How did the Blazers arrive at mediocrity and where do they go from here?

How did the Blazers arrive at mediocrity and where do they go from here?


How did the Blazers arrive at mediocrity and where do they go from here?

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Late on Jan. 22 – or early, depending on what part of the country you reside in – after a full day of tumultuous reports trickling in from around the Association, ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped one final story to close out the hectic 24 hours regarding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.

It wasn’t the most explosive story of the day, but it was interesting nonetheless.

According to Haynes, Lillard, the franchise’s star dating back to when he was drafted in 2012, had requested a meeting with team owner Paul Allen.

He didn’t request a trade, as Allen feared he might, but Lillard did want to clear something up with the head of the organization. Per Haynes’ report:

“Lillard, who will turn 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said. (…) The two-time All-Star made it clear, though, that he has championship aspirations and wanted to fulfill those lofty goals during the remaining years of his prime window.”

Although the Blazers haven’t been as dysfunctional or poorly run as other teams around the NBA, and despite the fact they have qualified for postseason play each of the last four seasons, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that Lillard would want reassurances as to the franchise’s direction.

After all, some of their front office’s moves over recent years can at best be labeled confusing, and at worst, incompetent.

And we only need a quick look up and down their roster to find the biggest eyesores.

Their third-highest paid player, Evan Turner, signed a four-year, $70 million contract during the league’s now-infamous summer of 2016 spending spree. Now in the second year of his deal, Turner has repaid them by averaging 8.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest while shooting 31.5 percent from three. Oh, and Portland is actually 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor.

Turner’s deal isn’t the only problematic one on Portland’s payroll, however.

There’s also Meyers Leonard and his four-year, $41 million contract, which was likewise signed during 2016’s free agent frenzy. Thus far in 2017-18, Leonard is playing 9.7 minutes nightly as he tries to regain his form following an early-season ankle injury.

We should also mention Maurice Harkless’ bloated four-year, $42 million deal, which, of course, he signed during the summer of 2016. This season has been a struggle for the 24-year-old wing. Harkless is down to playing 20.5 minutes nightly (the second-lowest total of his career), putting up just 5.4 points per contest, while voicing confusion regarding his role to the media.

If we look at the big picture as far as cap space for 2017-18 is concerned, the Blazers are using a whopping 39 percent(!) of their’s on just the three aforementioned players – two of whom are in and out of the rotation.

But that’s not it.

There was also the whole Allen Crabbe ordeal from a season ago.

Crabbe, who was a restricted free agent during, you guessed it, the summer of 2016, signed a pricey offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets during that year’s free-agent bonanza – one that was worth four years, $74.8 million, and which contained a player option on the final season. The Nets signed him to such a bold contract with the hopes that either Portland would pass on matching, or that they’d match and hurt their future cap space in the process.

The Blazers, of course, did just the latter and merely one year later, decided to trade the sharpshooter to the Nets in exchange for Andrew Nicholson, rather than gut out paying the rest of his deal.

Nicholson was unceremoniously waived not long after, but Portland is still paying him $2.8 million this year to play in China.

That’s not the only bit of dead money the team has on their books either.

They’re also still paying Anderson Varejao (who’s now playing professionally in Brazil) $1.9 million in 2017-18, and Festus Ezeli $333,000 after waiving both players over the past two seasons.

And as if all of that didn’t seem messy enough, we haven’t even mentioned the team trading away Will Barton for next to nothing back in 2015, only to find themselves desperately lacking wing shooting (Barton’s specialty) since his departure.

Barton, whose production far outweighs the size of his contract, would be Portland’s eighth-highest paid player this season, and slot in perfectly at the 3 next to Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Looking ahead

With so much slop on their books, the Blazers, particularly Lillard, McCollum and head coach Terry Stotts, should be commended for their 26-22 record, which presently has them as the seventh seed in the tight Western Conference playoff hunt.

It was recently announced Lillard will be an All-Star for the second time in his career, while McCollum is averaging 21.4 points per game and slashing healthy 44.4/41.9/88.0 shooting splits.

They’re getting contributions elsewhere as well.

Shabazz Napier is having his best season as a pro, playing the role of backup point guard beautifully thanks to his smooth step-back jumper and 43.4 percent three-point accuracy.

Rookie big man Zach Collins is starting to come on over recent weeks, proving why Portland took him with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft with his floor-spacing, rim-protecting prowess.

Al-Farouq Aminu, after a dip in efficiency last season, is hitting 38.6 percent of his triples in 2017-18, while providing the Blazers with excellent defense on the wing.

But even so, it’s hard to see Portland’s path out of the mediocrity they appear to be mired in.

If we look at the long-term approach, to clear up room for game-changing help this summer, the Blazers will need to find a way to get some of the bad money off their books.

However, no team in their right mind is going to want to take Turner, Harkless or Leonard’s contracts in a trade unless the Blazers attach major sweetener to the deal, either in the form of an unprotected first-round pick or their two most recent draftees, Collins or Caleb Swanigan.

That’s precisely how the Los Angeles Lakers got out of paying Timofey Mozgov’s contract: by attaching a young, high upside player in D’Angelo Russell to the deal with Brooklyn.

As difficult a decision it may be for Portland general manager Neil Olshey, he really may not have another choice. Especially considering the Blazers are paying the luxury tax for a group with a very mundane +0.5 net rating.

Another path they could take is to get ahead of the curve regarding Jusuf Nurkic’s impending restricted free agency, and trade him before the deadline. The Bosnian big man has been a bit of a letdown this season, but he is still likely to garner a deal with an annual average salary hovering around $10 million.

The Blazers do own Nurkic’s Bird Rights and his cap hold is cheap ($4.1 million), so they could reach a verbal agreement with him this offseason, try to sign another outside free agent or two, and then, once they’re done filling their roster, they can officially re-sign him for the long-term using said Bird Rights.

But that could only happen if they manage to get rid of one of Turner’s, Harkless’ or Leonard’s contracts, which will be quite the tough ask.

Trading Nurkic now would mean the Blazers won’t have to sweat out his restricted free agency, and he’s still young enough to interest other teams, especially since whoever he gets traded to will also acquire his Bird Rights. Olshey could also look to attach one of his slightly less troublesome contracts (like Ed Davis’expiring deal) to a Nurkic trade to free up more money as well.

If Portland opts to seek out short-term fixes before the deadline, they need to target players on expiring contracts… like Barton. It’s unclear what the Blazers could offer that would intrigue the Denver Nuggets, but maybe a package of Napier and Noah Vonleh could get the two sides talking.

There’s also Memphis Grizzlies wing Tyreke Evans available on an expiring, but Portland has enough primarily ball-handlers on their roster as is.

The best course may be for the Blazers to metaphorically weather the storm now, and use the summer to clear out bad contracts.

Because, in the immediate future, barring going nuclear before the upcoming trade deadline, there’s not much the Blazers can do to fix their salary-cap-related predicament. But by attaching assets to get out from under their sunk costs this offseason, Portland may be able to soon see the light at the end of the tunnel.

If not, Allen’s next meeting with Lillard may have a much different tone.

You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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