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.
- Chris Kaman: Two years, $9.816MM. Signed via mid-level exception. Second year is partially guaranteed for $1MM.
- Steve Blake: Two years, $4.247MM. Signed via biannual exception. Second year is player option.
Rookie Contract Option Decisions
- Meyers Leonard (fourth year, $3,075,880) — Exercised
- Damian Lillard (fourth year, $4,236,287) — Exercised
- CJ McCollum (third year, $2,525,160) — Exercised
- Thomas Robinson (fourth year, $4,660,482) — Declined
The Blazers knew their starting lineup wasn’t the issue. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez were the fifth-best five-man group in the league last season in terms of per-possession point differential among those that played at least 500 minutes together, according to NBA.com. That unit outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, but Portland as a whole was just plus-3.5 in that category. The Blazers entered the summer with no real cap flexibility and no draft picks, but GM Neil Olshey set about to prove just how valuable the mid-level and biannual exceptions can be.
Olshey used the mid-level to ink Chris Kaman, a player who two years prior wouldn’t have been obtainable for that sort of money or for the reserve role the Blazers expect him to play. The one-time All-Star was one of the key figures in a fairly strong class of free agent centers in 2012, and he signed a one-year, $8MM deal with the Mavs that gave him the chance to excel in filling the team’s need for a starting center and to net more money over the long-term on his next contract. Instead, Kaman failed to see eye-to-eye with coach Rick Carlisle and played just 20.7 minutes per game that season, deflating his value and prompting him to turn to a one-year, $3.183MM deal for the taxpayer’s mid-level with the Lakers in 2013. Mike D’Antoni had even less use for him, and he appeared in only 39 games last season. Having turned 32 this past April, it seemed unlikely that Kaman would merit a raise, and quite conceivable that he’d have to settle for the minimum salary and a third-string job.
The Landmark Sports Agency client instead came away with $4.8MM this year, almost the full value of the $5.305MM non-taxpayer’s mid-level, plus a $1MM partial guarantee for 2015/16. It was a gamble for Olshey, but so far it’s paid off, as Kaman is putting up 10.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 19.0 minutes per game. He’s the NBA’s ninth leading per-minute rebounder among those who’ve played at least 100 total minutes this season, according to Basketball-Reference, and his 20.6 PER is a career high.
Olshey used all of the team’s biannual exception to come up with another player who began last season on the Lakers. It’s a reunion for the Blazers and Steve Blake, though Olshey wasn’t around when Blake played in Portland from 2007 to 2010. Olshey nonetheless had a chance to get an up-close look at the point guard when the GM was with the Clippers and Blake was in his early days with the other Staples Center tenants. Derek Fisher, Steve Nash and even Ramon Sessions had played in front of Blake on the Lakers, for whom he started just 45 games in three and a half years, but the 34-year-old hasn’t averaged fewer than 20.0 minutes per game since the 2004/05 season. That’s a testament to his value as a bench contributor, and so far for Portland he’s been an even more efficient ball-distributor than he had been in recent years. He’s averaging 7.1 assists against just 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes, a ratio well clear of 3-to-1, and though most of his stats are by no means gaudy, he earns his keep in his time on the floor.
The Blazers as a whole are outscoring opponents at a rate of 8.6 points per 100 possessions so far this season, a rate almost identical to the one their starting five had produced last season, as NBA.com shows. Part of that is because the starting unit has upped its differential in that category to plus-10.7, but Portland’s bench has picked up some of the slack. The Blazers are missing one their top reserves from last season, as Mo Williams fled to the Timberwolves for a one-year, $3.75MM deal that was only slightly greater in value than the approximately $3.18MM that Portland was limited to giving him via Non-Bird rights. Agent Mark Bartelstein said before Williams signed with Minnesota that there was a chance, however slight, that his client would return to Portland even after the Blazers committed their mid-level to Hawes, which wiped out their ability to give Williams more than that $3.18MM. It’s unclear what Portland could have done at that point to woo him back, and perhaps a multiyear offer might have done the trick, but Williams nonetheless departed, leaving Portland to rely more heavily on C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Will Barton to supplement Blake. Still, that could be a blessing in disguise, since it’ll give the Blazers a chance to evaluate that trio, all of whom are either second- or third-year players, and much is eventually expected of McCollum, the 10th overall pick in 2013.
The Blazers made a tough call on another recent lottery pick, declining their fourth-year rookie scale option on 2012 No. 5 selection Thomas Robinson. The big man had a tough go of it in his first two seasons, rebounding efficiently and running the floor well but otherwise failing to show many glimpses of the promise that made him such a hot prospect coming out of Kansas. The Blazers can still re-sign him next summer, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent, and they can’t pay him a salary greater than the $4,660,482 option they turned down. Robinson probably won’t merit more than that unless he has a breakout season this year, but teams rarely re-sign players after declining their rookie scale options, so he’s likely in his final days with Portland.
The decision pick up Meyers Leonard‘s somewhat cheaper rookie scale option wasn’t clear-cut, since Leonard has been just as disappointing after having been the No. 11 pick in the same draft that Robinson was a part of. Still, Leonard’s willingness to try to remake himself into a 7’1″ stretch power forward bears watching, and perhaps Portland felt compelled to keep him around for at least another season to see how that experiment turns out.
Such tinkering pales in comparison to the importance of Aldridge’s free agency in the summer to come, though the team’s preeminent star made it clear this past summer that he intends to re-sign with the Blazers. That he was willing at times last season to entertain the idea of signing an extension, which wouldn’t be in his best financial interests, is demonstrative of his commitment to Portland, even though he said in July that an extension was no longer a consideration. It was also quite a switch from the summer of 2013, when it seemed that Aldridge was looking for a way out of town in the wake of consecutive losing seasons. Last year’s revival was clearly a game-changer for the long-term future of the Blazers, and the team’s second consecutive hot start is impressing upon the league, and upon Aldridge, that last season was no fluke.
Olshey hasn’t made any earth-shattering moves in his three offseasons with the Blazers, aside from the shrewd drafting of Lillard at No. 6 in 2012, but adding Lopez in the summer of 2013 and Kaman and Blake this year show his ability to be a consistent singles hitter. Still, he’ll most likely need to display a little more power for the team to become a true title contender, and this coming offseason, when only three Blazers have fully guaranteed contracts, will provide that opportunity.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.