By Shaun Powell
Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
Today’s team: Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 record: 41-41. Severe shortcomings on defense and an inability to capture the magic of the previous post-season caused the Blazers to struggle to reach the playoffs, then sputter once there, losing in the first round to the Warriors.
Major additions: Caleb Swanigan (draft), Zach Collins (draft).
Major subtractions: Allen Crabbe, Festus Ezeli, Andrew Nicholson, Tim Quarterman
The lowdown: Twelve months after spending generously, the Blazers entered the 2017 summer projected to pay $40 million in luxury taxes this season, a steep price given the results. That wasn’t going to fly, not for a team that isn’t a title contender, and so their mindset changed drastically. They suddenly went cheap, adding rookies and subtracting one very pricey backup guard.
There are times when you know, almost immediately, that signing a player is a reach. The Blazers admitted as much when they dumped Crabbe and his massive deal this summer on the team that gave him that four-year, $75 million offer sheet in 2016, the Nets.
Crabbe was too rich for the Blazers to keep. He does bring a dependable shooting touch but was one-dimensional and was never going to be a more than a backup to CJ McCollum. Thus, the Blazers were paying a combined $56 million a year to three guards, none of whom could defend, which was outrageous. Something had to give.
Besides, the Blazers are facing an important financial decision on Jusuf Nurkic, who’s eligible for an extension. Nurkic was a pleasant surprise at midseason when Portland obtained him from the Nuggets and gave the Blazers what they sorely needed, a presence on the front line and near the rim and pushed Portland to the playoffs for the fourth straight season after a 24-35 start. It was the trade (jettisoning Mason Plumlee) that very likely earned GM Neil Olshey a contract extension this summer (through 2020-21). Given where player salaries are going, Nurkic could command money that’s not far off from the salaries of McCollum and Damian Lillard.
If they had it to do all over again, would the Blazers still break the bank for Crabbe, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard and push their payroll to top five in the NBA? They all got paid two summers ago and none did anything special, at least not enough to improve the Blazers, a team still defined by the Lillard-McCollum combo and now, to an extent, Nurkic.
Portland spent that money because (a) the team played well in the post-season (although their first-round win over the Clippers came without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) and the idea was to keep the youngest roster in the NBA intact, and (b) the salary cap rose significantly in 2016. It was the perfect storm and instead of taking a hard line with their free agents, the Blazers turned soft.
This summer they had no money, but draft picks instead. To diversify the strengths of the team and strengthen the front line, the Blazers went big in the draft. Olshey traded the No. 15 and 20 picks to move up to No. 10 and get Collins, a raw center. He struggled a bit in summer league yet he’s only 19 and is seven feet tall; the Blazers are high on his potential.
They also drafted Swanigan, who did play reasonably well in summer and could boost the power forward position, although he’ll see competition for minutes against Leonard, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. It’s possible that the glut could give Portland a few options at the next trade deadline, although that possibility will fizzle if none of the above play their way into becoming assets.
Something else also happened this summer: In a moment of desperation or humor or maybe both, McCollum tried to convince Carmelo Anthony that Portland is the place to be.
Anthony spent the summer trapped in conflict with the Knicks, whose feelings about ‘Melo turned lukewarm, and he raised the possibility of leaving New York. That would only happen if ‘Melo waived his no-trade cause; he indicated he would do so, but only for the Rockets.
So McCollum used social media to recruit ‘Melo and cite the charms of the city and the Blazers’ lineup. On the surface, yes, ‘Melo would solve a few issues, mainly a lack of scoring from the small forward position, and give Portland another offensive weapon besides McCollum and Lillard. But either ‘Melo didn’t get the memo, or merely snickered at it, because he offered no reply.
Portland’s best hope is for growth from within; the majority of the roster is well under 30 and it’s possible that some players haven’t reached their peak. However, how many besides McCollum and Lillard are potential All-Stars? Until Portland can add to that mix, the Blazers will live on the cusp of the playoffs, unable to break through the elite group.