The Portland Trail Blazers are a likeable crew—one of the most likeable in the NBA. I tend to think this is more a reactionary byproduct of the ‘Jail Blazers’ era and careful marketing than anything else, but I have always been a bit of a cynic. For whatever reason, the Rip City image is a wholesome one. This has to be true when Meyers Leonard’s perfect haircut is a primary target for distain among the populace. There are no real trouble makers on the roster; no Andrew Bynums or Yoko Onos, but while the lack of drama is Beatles music to my ears, it does make swapping players rather difficult.
The Trail Blazers are not expected to make any major trades this offseason because the team functions more or less as intended and no big names explicitly want out. It seems that most people made their peace with this before Portland’s playoff corpse was cold, but I think the Trail Blazers will survive longer in the future if they embrace adaptation. I am not just talking about the tail end of the bench right now; the starters are not necessarily safe. Somehow, some way, the Trail Blazers need to break up the band.
There are three players I am concerned about at the moment: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez – each of whom will be an unrestricted free agent in 2015. I can tell you right now that, under current circumstances, at least one of them will not be a Trail Blazer in 2016. Here is why:
Aldridge 2014-2015 salary: $16.0 million
Aldridge 2015-2016 salary: $22.1 million (anticipated)
Matthews 2014-2015 salary: $7.2 million
Matthews 2015-2016 salary: $9.0 million (anticipated)
Lopez 2014-2015 salary: $6.1 million
Lopez 2015-2016 salary: $10.0 million (anticipated)
If the Trail Blazers hold onto all three players through contracts’ end, in theory they would have to spend about $11.8 million more to field all three of them for another season, not to mention the following seasons too. Even if the Trail Blazers left team options unexercised and qualifying offers unextended for Leonard, Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum, Victor Claver, and Will Barton, they could barely cover that margin (but couldn’t play with so few players left).
Interestingly enough, $11.8 million is the amount Nicolas Batum is owed in 2014-2015 (thanks, Minnesota). Although Portland is unlikely to ship him out for a player that will be cheaper longer, I am not entirely opposed to the idea. The Trail Blazers need to give the entire roster a once over and start making this sort of tough call. If they make no trades, they will likely have to wave good bye to either Aldridge, Matthews, or Lopez in free agency next summer, for nothing in return.
Although the Trail Blazers have declared that they are in ‘win now’ mode, they have to think about the future and not just the present. Are they really within arm’s reach of a championship if they keep everyone together for one more season? I am skeptical. There seems to be this prevailing mindset that if Portland does not win or, at least, almost win next year, Aldridge will leave. This could very well be true, but if I am Aldridge and I am deciding which team to end up with for the long haul, I am choosing the one that is thinking about the long haul. Trading players from a playoff caliber team when it makes good sense to do so does not constitute a rebuild, it means the front office is doing its job.
I suppose if Portland is truly hesitant to make drastic changes they could always try to empty the bench in exchange for draft picks and pay a bunch of second-rounders on the rookie scale to save money. This, however, is a stall, not a solution, and one that would make a shallow bench even shallower. Unless the Trail Blazers want to risk losing a major component to free agency in 2015, they had better trade a major component beforehand. At least that way they can leverage compensation and actively construct their future.
Will the Trail Blazers make a big trade this offseason? Probably not (though I would definitely mull over Aldridge for the number one pick if the Cavaliers came knocking). It is difficult to split up a team that functions well and is liked by almost everyone. There just is not enough room to make it work. Unless, of course, Adam Silver wants to revise the salary cap just a wee little bit (pretty please?). Trail Blazers management needs to ask themselves this question:
Are we close enough to a championship in 2015 that we are willing to abandon damage control?