The Trail Blazers were facing some tough questions coming into this offseason. With LaMarcus Aldridge ready to leave, they had to decide between trying to stay relevant or going into rebuilding mode.
They went with the latter approach, but not in the way most teams do. Instead of stripping away all semblance of NBA talent from their roster to bottom out, they decided to get worse without becoming horrid.
As soon as it became clear that Aldridge was likely to leave, general manager Neil Olshey cleared the deck of highly compensated veterans, losing Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum. Going young was the mandate, but unlike other front offices, Portland didn't sit out free agency. The idea was to sign players who had showed they belonged in the NBA, but were not established enough to command high salaries or costly returns on trades.
Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis were productive backups. Al-Farouq Aminu's offensive game is a work in progress, but he emerged as a defensive ace for the Mavericks last season. Second-year big man Noah Vonleh and fourth-year forward Maurice Harkless are young enough to have some untapped potential.
The questions marks surrounding those prospects reduced their value, which made them worthy gambles. Aminu will make $30 million over four years and Davis $20 million over three years. Both of their contracts decline as the years go by, just as the cap is expected to rise. Those could end up being steals for players who can offer quality minutes next season and are young enough to develop further.
The rest of the arriving players are on rookie contracts. Vonleh was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Batum -- who can opt out of his contract after this season -- to the Hornets. The Nets received the 23rd pick in the draft, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, for Plumlee. Harkless is the biggest gamble, but he was acquired for the cheap price of a second-round pick. They are all joining third-year guard C.J. McCollum and fourth-year big man Meyers Leonard, youngsters who were already on the roster, as a supporting cast for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, himself only in his fourth year.
In making these moves, the Blazers went into a full youth movement without completely sacrificing their talent level or relying exclusively on rookies or D-League-quality players. Because they play in the brutal West and some of the East bottom feeders have gotten better, they will have the chance to put a competitive team on the floor and still lose enough games to pick in the top half of the lottery.
This approach stands out in contrast to the 76ers' recent strategy. Portland's supporting players have NBA experience. Philadelphia's are recent draft picks and players bouncing around the fringes of the league. The Trail Blazers didn't strip the cupboard completely bare. They have taken bets on established talents that still have room to improve, whereas the 76ers have waited to take that step until they find their franchise cornerstone(s). (It helps that Portland already has a player of Lillard's caliber, whereas the 76ers do not.)
If the Blazers can look like and up-and-coming team even if their record is bad, that opens up the option of signing a quality free agent, which at this point is not available to Philadelphia. Portland is not a traditional free agency destination, so it's hard to imagine the likes of Kevin Durant or Al Horford signing there. Second-tier players like DeMar DeRozan and Ryan Anderson, however, could be legitimate targets. With a couple good signings and some internal improvement, Portland could return to the playoff picture quickly.
That ability to accelerate the rebuild is what separates them from other teams that go into full tank mode. Unlike those franchises, the Blazers not only have a lot of cap space, but also a couple of high-upside prospects on the roster, a star in tow, a potentially high pick in the next draft coming and a supporting cast already in place on affordable deals. That's not a bad place to be only weeks after losing a franchise player in free agency.
Like any other rebuilding path, there's risk involved in the approach Portland is taking. If a couple of the players they have added outperform expectations, they could end up with a late lottery pick and no shot at a franchise-altering talent. Most teams will have cap space next season, including some that are closer to contention than the Blazers, so reinforcements might not come in free agency. If that happens, mediocrity will be hard to avoid. The free agent signings they did make could also stagnate and fail to perform up to the standards of their current contracts. If any of those things happen, it helps validate the 76ers' strip-it-down approach as the best way to build a contender from scratch.
Yet it's still interesting to see an NBA team rebuild differently. There's no way of knowing how things will turn out, but there's reason for optimism in Portland.