Last night around 8:30 p.m. PDT, the Portland Trail Blazers came to terms with free agent center Chris Kaman on a 2-year/$10M contract. This signing (official on July 10th) has received rather polarized reactions, given Kaman’s former status as an NBA all-star and current status as a potential problem player. His minutes and numbers suffered in Los Angeles last season as Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni strung him along with DNPs for half of the year. The frustration and benching that led to the following viral image can be considered a ‘chicken-and-egg’ debate in retrospect.
I cannot truthfully blame Kaman for his grievance with D’Antoni’s small-ball style of coaching. When the Lakers signed him with the mini mid-level exception just one year ago, it was under the predication that he and Pau Gasol would run the frontcourt together. Instead, Kaman averaged 18.9 minutes per game behind Jordan Hill and, at times, even Robert Sacre. He played in only 39 games to the chagrin of the most attentive Lakers fans during their worst season in franchise history. Although wasteful, Kaman’s inactivity was mostly a byproduct of being in the wrong system.
“I came here thinking it’d be two bigs – me and Pau (Gasol). I just don’t think it worked out how coach had anticipated either. My frustrations through the year of not having that (play out) and me coming off the bench and having little spurts (of playing time). I don’t think coach did it on purpose. I just don’t think two bigs fit in his style of offense. That’s the way he coaches. It just didn’t go the way I had hoped.”
-Chris Kaman, exit interview
So now he arrives at Portland’s doorstep with a chip on his shoulder and a clearly defined role – to provide bench scoring (and be 7’0” tall). The Trail Blazers certainly won’t be signing him for his defense, so he had better deliver on the offensive end. I’m sure he was pitched the idea of being the first option at center off the bench and I do not doubt that he will be. Kaman still boasts a strong-ish post game. Regardless, this is a peculiar move for a team that was so gung-ho about ‘win-now mode’ just weeks ago. The specifics of Kaman’s contract point toward future cap scrutiny and not necessarily current on-court needs.
The Trail Blazers used their mid-level exception to convince Kaman to come to Portland. Traditionally, this means about $5.3M per year for up to four years with the occasional raise along the way. However; Kaman’s contract is only partially guaranteed in year two. For the low-low price of $1M, the Trail Blazers can cut him loose after the 2014-2015 season in order to save money for more important players with expiring contracts (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez).This shrewd maneuver may be the reason Kaman is coming to Portland instead of Spencer Hawes, who can command a higher price and has no reason to agree to such a restriction.
Whether you were among those excited to have a former all-star or among those disappointed to have a moody bench warmer, take solace in the implications Kaman has for Portland’s future. He is almost certainly going to be a one-season rental that actually contributes in a meaningful way during his stay. Sure, he isn’t the rim protector we had hoped for, but there wasn’t really one available in Portland’s price range aside from Jermaine O’Neal, who is presently considering retirement. Kaman is no worse at defense than Joel Freeland or Meyers Leonard, but he can put the ball in the hoop at a far better clip. That’s an upgrade I can live with given the circumstances.
So the Trail Blazers forfeit a splash for a ripple in the free agency pool this year. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it was probably more responsible than going for broke. Attitude and health permitting, Kaman should do pretty well as a Trail Blazer in tandem with Lopez at the center position. Portland is a good fit for him and he is likely a good fit for us. We will have to wait and see what kind of player he will be in red and black. The smart money is on “useful, but not groundbreaking.”