The summer after a breakout season is always tough for any team. After dramatically exceeding expectations, the temptation is to skip steps and make win-now moves becomes overwhelming. Just ask the Phoenix Suns, who failed to capitalize on an out-of-nowhere 48-win season in 2013-14 and are now near the bottom of the league.
That's the dilemma the Trail Blazers faced this offseason. Fresh off a second-round appearance in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, they needed to decide between using their resources to take a step forward or continuing to build organically. Those two paths seemed to exclude one another, but the front office didn't see it that way.
"We're not going to be reactionary and overreact to this season," said General Manager Neil Olshey in May. "We're going to stay on the same path. That said, if we have an opportunity to accelerate this and go get a veteran, proven player, we have the resources."
In the end, that is exactly what the Trail Blazers did. They spent four years and $70 million on a shot creator on the perimeter in Evan Turner and two years and $16 million on a big man that fits their timeline in Festus Ezeli. However, they also retained their free agents, matching a four-year, $75 million offer sheet on reserve wing Allen Crabbe, signing Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless to similar four-year deals in the $10 million/year range and inking C.J. McCollum to a four-year, $106 million extension. They also didn't trade away depth for an upgrade in talent.
But while Portland’s decisions fit Olshey’s philosophy, it's unclear whether these expensive moves will actually make a big enough difference to justify their cost. Portland kept its team together, but lost significant long-term salary-cap flexibility in the process.
The new additions aren’t big upgrades
There is some logic to the Turner signing. Last season, only Damian Lillard and McCollum could create shots off the dribble in Portland. Everyone else was a finisher. In Boston, meanwhile, Turner assisted on 24 percent of his teammates’ buckets -- a number befitting of a point guard — and created one third of his own looks while shooting 45 percent from the field. In a vacuum, he seems like a good addition.
The problem is that his role with the Blazers is expected to change in a way that could significantly lessen his value. Turner has reportedly been told he would start in Portland, not be a sixth man. That’s surprising because he's a poor fit playing next to both Lillard and McCollum in the starting lineup. We are talking about a player who shot below 30 percent from beyond the arc in his two years in Boston and is not a prolific or effective cutter, according to Synergy Sports stats. When he's off the ball, opponents ignore him.
The Blazers encountered similar problems with Harkless last year, but he was at least an active cutter and a more versatile defender thanks to his size. Harkless can defend small forwards and even some power forwards, while Turner is too small to shoulder that burden consistently. Turner is a better overall player but his talents make more sense off the bench, where he can pick up the playmaking burden left when Lillard or McCollum sits. If he indeed starts, he’s just a marginal upgrade at best.
Ezeli should provide rim protection, rebounding and finishing ability around the basket, all characteristics Portland needs. Yet he replicates a lot of what Ed Davis does, and Davis had a breakout year last season. Ezeli also lacks Mason Plumlee's passing ability, which was a huge boost to Portland when Lillard and McCollum were trapped on the perimeter. More minutes for Ezeli means fewer minutes for those incumbent big men, so Portland must accept skill trade-offs.
The signings the Blazers made are far from terrible, and they have a creative coach who could make it all work. However, it doesn't feel like either are significant upgrades. That's an issue because ...
The Trail Blazers are locked into this core
Coming into the summer, the Blazers had all sorts of possibilities. They had plenty of cap space and a number of young players on affordable contracts.
That’s no longer the case. After all their big signings, the Blazers have salary commitments that will make it very difficult to upgrade the roster via free agency in the short term.
The Blazers are already over the cap and extremely close to the luxury-tax line this season and next. Olshey acknowledged that the team won't have cap room in the foreseeable future, but they could also be at risk of paying the repeater tax down the road depending on the rules in the new CBA. This approach significantly limits the various cap exceptions teams use to add players.
Salary data courtesy of Spotrac. 2017-18 data based on a $102 million projection.
The Blazers do have a few young players they could trade for positive value. It doesn't seem like they have the pieces to land a star, though, not with teams with more assets like the Celtics competing for those same elite players. They will likely pick outside of the lottery in the draft, where difference makers are hard to find.
As Blazer's Edge put it, this is it. This is Portland's team now. And is this team good enough to compete for a title?
They still have to rely on internal development
One of the talking points Olshey harped on before the offseason and during an interview in Summer League was how much Al-Farouq Aminu had improved since arriving in Portland. Olshey correctly pointed out that Aminu went from shooting 27 percent from beyond the arc to 36 percent without changing his mechanics.
He's not the only player who has seen his game blossom under Terry Stotts. McCollum won the Most Improved Player award, and the big men also arguably had their best seasons as pros last year.
Those were all young veterans, so it's possible Turner and Ezeli, both age 27 or younger, excel in new roles. They’re now playing in a new offense, with a coach famous for empowering players. Crabbe, Harkless and Leonard could also take another step forward, since they are still young. Internal development is certainly the one path that can take the Blazers from good to great.
But that would have been true even if they hadn't spent nearly $350 million this summer. Portland splashed a lot of cash around to sign free agents and retain its own players, but don’t look significantly better on paper for their efforts.
The Blazers are giving themselves a lot of options in hoping someone takes the leap, but in doing so, they have locked themselves into a core that must make a big leap from the 44 wins they had last year. It's risky to surrender cap flexibility and gamble on a jump that may not come.
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It’s worth remembering that many counted the Blazers out last year and they proved doubters wrong. Lillard is a budding superstar, McCollum became a star on his own right last season and there's quality depth at every position. Portland should be in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round next season, particularly since the Thunder are taking a big step back without Kevin Durant.
Unfortunately, that might be the most this roster can achieve as currently constructed. They likely need further roster upgrades to become title contenders, but there's no cap space after this summer's spending spree or assets coming in that could allow for a big overhaul in the next two years.
Unless Stotts can maximize the potential of everyone on the team and/or someone unexpectedly makes a leap, it seems like the Trail Blazers will be good, but not great for the foreseeable future. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but this summer felt like a missed opportunity to lay the groundwork for something more.
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