Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.
Rookie Contract Option Decisions
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The Trail Blazers as a franchise have been snakebitten by injuries and bad luck over the years, and 2014/15 was no different. The team had begun 41-19 and was playing some of its best basketball when swingman Wesley Matthews went down with a devastating Achilles injury with just six weeks remaining in the regular season. Portland limped into the playoffs after going 10-12 the rest of the way. A first-round ouster at the hands of the Grizzlies sent the franchise into the offseason with far more questions than answers. Gone are all but one starter from a season ago, and the franchise has transformed from a possible contender to a lottery-bound team in the span of but a few months.
Unfortunately for Blazers fans, the offseason was defined more by whom they lost than by any positive strides they might have made. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge departed as an unrestricted free agent for the Spurs, who offered him an opportunity to play in his home state as well as to contend for a title immediately. It doesn’t appear that the Blazers had a legitimate chance to retain Aldridge, whose top two choices were San Antonio and Phoenix, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported. Players of Aldridge’s caliber are especially difficult to come by, so his departure truly stings. The franchise reportedly explored potential sign-and-trade deals for both Aldridge and Matthews, but found no takers, according to GM Neil Olshey.
Forty percent of the starting lineup Portland put on the floor for the final game of its series against Memphis headed east to New York. Shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who replaced the injured Matthews, signed with the Knicks for two years and $16MM. Robin Lopez is set to terrorize local mascots for the next four years to the tune of $54MM. Portland will certainly feel the departure of Afflalo and Lopez in the short term. But neither player figured to be a part of the team’s rebuild anyway, and maintaining cap flexibility as well as clearing slots for younger players to develop is far more important for the Blazers in the long run than trying to eke out a few more victories this season.
The same thinking applies to allowing Matthews to depart to Dallas for a maximum salary deal. Matthews’ production will be missed, but his Achilles injury puts his future reliability in doubt, and at 29 years of age, he doesn’t fit with Portland’s rebuilding motif. The subtraction of Matthews opens the door for third-year shooting guard C.J. McCollum, whose fourth year option was picked up by Portland, to slide into a starting role. McCollum has been fantastic thus far in 2015/16, averaging 20.1 points per game as of this writing. It certainly appears as though the Blazers have found a second star to pair alongside franchise player Damian Lillard.
Speaking of Lillard, there were reports that Aldridge was jealous of the attention he received, and while both players have publicly denied any rift, the Blazers gave the impression that Lillard was the face of the franchise, a move that couldn’t have sat well with Aldridge. Lillard is a fantastic player who has ice water running through his veins at crunch time, and he’s talented enough to anchor the franchise for years to come. That’s an assessment the team almost certainly agrees with judging by the five-year maximum salary extension the team signed him to this offseason.
Portland was quite active on the trade front this summer, swinging three deals of significance. The first shipped swingman Nicolas Batum to the Hornets in exchange for 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh and shooting guard Gerald Henderson. Batum’s versatility will be missed, but I love the team nabbing Vonleh, whom Charlotte surprisingly gave up on after he missed all but 25 games of his rookie campaign due to injury. The 20-year-old is still extremely raw, but Vonleh is certainly talented and could evolve into a solid replacement for Aldridge down the line.
While Vonleh represents the future for the team, acquiring Mason Plumlee from the Nets in exchange for the rights to No. 23 overall pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a move for the present. Plumlee seemingly never earned the trust of Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins and had regressed slightly during the 2014/15 season. Plumlee has the potential to be a breakout player for Portland, though his ceiling isn’t close to what Vonleh’s could be. While I like the addition of Plumlee, as well uber-athletic swingman Pat Connaughton, acquired in the same deal, Hollis-Jefferson would have been the perfect replacement for Matthews’ athleticism and defense. Portland picked up Vonleh’s third-year option and Plumlee’s fourth-year option, ensuring both will remain in the fold for at least one more season.
The franchise also swung a deal with Orlando that brought over 22-year-old small forward Maurice Harkless in exchange for a heavily protected 2020 second-rounder. Harkless has been a disappointment thus far in the league since being nabbed with the No. 15 overall pick back in 2012. A change of scenery could be just what the (shot) doctor ordered for Harkless, and if he doesn’t produce in Portland, the team could simply allow him to depart as a restricted free agent next summer without having given up much for taking a chance on him.
The Trail Blazers dipped their toes into the free agent pool and came away with Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis for their efforts. Both players should help the team and contribute immediately, though four years for Aminu seems a bit risky given his career 6.6 PPG scoring average. Still, Aminu’s contract is front-loaded, and with the 6’9″ forward set to earn just $6.957MM in the final year, it’s hardly crippling or untradeable if things don’t work out.
Portland’s offseason was a mixture of disappointment and potential, though the franchise has clearly taken a step or two back talent-wise. The departures of Aldridge, Matthews and Batum certainly hurt, and while GM Neil Olshey made a number of savvy moves to try to plug the holes, the Blazers are no longer a Western Conference playoff contender. But there is hope for the future, and with Lillard and McCollum on the roster, the cupboard certainly isn’t bare. The organization is likely to have in excess of $40MM in cap space to play with next offseason, so a relatively quick turnaround to prominence is certainly within the realm of possibility.
The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.