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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

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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Shabazz Napier reportedly agreed to contract with Brooklyn Nets

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The Brooklyn Nets trust Spencer Dinwiddie at the point. They also have D'Angelo Russell, who needs to prove himself next season, a contract season for the No. 2 pick.

The third point guard in the mix in Brooklyn is now Shabazz Napier, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Free-agent guard Shabazz Napier has agreed to a two-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets, league sources told ESPN.

The deal includes a team option on the second year, league sources said.

This is effectively a one-year deal, keeping the Nets massive cap space for 2019 (two max contract spaces).

Napier found a role and had his best NBA season in Portland last year, where he was a solid backup point guard who gave the Blazers 20 minutes and 8.7 points per night. Portland suffered some real losses this summer with Ed Davis and Napier going (both key parts of their rotation).

In Brooklyn, they have a guard logjam. What the guard rotation will be for coach Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn? Start Russell and Dinwiddie at the two guard spots and move Allen Crabbe to the three, with Napier coming off the bench with DeMarre Carroll? There will be options.

Damian Lillard: ‘I’m not unhappy. I love where I live, I love where I am.’

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LAS VEGAS — Damian Lillard ended up in the middle of the NBA’s silly season, and he’s not exactly sure how.

He sent out a Tweet after Portland let Ed Davis walk to Brooklyn (one of Lillard’s good friends on the team). That spiraled into speculation he was unhappy with the Blazers because he wants to compete in the gauntlet that is the West and Portland has largely stood pat this summer. Combine that with another Tweet and somehow — in the minds of warped Laker fans/sports talk radio hosts looking for a shock — became “Lillard wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers.”

Lillard shot all that down in Las Vegas.

“I’m not unhappy. I love where I live. I love the organization. I love our coaching staff. I love where I am,” Lillard said, holding court during Summer League.

Portland is one of the many teams cash-strapped this summer, and fans are pissed. Thanks to the foolish 2016 contracts of Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard (plus don’t forget the now-traded Allen Crabbe), the Blazers are flirting with the luxury tax line. Forget chasing big name free agents, they lost Davis and a couple other rotation players, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. They made a smart signing with Seth Curry (who can help if he is healthy) but are leaning on guys playing in Las Vegas this week,  Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., to handle rotation minutes.

Lillard was honest, he didn’t want Davis to go.

“Obviously, I loved Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He was one of my best friends in the league; one of my favorite teammates I’ve played with. We lose him – that’s a loss for our team. Bazz played big minutes for us, Pat played big minutes for us – so we lose three rotation players that gave us a lot and contributed to our season last year. But I guess now we look forward to who can come in and replace those minutes and give us that type of quality.’’

Does Lillard want to compete? Yes. He met with ownership last year to express that directly. But he wants to do it In Portland, where he has spent all of his six-year career.

“We got people out here going all out to try and make it happen, and I want us to do the same thing,” Lillard said. “And I feel like we are trying to do that.”