We’ve reached the point in the NBA calendar where there isn’t anymore chaos. Where’s the fun in that? I like my NBA in November. Everyone, even the terrible teams still seem hopeful and there’s enough activity and rumors for an admittedly millennial ADHD hoops fan. But just when I think I’ll be bored to death by conversations about Steph Curry, Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (because not even Drake wants to talk about the Raptors anymore) I remember something even more chaotic is on the horizon. FREE AGENCY!
I don’t think I feared for any team more at the beginning of their 2015-16 campaign than the Portland Trail Blazers. When it became apparent that Lamarcus Aldridge wanted to finish his career elsewhere it made sense to break up a core that was largely put together to emphasize his strengths and cover his weaknesses. They got rid of their starting key role players, trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, let Wes Matthews sign a four year contract with Dallas in free agency and let Robin Lopez sign a four year contract with the Knicks. Left was Damian Lillard, one of the best offensive players running the point in the NBA. The Blazers organization had faith in Lillard not just because of his stats but his intangibles as a player, as he is an intelligent and capable game manager, and the heart and soul of the playoff Trail Blazers of the recent years, citing his ability to motivate the team in huddles despite being one the least experienced players professionally. While CJ McCollum showed signs of transcendence in limited minutes, it wasn’t clear if he would be able to play with the same intensity and efficiency as a starter. McCollum won the Most Improved Player award, averaging 20.8 points on 44% shooting from the field, and played well in the playoffs. With a dominant backcourt, secondary players acquired largely for their known work ethic and hustle, and some excellent in game coaching decisions by Terry Stotts the Blazers were able to exceed their own expectations. In 2014-2015 Portland posted a record of 51-31, and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Grizzlies. In 2015-2016 they went 44-38 and made it to the second round of the Playoffs where they lost to the Warriors. I’m sure their style of play and heart helped them gain attention from NBA insiders and fans. But in the (historically) competitive Western Conference, standing still is moving backwards, and teams that overachieve have been known to come back down to earth (*coughSUNScough*). This makes this summer especially key for the organization, and the moves they make or don’t make will surely be scrutinized for years to come. If the Blazers want to shock the world again, they should start this summer. With FREE AGENCY.
I’m of the opinion that if you’re a free agent looking to start at any non guard position, you should be looking to join the Trail Blazers based on front office, coaching, style of play and star players who have personalities that are known to be easygoing but are also competitive and serious. Currently the only unrestricted free agents in Portland are Chris Kaman, Brian Roberts, and Gerald Henderson. Assuming they decide to use the money in a different way (I would) they are left with a good amount of cap room to work with. If they don’t pick up qualifying offers for all of their restricted free agents, (Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless) they stand to have enough to offer a max contract to a number of free agents…so let’s look at some of their options.
The addition of the former MVP immediately makes this team a contender. In an offense already built on spacing and weak side action an elite isolation, catch and shoot, and finishing threat like Kevin Durant would be an ideal fit. If they were able to let Mo Harkless go they’d be able to keep Meyers Leonard and Crabbe, and with Al-farouq Aminu’s length and activity at the 4 have one of the best starting units in the league.
If I was Mr. Whiteside I’d be looking for an opportunity to not only be the defensive dynamo I am, but get some touches on the other end of the floor. Whiteside’s post game has some promise and his jumpshot and free throw shooting are already respectable. Portland’s offense could use a big man scoring threat for balance, and Whiteside could see minutes with Ed Davis and Aminu on the floor, that’s a lineup I can’t see anyone in the NBA making 5 layups on.
Dwight Howard just wants us to think he’s a nice guy. We just want him to make better basketball decisions on and off court. Signing with Portland is a good basketball decision. Some decoy post touches and great defense will be all he needs to worry about on the court, and maybe Lillard and McCollum’s quiet confidence will rub off on him. Or he could just be the worst team cancer of all time.
If Al Horford doesn’t want to stay in Atlanta, Portland is a great landing spot for him. Quietly efficient, his scoring would add some balance to the Blazers’ guard based attack and his range as a shooter and willingness to slide on defense make him a capable uptempo big man. In the quicker Western Conference Al Horford gives you options to play fast while also not giving up any rebounding advantage. Al is also known to be a generally nice guy and would probably develop some great chemistry with the young team in Portland.
Despite trading him for younger players last offseason, I could see Portland making an attempt to get Batum back. His versatility and defense were definitely a big part of the Hornets postseason push and in the quicker style Portland plays now he could be a really successful player. His ability to pass is very underrated and with a deadeye shooting backcourt and quick athletic bigs a secondary playmaker on the wing is a luxury. Batum is already familiar with how Lillard plays and how Terry Stotts coaches, and would probably make both better.
Those are my top 5 picks for players the Trailblazers should target. It’s hard to imagine Lebron leaving Cleveland again and most of the skilled bigs are too old to fit into the Blazers youth movement strategy. I think the Blazers could be on the cusp of putting together something really special, and it is critical that they make a move this summer to achieve their potential.