Neil Olshey, general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, came into the offseason with a lot of work to do. The team needed a defensive center to replace J.J. Hickson in the starting lineup, and they had to revamp their league-worst bench from last season.
Now, on the first day of free agency, guess where the Blazers stand?
Boom. They’re a starting center and a bench acquisition or two away from where they want to be. They haven’t even agreed to a contract with any free agents yet. So, to be this far along already is great for them. Credit Olshey for a job well done.
Coming into the offseason, Portland had five impending free agents: starting center J.J. Hickson, point guards Eric Maynor and Nolan Smith, small forward Luke Babbitt and shooting guard Elliot Williams. None of them were expected to be brought back initially, minus the possibility of Maynor (who has since agreed to a deal with the Washington Wizards).
Letting those players go allowed Olshey to make the changes he wanted to, at the center position in the starting lineup and on the bench. They had about $14 million in cap space and four draft picks (one first rounder) to work with in filling those areas of need.
Portland was in trade talks to trade their first round pick, tenth overall, for a center. However, unable to find a deal, they went into the draft and used their first round pick to draft guard CJ McCollum. In the second round, they drafted big man Jeff Withey and international big Marko Todorovic, as well as trading two future second round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers to draft guard Allen Crabbe while sending the third second round pick they originally had to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash considerations.
All in all, the draft solved many problems for Portland’s bench. McCollum is a prospect ready to contribute off of the bench at either guard position. He’s no starting center, but he’s someone who can back up both Lillard and Matthews in a sixth man role similar to Jarrett Jack’s in Golden State.
Crabbe and Withey, both second rounders, won’t be contributing major minutes any time soon, but they do fit in nicely on the end of the roster. Crabbe fills in well as the fourth guard on the bench, playing a minor role on the bench while developing. Withey serves as insurance to Meyers Leonard, giving the Blazers a backup option in the case that Leonard, after a shaky rookie season, can’t cut it.
What about Marko Todorovic? Well, his draft rights were packaged with the rights to Kostas Papanikolau, the 48th pick in last year’s draft whom the Blazers acquired from the New York Knicks last offseason, and two future second round picks in a trade with the Houston Rockets. The Blazers were able to nab forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth pick in last year’s draft, for essentially a package of second rounders.
This trade was the cherry on top to the Blazers’ pre-free agency offseason. The Rockets were vocal about their desire to trade Robinson so that they would be able to offer free agent Dwight Howard a maximum contract. Portland was able to get Robinson for very little that was of worth to them. Robinson is a low risk get with nice upside. He won’t be promised huge minutes behind LaMarcus Aldridge, but he will be given an opportunity with his new team and if he pays off even a little, they have yet another playable body on the bench.
Now, let’s look at where the Blazers stand looking into free agency. While they have not yet been able to address their issues at center, their bench now includes the names of McCollum, Crabbe, Robinson and Withey. That’s a sixth man playing in the backcourt and another guard to help soak up any leftover court time, and a few young bigs to shuffle around for playing time.
At this point, the Blazers are just a veteran or two away from having solved their bench problem entirely. If they can get a reliable veteran who can play small forward and possibly one more vet to solidify the frontcourt platoon, they’d be in a very good place, especially compared to where they were last season.
And, guess what? Because of Olshey’s genius maneuvering with young players and their rookie scale contracts, the Blazers still have roughly $8.3 million in cap space in addition to the room mid-level exception of up to $2.5 million per year for up to two years. They also have Sasha Pavlovic’s unguaranteed contract, which they can waive to free up an additional $1.4 million in cap space. It would be very surprising if that contract wasn’t waived.
That’s about $9.7 million plus an exception for up to $2.5 million, for three players at the most. They could sign a center worth $6 million, a small forward worth $3.7 million, and a veteran big man for up to $2.5 million. Alternatively, they could choose to sign a veteran big man worth just a minimum contract (which they can offer even if they are over the cap) and opt to use all of their $9.7 million on a starting center, saving the room exception for a small forward.
Do you want names? Samuel Dalembert is a personal favorite of mine as the starting center, and the Blazers have also shown interest in Tiago Splitter, Chris Kaman, Nikola Pekovic and Zaza Pachulia. They could also trade for Marcin Gortat, having the cap flexibility to be able to take on his $7.7 million contract, though Phoenix has stated their intention to keeping him.
At small forward, former Blazer Martell Webster is available, and there’s also Carlos Delfino, Corey Brewer and Dorell Wright. Veteran centers include most notably Jermaine O’Neal, who has expressed interest in returning to Portland, and also Joel Przybilla, Nazr Mohammad and Ryan Hollins.
With free agency well underway, the Blazers are looking to make their moves. They’re already off to a great start. If they make another big splash in free agency, then that’s just part of what would be no less than an A+ offseason for them.
There’s one main man to credit for this, and that’s Neil Olshey. In my own opinion, I believe he has quietly made the most productive moves of any team in the early stages of the offseason. He hasn’t had the type of fancy signing that will win him Executive of the Year, but make no mistake, Olshey deserves your praise, Blazers fans.