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Trail Blazers gambling that youth, shooting can keep them afloat

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On paper, and from a distance, it doesn’t appear that the Portland Trail Blazers have become much better over the summer. The largest contract for a new player that general manager Neil Olshey handed out was to Seth Curry for $2.8 million. Hoping to find a veteran either by trade or with the mid-level exception, the Blazers instead will move forward with young, cheap talent to bolster a roster built around a core that looks awfully familiar.

So the question both in the Pacific Northwest and around the league is this: What is Portland’s plan, exactly?

Assists and creating 3-point shots was Portland’s biggest issue, and in theory this is exactly what the Blazers have tried to address with their limited financial input this offseason.

Coach Terry Stotts saw his team ranked sixth or higher in terms of of 3-point attempts every season under his reign until 2016-17. The past two seasons, Portland has dipped to 10th and then finally 19th this last year. Olshey tried to remedy this shooting issue — caused in part by teams keying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but also thanks to inconsistent play by Blazers wings — by bringing in veteran talent.

Olshey has said that he was unable to secure shooting on the wing either via the TPE from the Allen Crabbe trade with his mid-level exception, having targeted six players but being outbid for all of them.

Having struck out, Olshey quickly moved to plan B: duck the tax, and try to get less experienced shooting on the cheap.

With his limited means, the Blazers GM drafted Gary Trent Jr. then signed Curry and Nik Stauskas. They were added to a core of Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic, all anchored around Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner will return as a non-shooting ball handler, acting as the primary point guard for the bench.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Gary Trent Jr. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Putting this roster into play assumes a couple of things. First and foremost is that Portland will be able to enact an offensive scheme that allows some of their more limited players to thrive with purpose.

There should be some cause for hope in Rip City given how good Stotts is at doing this sort of thing. Stotts turned Mason Plumlee into a high-post passing genius in 2016, and made Allen Crabbe a valuable shooter despite holes in his developing game.

Let’s also set aside health in this conversation about Portland. I’ve heard a lot about how the Blazers have been the recipients of good health over the past couple of years, but that overlooks significant and untimely injuries to players like Harkless, Nurkic, Lillard, and Turner that have reduced the team’s effectiveness. There is this murmur out west that the Blazers are due for an injury and teams like the Denver Nuggets are finally going to be healthy, and I just don’t buy it.

Portland’s injury concerns are thus: Curry didn’t play all of last season with a leg injury, and Harkless is still recovering from last spring’s knee surgery. Anything outside of that is just anxiety.

The real pitfall for Portland is the idea of having to integrate new, young players to a scheme that desperately needs to breathe in order to maximize its star players. Collins is set for a big new role with Ed Davis gone, and we don’t know if he’s up for the challenge given how well he played with the veteran, particularly on defense. It’s likely that Stotts will need to play Meyers Leonard as a shooter within his scheme, and that opens up the possibility for further defensive inequities.

The Blazers were a good defensive team last season, ranking 8th in defensive rating and notching the second-best mark in that statistic during Stotts’ career in Portland. The Blazers know this, too. Apparently, they spent much of the first practice during Tuesday — up to 75% of it, according to Collins — working on defense.

The reality of the season in Portland is not held in the hands of the rest of the Western Conference getting better. Golden State was always going to top things out, and the Rockets are the most likely pick to finish second. Everything below that is up to chance, health, and chemistry. The Trail Blazers have the benefit of bringing back very good players, and the continued success of the team will rest in the gamble that Olshey has made in moving toward youth while trying to save cap space.

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

Nets come out ahead in busy summer

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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.

Timofey Mozgov, Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Isaiah Whitehead and Jared Dudley are real people with real thoughts, real feelings and real basketball abilities. But to Brooklyn this summer, they were mostly just contracts to be shuffled. After all their wheeling and dealing with that group, here’s where the Nets stand:

  • Draft picks (give or take): +1 first rounder, -1 second-rounder
  • 2018-19 salary: +$13,697,024
  • 2019-20 salary: -$16,720,000

That’s right: Brooklyn cleared more 2019-20 salary than it added in 2018-19 salary while still coming out ahead in draft picks. That is incredible – especially because the Nets’ cap space should go further with desirable free agents next summer than it would’ve this year.

But just because stars aren’t ready to consider Brooklyn doesn’t mean Brooklyn is ready to punt the season. The Nets, possessing their own first-rounder for the first time in five years, refuse to tank. They’ve already come too far building a culture to intentionally plummet in the standings now.

To that end, Brooklyn re-signed Joe Harris to a two-year, $16 million contract. That might be a little steep for him, but he’s a glowing example of the Nets’ player-development program, and his salary descends. This was a deal worth doing.

Brooklyn also signed Ed Davis (one year, $4,449,000 room exception), Shabazz Napier ($1,942,422 guaranteed this season with the minimum unguaranteed next season) and Treveon Graham (minimum guaranteed this season with minimum unguaranteed next season). I doubt they lift the Nets significantly, but those three are all worthy pickups. Napier and Graham, with those unguaranteed seasons, look especially valuable. Napier is just finding himself as an NBA player, and Graham has potential as a 3-and-D wing in a league starving for players like that.

The Nets also drafted Dzanan Musa No. 29 and Rodions Kurucs No. 40. There are a lot of pieces here.

The next step is evaluating which are keepers.

Brooklyn projects to have more than $61 million in cap space next summer. Some could go toward keeping D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and/or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but that still leaves plenty to add a star or two.

The Nets endured years of pain – losing without reaping the rewards of a high draft pick. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight.

Thanks to this summer, it’s brighter.

Offseason grade: B+

Neil Olshey’s big plan in Portland is to wait. Do they have enough time?

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Neil Olshey has begun to lose some of the polish he once held in the eyes of Portland Trail Blazers fans. The team’s general manager failed to re-sign Ed Davis for a pithy sum of $4 million this offseason. Publicly, that move was justified as an allowance for getting second-year big man Zach Collins some more minutes this upcoming season. As we have written about before here on Pro Basketball Talk, it was also to dodge a significant luxury tax bill.

Now, by early August, Olshey has completed the major moves of his offseason. As was expected, Portland re-signed big man Jusuf Nurkic to a reasonable $12 million-a-year salary. Unfortunately, Olshey failed to use the trade exception the Blazers gained from the Allen Crabbe swap, and did not bring in a veteran wing like they wanted.

Olshey is now out in the Portland sun, hiking the public relations trail while trying to craft a narrative around his quiet offseason. The Blazers GM recently sat down with TV reporter Brooke Olzendam to explain his position on Portland’s moves.

During a 30-minute video released by the team this week, Olshey mentioned two things of note. The first was that he was surprised that there was not a larger market for his trade exception. Olshey said that he figured that he would be able to absorb some contracts from the 2016 season with that $13 million chip, but was unable to find a suitor.

Honestly we were caught off guard. We thought for sure the Allen Crabbe trade exception would have huge value in the league. And like I said, teams are just not in the business of giving up quality players the way they were because I think everybody understand they’re going to have to pay the freight this summer for what everybody did back in 2016. There just wasn’t as many pieces in the marketplace to do the absorption deals we’ve seen in the past.

Olshey also eventually worked his way around to saying that he does not believe that moving either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum is the right choice going forward. The murmur out of the City of Roses is that McCollum, the team’s most readily movable trade chip, has not been and will continue to stay off the trade block.

We’re keeping the core together, knowing Dame and CJ have at least three years left on their contracts, and we give that group the best chance to win without impeding our ability long-term in terms of being into a number that’s completely non-liquid.

Portland’s trade exception expired on July 25th, and after a week-and-a-half spent contemplating, it now seems clear what Olshey is plan is for the short-term future. That is, to duck as much luxury tax as possible, build around Lillard and McCollum, and wait out the rest of the Western Conference. The justification for this plan — which mostly involves doing nothing — is twofold.

First, Golden State’s dominance in the West is unchallenged, even if Olshey was unwilling to admit that to Olzendam during the above interview. Internally, the Blazers know Golden State won’t run into real salary problems until the 2019-20 season, and it appears they would rather sit tight as that issue resolves itself.

Second, Olshey has decided to try to reduce the salary cap figure simply as a mechanism of being a good financial planner. And, if we believe the wait-and-see strategy to be true, then tighter budgeting must follow in kind. There is no sense for the Blazers to spend over the cap more than they need to if they agree to concede the next couple of years in the West.

Publicly they’ll never admit that, but it’s exactly what they’re doing.

Whether this is the right move or not isn’t clear. No doubt fans in Portland will do what they do every year. They’ll continue to be excited about and support the development of young guys on the roster including Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons. Meanwhile, they will restlessly stir about whether or not the team should make big moves, including trading McCollum or as has been the case the past couple of years, firing Terry Stotts.

 

What is more apparent now more than ever is how little control Olshey has over the team’s destiny. His big free agent move in 2016 was to nab Evan Turner, and re-sign Crabbe to use as a trade chip. Neither of those decisions turned out well for Portland, either on the floor or in terms of their salary cap impact. With no flexibility from his own accord, and no reason to combat the dynasty of a generation in the conference, Olshey has to sit tight.

He can spin his transactions to the public however he likes, and no doubt he deserves credit for some of his craftier moves. But those small deals seem to be Olshey’s limit at this point, whether it be finding added value in the draft or picking up replacement players for the back half of the bench for 60% of their year-over-year cost.

Perhaps most interestingly, now that he’s in Chief Financial Officer mode, it’s unclear whether Olshey will ever see his vision for this team to fruition.

Turner has just two more seasons left on his albatross of a contract, but after that comes Lillard and McCollum, due for extensions the season after. Olshey is taking a serious gamble using the patience of his two stars as betting chips by managing the luxury tax and trying to develop small-time talent as he clock-watches the Warriors.

Blazers general managers have always been measured by two things: the ability to create a roster that can win, and the elusive Big Trade or Big Free Agent Signing. Bob Whitsitt famously went down swinging in the early 2000s, trading anyone and everyone. Olshey might get the boot in a couple of years, with hardly a murmur, unless he finds a way to stave off elimination.

 

No doubt if you asked him, Olshey would point out his victories — the smart trade for Robin Lopez, the under-market signing of Al-Farouq Aminu, the Nurkic-for-Mason Plumlee swap, the Shabazz Napier trade, and the refusal of Chandler Parson’s contract demands. But those moves have largely been balanced by a dogged dedication to the Lillard-McCollum pairing, the Turner signing, the Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless contracts, the Arron Afflalo trade, the Nicolas Batum trade, the Festus Ezeli deal, and the Allen Crabbe trade.

Any way you slice it, Olshey’s performance as head of the Blazers has been evened out, leveled with the reality of a star in Lillard itching to know just when they’re going to climb the next peak. The team has made the playoffs the past five seasons in a row largely due to Lillard, whose draft selection in 2012 was the brainchild of the man directly before Olshey in Chad Buchanan.

What Portland is playing for now is not about next season, or free agents, or the luxury tax, or player development. Because of their position of extreme negative equity, the Blazers long-term plans are now about holding on to Lillard past 2020-21.

Whether Olshey will be there to negotiate that extension is up for debate.

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Kenneth Faried doesn’t want to be ‘salary dump’; wants to be in Nets rotation

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When Paul Millsap went down injured in Denver last season, Kenneth Faried saw his minutes jump. For a while. He started six games, played with energy and averaged nearly a double-double in those games going 27 minutes a night, and he played with his trademark hustle and grit. It didn’t work for coach Mike Malone and soon Faried was buried on the bench again, playing a career low in games and minutes.

When Faried was traded to the Nets this summer, it was a seen as a salary dump by Denver — and it was for them, they get off the $13.8 million he is owed this season.

But for Faried, this is a chance to prove he can still impact the game given a chance. Don’t use the past tense around Faried, as he noted in his introductory press conference in Brooklyn, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

“Hey, I never stopped being the player I am. There’s no ‘were,’ ” the 28-year-old Faried said Wednesday as he was introduced at the team’s Brooklyn training facility.

“The Nuggets wanted to go in a different direction. Brooklyn decided, ‘Hey, let’s pick up a still-able, still-capable player who can go out and produce and lead a team and do the things he’s done before.’ … They believed in me, took this chance to trade for me, and I’m excited to be here and produce.”

He can carve out a role with the Nets. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis will split the bulk of the minutes at center, and at the four there will be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson starting and then Jared Dudley and Faried. The “Manimal” should be able to get some run and prove his worth in a contract year.

But both Faried and Dudley are also there to mentor young players. Faried said he is ready for that.

“The intangible things I do, I want to rub off on my teammates. My energy is contagious, so my energy when I was in the game doing the things I did [was] contagious around the whole team, the stadium. That’s why when you hear ‘We want Manimal!’ back when I was in Denver, or fans chanting ‘We Want Manimal,’ it’s for a reason: Because I bring that energy and that’s what I plan to do here.”

The Nets are still rebuilding, they are not going to be a powerhouse team by any stretch next season. But Brooklyn is going to be improved (and last season it were already better than expected). It’s a process, but the Nets are finally moving in the right direction under GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, and Faried can be part of that transition.