the best. With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in their primes, that stagnancy is disappointing.

I’m just not sure there’s a better alternative short of a massive luxury-tax bill for a team that’d still land in the same success range Portland has been the last few years. That seems unfair to ask of Allen.

Offseason grade: C

Kevin Durant says he is taking free agency ‘year by year’

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Talk to sources around the league about the Warriors and they think Kevin Durant — not Klay Thompson, who is also a free agent next summer, or Draymond Green in the summer of 2020 — will be the first to leave the team. It may not be this summer, especially if they three-peat, but he was last in and will be first out.

Durant, for his part, is not playing the speculation game.

When asked about it, Durant was vague, reports the USA Today’s Erik Garcia Gundersen.

“Just one of those things where you’re confident in your skills and taking it year by year. And keeping my options open was the best thing for me. I could have easily signed a long-term deal but I just wanted to take it season by season and see where it takes me. And I think this year is going to be a fun, exciting year for us all. I’m looking forward to just focusing on that and we’ll see what happens after the year.”

Golden State owner Joseph Lacob admitted he would have given Durant whatever deal he and his agents wanted. They chose the short-term option, keeping a lot of doors open.

The conventional wisdom around the league is that this summer Durant will opt-out this summer then sign a five-year contract. Probably with the Warriors, but the door is open, and there are a lot of teams with max salary slots. Maybe Durant is ready to have his own team again and move on. Maybe he is happy where he is.

Durant doesn’t know the answer to that question, yet. Nobody does. But that has other teams ready to pounce, just in case one of the world’s top two players decides it’s time to move on.

What if the Timberwolves don’t trade Jimmy Butler?

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I expect the Timberwolves to trade Jimmy Butler soon. Most people expect the Timberwolves to trade Jimmy Butler soon.

But they’ve thrown enough uncertainty into the process that nothing should be taken for granted. Tom Thibodeau said he expects Butler to report to training camp if not traded within a week, and as of yesterday, the president-coach was reportedly still trying to convince Butler to stay in Minnesota.

What happens if the Timberwolves don’t trade Butler and he refuses to report?

If he withholds playing services for 30 days after training camp begins, he won’t accrue a year of service and can’t become a free agent next offseason. He couldn’t sign with another professional basketball team unless Minnesota agreed.

That 30-day clock seemingly isn’t ticking, as Butler is excused while recovering from offseason hand surgery. But if the Timberwolves want to get serious about keeping Butler, they could press the issue.

But Butler would have options, too. He could – a la Mo Williams with the Cavaliers – undergo surgery and claim he’s not healthy enough to report. Players, especially ones as damaged as Butler, often have medical issues to clean up. That could mean embellishing the effect of the hand surgery or undergoing a new surgery altogether. An elective surgery could legitimately sideline Butler. Claiming Butler is actually healthy enough to report when he says he isn’t could get quite messy if the team objects.

Again, I don’t expect it to get that far. I doubt the Timberwolves, particularly owner Glen Taylor, desire to hold Butler hostage like that. Even if they do, Butler could just report and play. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the season and leave then.

But these are the extreme options on the table if this situation devolves further.

Suns secure franchise player or two or none, but no starting-caliber point guard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Eight NBA players are guaranteed more than $150 million in salary. Seven – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James – were All-Stars last year, and another – Chris Paulabsolutely should have been.

The outlier: Devin Booker, whom the Suns gave a max contract extension projected to be worth $158 million over five years.

Booker has never been an All-Star nor deserved to be one. Phoenix has peaked at 24 wins with him. He ranked 502nd last season with a real plus-minus of -2.44, a personal best.

On the other hand, the Suns are paying for what Booker will do, not what he has done. He’s an extremely talented scorer with playmaking skills and the frame to impact games far more than he has. Importantly, he’s just 21.

Is Booker worthy of being a franchise player?

Maybe.

But Phoenix rushed to pay him like one this summer despite the uncertainty. The Suns could have waited, assessed Booker over the season and re-signed him as a restricted free agent summer. That might have hurt Booker’s feelings, or it might have driven him to compete harder next year. I think it would have been worth the downside of delaying. Booker’s value just isn’t clear enough to justify lavishing him with a full max contract now. To extend him this summer, Phoenix should have demanded some salary concessions.

The Suns had to take their other high-stakes gamble of the offseason, drafting Deandre Ayton No. 1. Ayton looked like a good choice, but top picks are so pivotal. It was extremely important to get this right.

Especially because Phoenix seems intent on escaping the bottom of the standings.

The Suns signed veteran Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract and traded the No. 16 pick and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick for No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges, one of the draft’s most NBA-ready players. Ariza and Bridges join Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren as versatile forwards on the roster.

Phoenix also traded for its new starting power forward, Ryan Anderson. I liked that deal, considering Anderson reduced his 2019-20 salary guarantee to match outgoing Brandon Knight‘s. The Suns also upgraded prospects in the swap, going from Marquese Chriss to No. 46 pick De’Anthony Melton. Anderson has taken a lot of grief for his playoff shortcomings, but he was still a productive regular-season player last year.

The upcoming regular season is apparently a priority in Phoenix, where an eight-year playoff drought – longest in franchise history – runs. Owner Robert Sarver isn’t known for his patience.

But if the Suns are trying to make the playoffs, they were absolutely negligent at point guard. Their options: No. 31 pick Elie Okobo, Melton, Isaiah Canaan (signed to an unguaranteed minimum contract), Shaquille Harrison (who received a $50,000 guarantee this summer) and Booker playing out of position once he gets healthy. That’s not going to cut it in a loaded Western Conference.

Phoenix even seemed more concerned with getting another backup center than a starting point guard, executing two trades – dealing a second-rounder to the Nets to downgrade from Jared Dudley‘s salary to Darrell Arthur‘s then sending $1 million to the 76ers – to land Richaun Holmes.

With the $15 million and two first-round picks they used to get Ariza and Bridges, the Suns could have signed or traded for a solid point guard. Instead, that money and those picks went toward adding even more combo forwards.

How innovative will first-time head coach Igor Kokoskov be? I’m not sure Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich could scheme their way through this point-guard void.

For so long, I wanted to give the Suns’ offseason an incomplete. But they’re starting training camp with this roster with apparently no trade imminent. It’s time to assess.

I don’t see how this roster works in the short term, and it’s a little less flexible and asset-rich in the long-term.

Offseason grade: D+

Lakers coach Luke Walton: Rajon Rondo will start over Lonzo Ball to start year

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LaVar Ball said the Lakers are Lonzo Ball‘s team, not LeBron James‘.

Turns out, Lonzo isn’t even the Lakers’ starting point guard.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN on Lakers Talk:

Luke Walton told me today that Rajon Rondo will be the Lakers’ starting point guard to start the year.

It’s unclear whether “to start the year” means to begin training camp or the regular season. Lonzo is not yet ready to fully participate in practice after offseason surgery, so this could be as benign as Rondo working with the starters for now.

Or it could be Walton already making a call for the regular season.

The Lakers signed Rondo to push and teach Lonzo. Those messages would come across more strongly if Rondo starts.

But I’d also be surprised if there’s not a more open competition in training camp. Lonzo deserves a chance to earn the job.

Whatever Walton exactly means, the coach has latitude to run the team as he sees fit.