Since the Trail Blazers signed backup point guard Steve Blake, there has been a widespread assumption that Mo Williams will find a new team to call home in free agency. While seemingly likely, this is not necessarily a guarantee. The Trail Blazers still have the flexibility to bring Williams back in a meaningful way if both parties reach agreeable terms.
While the Trail Blazers cannot exceed the 15 allotted roster spots for the 2014-15 season, and all of them are presently filled, they still possess one non-guaranteed contracts: Will Barton. He is expendable. If the Trail Blazers waive Barton, they can use the non-Bird exception to exceed the salary cap and re-sign Williams.
Why would the Trail Blazers do this? Well, if they are as dedicated to ‘win-now’ mode as they seem to be, they could push Williams to the shooting guard position like the Clippers successfully did in 2011-12. He is still a savvier scorer than Barton—or C.J. McCollum for that matter—and could continue providing the bulk of the bench production with Blake acting as the primary distributor.
Why would Williams do this? Every day that the Dallas Mavericks do not offer him their $2.7M cap exception increases the likelihood that they will not sign him. Outside of Dallas, the market for Williams is pretty small now that most teams have made their big free agency moves. Williams is open to re-signing in Portland and could use the career stability at 31 years old.
In a single-season vacuum, this move would make a lot of sense for Portland. Barton’s gradual ascension and Williams’ gradual decline have not yet met in the middle where the younger player becomes more valuable. It is also not unprecedented for a team to keep a contributing veteran over a struggling, young player on the tail end of the depth chart.
However; when considering such an arrangement, the Trail Blazers would be remiss to ignore the long term. Williams is in the twilight of his career, and his continued assistance would cost more than just Barton (whose potential is not to be undervalued). Williams’ presence would certainly put a strain on McCollum’s development; someone who is likely part of Portland’s future plans. Herein lies the gamble, because if McCollum were to pan out sooner rather than later, he would fill the bench scoring niche an absent Williams leaves behind.
The depth is enticing though. A second unit that includes four veterans (Blake, Williams, Dorell Wright, Chris Kaman) and one up-and-coming youth (Thomas Robinson) would be extraordinarily useful in a deep playoff run. The shallow roster that has blighted the Trail Blazers for several years is within reach of revolution.
If the Trail Blazers take this route and everything falls into place, the question becomes: “How long can Williams be beneficial?” Williams is seeking a three-year deal that would mean sinking some money into an aging guard while simultaneously hoping to re-sign the heavy hitters as their contracts expire (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez in 2015; Nicolas Batum in 2016). Including a team option in Williams’ hypothetical contract may create an impasse, but the Trail Blazers would hold leverage in negotiation as long as no other teams are bidding.
Although it would be a shame to see Barton walk and McCollum sit, this avenue is worth exploration for Portland—if only as a preliminary discussion of interest. Williams handily led the Trail Blazers bench in scoring last season, while also leading the league in assists off the bench. That kind of value is difficult to come by in the Trail Blazers’ position. If there is a way for them to keep Williams around as they push for post-season relevance, it must be considered.