Offseason Grades: Portland Trail Blazers
The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.
Additions: Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, CJ McCollum (No. 10 pick in 2013 draft), Allen Crabbe (No. 31), Earl Watson
Losses: J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Sasha Pavlovic, Jared Jeffries, Nolan Smith
What Went Right: It’s quite possible that no team entered the offseason with needs as glaring as the Blazers, who had to address their nonexistent interior defense and overhaul a bench that ranked last in minutes, points, rebounds and assists in 2012-13.
General manager Neil Olshey clearly understood the task at hand and, after failing to land restricted-free-agent center Roy Hibbert last summer, eventually decided this time that carving up his eight figures of cap space and putting his mid-level exception to use were preferable to going all in on a single target. Reports indicated that Olshey initially pursued Tiago Splitter before the Brazilian center opted to re-sign with the Spurs, so the “spread the money around” approach is probably best cast as a backup plan. Regardless, Olshey wasted little time in executing it, trading for two cast-offs — Lopez and Robinson — who give Portland a rim-protecting paint presence and a replacement for Hickson, who departed for the Nuggets.
Lopez isn’t an ideal starting center option. He lacks mobility, has struggled with injuries during his five-year career and has never played big-time minutes. However, he’s a better fit than Hickson, an energy power forward miscast as a center last season. Lopez is coming off a career year in which he posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.9, and his $5.9 million salary is in line with his production, as long as he stays healthy.
Robinson is a bit more of an enigma. The No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft is now on his third NBA team and is yet to show that he can be anything more than a high-energy rebounding specialist and an occasional producer of highlight-reel dunks and blocks. With LaMarcus Aldridge entrenched as the starting power forward, that description will probably suffice for the time being, and the former All-American has said all the right things about buying into that reduced role.
Once free agency opened, Olshey signed two veterans who no longer fit with their rebuilding situations: Wright, who played for the Sixers last season, and Williams, who was with Utah. Wright is capable of giving minutes behind starting small forward Nicolas Batum, who succumbed to injuries down the stretch after playing more than 38 minutes a game last year. The 27-year-old will like the freedom in Portland, where coach Terry Stotts gives everyone the green light to jack up three-pointers; Wright is known as a long-range specialist, though his career 36.7 percent accuracy is less than one point above last season’s league average. As the rebuilding Sixers had no real use for him, Portland was able to sign him for $6 million over two years, which represented a cut in both salary and term from his previous contract.
Williams, the final addition of the summer, looks to be the best fit among the newcomers, at least on paper. Portland has searched for a ball-handler to make life easier for Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard — the team burned through Ronnie Price, Nolan Smith and Eric Maynor — and Williams possesses the experience and all-around offensive game to be that guy. He will be used as a sixth man, but he will surely play alongside Lillard for stretches, as Stotts dabbled in two-point-guard lineups last season. Like Wright in Philadelphia, Williams wasn’t a part of the rebuilding plans in Utah, where 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke will run the show. Again, like Wright, Williams’ two-year, $5.4 million contract (the second year is a player option) represents a drop in length and dollars from his previous deal.
The addition of Williams gives McCollum a little extra time to adjust to the NBA game. A score-first guard with tweener size, McCollum makes more sense as a fourth guard playing spot minutes behind starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews rather than as a third guard asked to play time at both positions.
Robinson is entering the second year of his rookie deal, while Lopez, Wright and Williams are all on contracts that will end no later than July 2015. That cycled timing is worth mentioning because Aldridge is also set to be a free agent in 2015, and rumors have been circulating for months that he might enjoy a change of scenery.
In the meantime, Stotts has plenty of shooters to deploy, and the Blazers, who ranked No. 4 in three-pointers attempted last season, could launch even more in 2013-14.
What Went Wrong: The biggest problem with the Blazers’ summer, which was comprised of cautious steps that netted marginal improvements, is whether the collection of incoming talent is enough to improve significantly their lot in the West. The Blazers finished 11th last season, and they now find themselves smack dab in the middle of a glut of teams (Lakers, Nuggets, Mavericks, Timberwolves) in the mix for one of the final two playoff spots. They should take a step forward thanks to their improved depth, but their defense, which ranked No. 26 last season, will continue to be an issue.
Williams and Wright were both net-negative defenders last season, and even Lopez, a net-positive defender, served as the back line for a Hornets team that ranked No. 28 in defensive efficiency. A worst-case scenario that could easily come to fruition: Portland barely misses the playoffs but winds up forfeiting its 2014 first-round pick (which is top-12 protected) to the Bobcats as part of a 2011 trade for Gerald Wallace.
Making or missing the playoffs wouldn’t be all that important this season, given the roster’s youth, except for one factor: Aldridge, now 28, is at the point of his career where stars often start to lose patience, and he just watched a year of his prime go to waste as Portland rebuilt its roster in 2012-13.
In April, Aldridge told reporters that he wasn’t satisfied with merely making the playoffs anymore and was ready to advance in the postseason for the first time in his career. Meeting that standard is now a serious issue, as the Blazers are locked in with salaries above the cap for this season and next. In other words, this group, or something close to it, will be tasked with keeping Aldridge happy and reaching his lofty goals. It seems unlikely that the roster, as constructed, has the ceiling to make that type of noise, with the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors and Rockets all built to last for at least the next two seasons. In other words, this summer can’t be seen to have truly addressed Aldridge’s concerns. At best, he was pacified.
Another concern, albeit a minor one, is the play of McCollum and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League. McCollum struggled with his shot and really struggled running an offense as a point guard. Robinson mitigated his big rebounding numbers with poor efficiency, ineffectiveness in isolation situations and turnover problems. The Blazers will be counting on McCollum and Robinson as rotation contributors, and their summer play raised more questions than it answered. (It didn’t help that none of the Blazers’ returning players who played in Vegas — Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland — made much of an impact either.)
Finally, and this one doesn’t really count: The Blazers changed the name of their arena from the “Rose Garden” to the “Moda Center” after signing a new naming-rights deal with a health insurance provider. Oof. They went from a name that perfectly represented the essence of the Rose City to a moniker that sounds better suited for a drug rehabilitation clinic.
Grade: B. Olshey promised “needle-moving” acquisitions when he took the job last summer. He has still yet to deliver on that, save for Lillard, who looks to be a franchise point guard in the making. The lack of an A-list addition and the looming unanswered questions — team defense, Aldridge’s future — take the gleam off a methodical, economical offseason. While Olshey’s 2013 haul falls short of a home run, it does look like a sliding double, and that’s significantly better than the three-pitch strikeout he endured during the 2012 free-agent period.