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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.

Nuggets sidestep backtrack with two big re-signings, two savvy additions

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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 Nuggets could pick two of three this offseason:

1. Secure their franchise player, Nikola Jokic, long-term

2. Maintain their complementary depth and assets

3. Dodge the luxury tax

Denver chose Nos. 1 and 3, which is both unsurprising and somewhat disappointing. Locking up Jokic is nice, but the Nuggets are on the edge of breaking a five-year postseason drought, and they have potential to make noise if they get in. A young team, Denver could build on this season for years to come. It would have been a good time to pay a small amount of luxury tax to preserve the full array of players and picks.

Instead, the Nuggets traded draft picks to dump at least potentially helpful players. It’s a knowing step back to save money.

Yet, in that context, Denver got everything it wanted and made a couple nice moves that mitigate the damage.

Start with the big moves that went by design: The Nuggets re-signed Jokic and Will Barton to big contracts.

Denver declined Jokic’s cheap team option to make him a restricted free agent, ensuring no risk of losing him and getting concessions in exchange for paying him sooner. Jokic’s five-year contract contains no player option, and his base salary is juuust sub-max (though incentives could push it higher). Some teams would have lavished their top player with max money and every contract term in his favor. The Nuggets did well to get – albeit, small – team-friendly aspects into Jokic’s deal.

On the other hand, Denver didn’t get a break with Barton, an unrestricted free agent. He’s a good player, and the Nuggets should be happy to keep the 27-year-old. But $53 million over four years certainly isn’t cheap.

That’s why the Nuggets traded a first-rounder, two second-rounders and second-round swap rights to dump Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur (on the Nets) and Wilson Chandler (on the 76ers).

Chandler was Denver’s starting small forward last year, though he appears to be slipping and Barton is capable of replacing him in the starting lineup. Faried and Arthur were mostly out of the rotation, but there would have been a chance Faried could still help.

The surrendered first-rounder is particularly painful, as it’s only top-12 protected. That means the Nuggets could narrowly miss the playoffs – as they did last season – and still convey the pick. That’d be a worst-case scenario, but it’s also near the middle of potential outcomes.

That was about it for Denver’s major charted moves. Uncharted moves are where the Nuggets really shined.

Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 pick) and Isaiah Thomas (minimum contract) were great gambles considering their low costs. The injury and chemistry concerns are real, but so is the upside. Porter might have been the No. 1 pick if not for his back issues, and Thomas is just a year removed from finishing fifth in MVP voting. Neither looks like a great fit with a Jokic-Gary HarrisJamal Murray core, but who cares? Porter and Thomas were too valuable to pass up.

With Barton starting and Thomas’ health unproven, Denver needed another reserve point guard. So, the Nuggets signed two-way player Monte Morris to a three-year minimum contract with two years guaranteed. They also gave their other two-way player from last year, Torrey Craig, $4 million guaranteed over two years. Given the vast amount of power teams hold over their two-way players, those contracts are mighty generous.

Though those are small, indulgences like that – looking at Mason Plumlee – got Denver into this trouble where dumping draft picks and decent players became necessary. Barton’s contract could create complications down the road.

It’s a never-ending race between keeping costs manageable while maximizing talent. In a year it seemed they’d bear the cost of previous spending, they stayed ahead of the curve.

 

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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Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.