Offseason Outlook: Portland Trail Blazers

May 20 at 5:00pm CDT By Chuck Myron

Guaranteed Contracts

Options

Non-Guaranteed Contracts

Free Agents / Cap Holds

Draft Picks

  • None

Cap Outlook

  • Guaranteed Salary: $61,280,580
  • Options: $2,771,340
  • Non-Guaranteed Salary: $915,243
  • Cap Holds: $915,243
  • Total: $65,882,406

The Blazers made a leap forward this season without drastic changes to their core, and unless GM Neil Olshey gets creative in the next few months, the team will be forced once more to make its improvements from within. The club’s guaranteed salary for next season puts it only about $2MM shy of the projected $63.2MM salary cap, and that margin gets cut in half if Olshey keeps Will Barton past his guarantee date, which the GM has said he intends to do. That means the team is poised to retain its cap holds on Earl Watson and Mo Williams, who recently reiterated his desire to opt out, and enter the summer with the $5.305MM non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception and the $2.077MM biannual exception at its disposal. Those are valuable tools for upgrading a bench that ranked 15th in efficiency last season, per NBA.com, but they don’t provide the sort of game-changing flexibility needed to bring in a player who can close the gap between Portland and the truly elite.

A key decision involves Williams, who’d likely require the team to dip into the mid-level if he’s to re-sign as a free agent. The Mark Bartelstein client probably isn’t declining his option just to get the incremental 120% raise his Non-Bird rights would allow. That would only be a little more than $411K more than what his option would give him. The 31-year-old took on a reduced role behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews this past season after starting in 2012/13 for the Jazz, but his 9.7 points per game, his fewest since he was a rookie, isn’t simply tied to fewer shot attempts. He shot just 41.7%, the third-worst percentage of his career, and his 11.8 PER, also his lowest since his rookie season, demonstrates his lack of efficiency. Williams was Portland’s best bench scorer by far, nearly doubling Dorell Wright‘s PPG, but using mid-level money to bring back the leader of a mediocre group of reserves seems ill-advised.

Whomever the Blazers might sign with that mid-level money would surely be encouraged if LaMarcus Aldridge signed an extension this summer, but the collective bargaining agreement would make such a move imprudent for the power forward. An extension would limit him to tacking just three years onto his deal, as opposed to the four or five years he can lock in as a free agent. It’s unclear whether Aldridge’s annual salaries would be higher in an extension or a new deal, since his salary in the final year of his existing deal is relatively close to what the maximum salary has been for a player with his experience. The safe bet is that the max, like the salary cap, will rise over the next couple of years, making it a better financial play for Aldridge to hit free agency.

So, this summer’s free agents will probably have to take Aldridge’s comments this season about his willingness to consider an extension as the most reliable indicator suggesting that he’ll stay in Portland long-term. Aldridge certainly gave the impression that he’s embraced the Blazers in the context of last summer’s mixed messages that hinted at a trade demand. Portland’s return to prominence appeared to erase the 28-year-old’s doubts about the organization, and it seemed that the team’s fast start this season made it attractive to other marquee players as well. Aldridge said during the All-Star break that multiple fellow All-Stars came up to him and told him they’d like to play for the Blazers. He didn’t say who they were, and there exists the possibility that Aldridge only said so to make his team look more attractive. Even if those All-Stars did make such comments, it’s a wide gap between saying so and doing so.

The dream scenario would no doubt involve Kevin Love, who went to high school in Oregon, but there’s been no indication that the Timberwolves star is considering a return to his childhood home. The Blazers have little in the way of up-and-coming young assets to offer the Timberwolves in a trade this summer, aside from Lillard, whom the team surely wouldn’t surrender. Nicolas Batum flirted with the Timberwolves in 2012, but that was when David Kahn was the GM in Minnesota, and new front office chief Flip Saunders might not be as high on the long-armed small forward. Still, Batum, at age 25, looms as the linchpin of any major trade Olshey might undertake this summer. He’s not a superstar like Lillard or Aldridge, and not the textbook role player that Robin Lopez is, either. Matthews is coming off a career year, but he’s more than two years older than Batum and doesn’t possess the same kind of tantalizing upside.

Batum averaged fewer points this year than the season before for the first time since he entered the NBA in 2008, but he set new career highs with 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest. His defensive prowess is difficult to measure, given the deficiencies of the bench unit and the team’s overall sieve-like performance this season, but his 3.1 defensive win shares were the most in his career by a significant margin, according to Basketball-Reference. His nearly 7’1″ wingspan indicates his potential as he continues to mature and pick up the nuances of NBA defense. Surely there are teams higher on him than others, and if Olshey can find the most infatuated of his front office peers, perhaps Batum can be at the center of a trade package for a star.

Any such trade would probably require Portland to give up future first-round picks, a concern given the team’s lack of draft picks this year. The Blazers would be able to trade their 2015 pick as soon as this year’s draft is over, but it’s difficult to build a team for the long haul without underpriced first-round talent. Lillard and perhaps C.J. McCollum embody that for the Blazers now, but Lillard is due for a new deal in 2016, and that plus a new max deal for Aldridge would take up a significant chunk of the team’s cap flexibility. Sacrificing too much of the future to accelerate the climb to contention has consequences that can prevent the Blazers from ever reaching the summit.

A daring GM might consider trading a starter to acquire a lottery pick this year, but taking a step back before the last season of Aldridge’s contract would be too risky for most. There’s better logic in largely standing pat, identifying the best mid-level and biannual targets, and hoping Lillard takes yet another stride forward in year three. That probably wouldn’t allow the team a clear shot at the Western Conference Finals, but little other than the instant construction of a superteam a la the Heat in 2010 would accomplish that feat, given the strength of the West. There’s a strong chance the Blazers will have to settle for another second round finish at best next season, leaving Aldridge to wonder whether the team is flat-lining.

The Blazers find themselves in a position similar to the one Golden State found itself in last season. The Warriors went out in the second round to San Antonio, their best success in years, but they entered the 2013 offseason capped out. GM Bob Myers pulled off a complicated trade for Andre Iguodala that seemed like a significant upgrade at the time, but it ultimately resulted in no real advancement in a challenging Western Conference. The Warriors gave up multiple future first-rounders to accomplish what seems like a lateral move one year later. Olshey was certainly watching his neighbor to the south, and I don’t expect him to follow Golden State’s lead and reach for a trade this summer. Batum is the only Blazer with guaranteed salary beyond next season, and Olshey will have ample opportunity to show Aldridge what he can do next summer, just as the star is set to make his final decision on his next contract.

Cap footnotes

* — Williams has twice expressed his intent to opt out, so assuming he does, his cap hold will be $3,182,400.
** — Barton’s salary becomes fully guaranteed if he’s not waived on or before July 31st.

ShamSports and Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ were used in the creation of this post.

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