July moratorium begins tomorrow when teams are allowed to meet with free agents to discuss potential contracts. Despite limited cap space, the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to be rather busy. They are not participating in the LeBron James / Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes like many others, but the comparatively minor signings the Trail Blazers set in motion will be crucial to their success in the 2014-2015 season. This is their chance to fix their flaws and shore up the roster for a deep playoff run.
As of yet, the Trail Blazers have held their cards close to the chest. Their needs are public (interior defense, bench scoring, veteran experience), but their intentions have remained private. Here is what we know:
There are four possible roster spots to fill, only 1-2 of which are likely to need filling. Robin Lopez will probably have his team option exercised and return for another season. The same can be said for Will Barton, but with a lesser degree of certainty. Mo Williams has opted out of his contract and will test free agency if the Trail Blazers do not offer a three year deal, and Earl Watson will likely retire or be signed elsewhere. This means that the Trail Blazers will be looking for two free agents, at most, so they had better make them count.
Portland’s biggest asset right now is the Mid-Level Exception that will allow them to offer $5.3M to an incoming player next season, with up to three more years built in. If they use the Non-Bird exception to retain Williams at the barely inflated price of $3.2M per season (and he is interested in staying), exercise Lopez’s team option, and do the same for Barton, that $5.3M should be enough to fill their remaining roster slot with a reliable contributor. Here are some players that Portland is likely to target:
Shaun Livingston: Combo guard
Livingston is one of those “what if” players that sustained a career changing injury at a young age. When he was 21, Livingston tore his ACL, tore his PCL, tore his lateral meniscus, sprained his MCL, and dislocated the patella of his left knee in one of the most gruesome on-court injuries in NBA history. He missed the entire 2007-2008 season and has been floating from team to team ever since. His career took a massive upswing in Brooklyn this year, where he proved that he could still score and facilitate at a high level. He is unique in stature, for a guard, standing 6’7” tall. The Trail Blazers could use a long, reliable scorer in their backcourt. Now 28, Livingston has never made more than $4.4M in a given NBA season. Portland could woo him with the full exception or potentially split it and have money to spare for another free agent.
Previous salary: $1.3 million
Spencer Hawes: Center
I have an irrational dislike for most centers that shoot three-pointers, so Hawes has never been one of my favorite players in this league. However; sneaking him into the lineup behind Lopez wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He is the same kind of player as Meyers Leonard (minus athleticism), but he has enough experience in the NBA to function more reliably. His ceiling is probably lower, but he has also probably reached it. If the Trail Blazers sign Hawes to bring much needed depth to the frontcourt, they are almost guaranteed to be a better playoff team than they were this year. I worry about the developmental cost, but ‘win now’ means right now, and the Trail Blazers could use a lumbering presence in the post.
Previous salary: $6.5 million
Jermaine O’Neal: Power forward/center
You know, O’Neal might be a good call for the Trail Blazers. Despite closing in on 36 years old, he is probably the best defensive big man in Portland’s price range. He has held up reasonably well over the years and was highly serviceable for the Warriors this season. Unless his stance has drastically changed since last offseason, he’s even willing to entertain a return to the team that drafted him. He is one of the most experienced players on the market, he is one of the most reliable players on the market, and he is dirt cheap. The Trail Blazers could probably sign him with half of the MLE and still get another capable free agent with their savings.
Previous salary: $2.0 million
Kirk Hinrich: Point guard
While Hinrich may not be a spring chicken at 33, he is one of the highest IQ players you’ll find. He would not provide a scoring punch or a guaranteed three-point threat, but he is the general I would want leading the troops through the NBA playoffs. He is also tantalizingly available as the Chicago Bulls try to jettison any contract that stands between them and LeBron/Melo. If the Trail Blazers do not re-sign Williams, Hinrich is the veteran replacement I would seek. He would not be able to match Williams’ scoring, but he would certainly increase that of others to a similar effect. Let’s not forget his defensive capabilities and grinding hustle either. Hinrich is worth a look on that alone.
Previous salary: $4.1 million
Josh McRoberts: Power forward
McRoberts made a name for himself as an energy player in Charlotte, but the reputation could benefit him in free agency more than it would with the Hornets. He opted out of his contract one week before his team drafted Noah Vonleh as a potential replacement. McRoberts may not be a lockdown defender or a go-to scorer, but his passing abilities are nothing short of exceptional. This is something I look for in players of any position, as the ability to make teammates better is often more important than making yourself stand out. The Trail Blazers’ young bench needs all the help it can get, so if that means a big man that is willing to make the extra pass, I won’t complain.
Previous salary: $2.7 million