The Portland Trail Blazers faced a difficult decision with a critical restricted free agent, but in typical Blazers fashion, they let politics get in the way of basketball with it. On the bright side, it looks like they've hit a home run on at least one of their two high-lottery draft picks.
Let's take a look at their offseason decisions.
The simple way to evaluate how you feel about Batum's four-year, $46.4 million contract is to decide whether you think there's something more lurking in Batum's game that's dying to get out. If you believe that Batum can grow into something more than an elite spot-up shooter and cutter, then he is worth his contract. If you think that Batum's future is in a similar role to his present -- an efficient, lowish-usage player that needs to do his thing off other people's playmaking -- then he is overpaid. Batum is still young, so the jury is still very much out on this question.
But if you look deeper at how this specific situation was handled, it's hard to give the Blazers much credit.
There are usually two options that are presented to teams when they have to deal with the free agency of a player like Batum. Option 1 is to bite the bullet, overpay him and hope that his youth leads to some kind of improvement that will make him be worth his contract. Option 2 is to let him go, gaining long-term cap flexibility, but losing the chance to get significant pieces back for him. If the Blazers truly were choosing between Option 1 and Option 2, they should have gone with Option 1.
However ... in this situation, there was a third option that would have been better; getting legitimate assets back in a sign-and-trade. The Minnesota Timberwolves wanted Batum badly and were willing to go even higher than the contract they offered him. When the Blazers made public statements that they wanted to keep Batum, the Timberwolves began talking about a potential sign-and-trade where they would dangle Derrick Williams and future first-round picks. If the Blazers had continued negotiating, they could have easily received at least two excellent future assets, significantly improved their cap situation and put their rebuild on a simpler track. Instead, they let their own pride get in the way, refusing to negotiate with the Timberwolves because of bad blood from a previous deal two years ago.
That strikes me as cutting off their nose to spite their face. At the end of the day, the Blazers could have kickstarted their desperately-needed rebuild with some combination of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, Derrick Williams, at least one additional first-round pick that wasn't their own and loads of cap space. Batum is a good player that may grow into a better player, but choosing to pay him nearly $12 million a season over that collection of future assets strikes me as a poor decision.
More importantly: it seems like a decision that was made for the wrong reasons. I'd be less critical of the re-signing if it was done purely for basketball reasons. I wouldn't really agree with it, but I could at least acknowledge that the difference of opinion stems from an evaluation of Batum's game.
But from the sounds of it, this wasn't just a basketball decision. There were external politics involved, and that's not the way to improve the short- and/or long-term outlook of a rebuilding franchise.
The Blazers' decision with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft slowly evolved into a no-brainer, and thus far, the Blazers have gotten an excellent return on their investment. Lillard put together one of the more impressive rookie Summer League performances in recent memory, and while he'll surely experience some growing pains as he adjusts to the NBA game, he's clearly a core piece and a potential star going forward.
You can rarely go wrong gambling on size in the late-lottery, especially when you also have a second lottery pick to mitigate the risk of things not working out. Leonard has displayed some nice characteristics early on, and he seems on track to become a serviceable big man for many years. I still think the Blazers should have picked John Henson, though.
I've never been especially enamored with Hickson's game, but he played well for the Blazers last year after the trade deadline, and a one-year contract lessens the risk of him reverting back to the inconsistent player he was in Sacramento. The Blazers desperately need front-court bodies, and Hickson at least came cheaply.
- Now was as good a time as ever to bring Joel Freeland and Victor Claver over. Freeland projects as a decent backup power forward, while Claver looks a lot like a taller Rudy Fernandez. Both will be backups this year.
- Jared Jeffries can actually help teams in limited minutes. His weaknesses make it impossible to play him too often, but in a pinch, he can defend multiple positions and keep balls alive off the glass.
- Ronnie Price is barely an NBA player. The Blazers could have done better at the backup point guard position.