2010 Free Agents: Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw

Let’s begin by saying that trading the expiring contracts of Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw for Marcus Camby last February was absolutely the correct move. Not only did it, for the price of two players bound for unrestricted free agency, give the Blazers a desperately needed defensive and rebounding presence, but it also freed up minutes for Jerryd Bayless as the backup point guard and prevented a logjam at SF among Nic Batum, Martell Webster and Outlaw. You do that trade yesterday, today and tomorrow.

But both those players are free agents now, and don’t deserve to be ignored just because they were traded away from the team. Each of them had, and still have, their rightful detractors, but each also has marketable skills and carries value in the NBA. Both, too, will be in Portland’s price range this summer, with the team only having the Mid Level Exception, among smaller cap exceptions, to play with come July 1.

More after the jump…

Bearded Blake. Yay or Nay? (Source: Yardbarker.com)

Steve Blake: At 29 years old, Steady Steve is who he is: a backup point guard. His PER is going to hover around 12, he’s not going to take too many risks, thus turning the ball over very little, and he’ll shoot a good-to-very-good percentage as a spot up three-point shooter. Nothing special, but consistent, though with a sub-par showing the playoffs in 2008.

With the Los Angeles Clippers for 29 games, Blake hardly underwent a contract-year renaissance, but he was different. The aggressiveness was there, and from that flowed more long go-ahead passes in transition, more lobs into the paint, more bounce passes to cutters. While most of his peripheral numbers remained the same, Blake’s assist-at-the-rim jumped to 2.6 per game from 1.4 in Portland, his highest at-rim rate since playing 49 games for Denver in 2007. Some of this could be due to the end of the season carefree attitude the Clippers played with, having nothing to play for — as the team had a six percent higher assist rate at the rim than Portland.

But with the spike in aggressiveness came turnovers galore. In the same amount of minutes, Blake’s turnovers jumped from 1.3 to 2.2, and his turnover percentage leaped to 26.6 percent. For comparison, both Blake and Andre Miller have a career turnover percentage around 16. Blake’s turnover percentage was also just above 20 percent that half-year in Denver, when he also had more at-rim assists per game.

So, what you get is a point guard who frustrates you with his reluctance to take risks, but who probably doesn’t have the skills to maintain the same aggressiveness you want out of playoff-level starting point guards. It’s one thing to take a 20+ turnover percentage from Steve Nash when he assists on 50 percent of all made field goals when on the floor, another from Blake, whose assist percentage is 15 points lower.

Blake is safe, as you well know, but part of what frustrated everyone with him in Portland was that Nate McMillan insisted on playing him over younger, or better, options. Blake is limited, the limits of Jerryd Bayless are still unknown. I’d imagine the thought of Blake back in Portland terrifies some of you, just for the thought of McMillan finding some way to put Steve back in the rotation. Were that to happen, re-signing Blake, even at or below the $4 million a year he’s making now, would be harmful. Even if he were signed as a third-string point guard and remained as such, you don’t want to be paying a good chunk of your MLE for a third-string point guard.

That leaves us with this hypothetical situation for Blake’s return: he comes on knowing that he’s a third-string point (with a token chance to compete) for a two year contract at no more than $2 million a year (around what Goran Dragic makes, and less than what Earl Watson is earning, for some reason). Given that consistent point guards are valuable, teams have plenty of money to spend this summer and Blake — who had already re-signed with Portland once after being traded for Jamaal Magloire — has probably tired of being a target in Portland, that’s doesn’t seem very likely.

But even the staunchest of Blake haters among you Blazer fans, would you mind if Blake was sitting on the bench, with a cheap contract and not taking minutes away from other players? Would you mind if Blake was the one to come in to play 20 minutes a game for a short stretch should Bayless or Miller sprain an ankle? You could do a lot worse, and really, in that situation, Blake would be a luxury.

When Outlaw jumps rope, does he need a rope, or does he just hold his arm out like this? (Source: Yardbarker.com)

Travis Outlaw: Whereas Blake had the more-assists, more-turnovers tradeoff with the Clippers, Outlaw was either the same or worse in most statistical categories. But since he was coming off a broken foot that kept him out of 47 games and then dealt with a groin injury very late in the season, it’s fair to him to say that he’s essentially the same player you grew to know over the past seven seasons.

You know he’ll shoot about 37 percent from beyond the arc, that he’ll finish around the rim when the paint isn’t too crowded and that you can count on him to get a shot off with that one-dribble pullup jumper of his. You also know that, for someone who plays a good amount of backup power forward because of defensive struggles, he’ll leave a lot to be desired in the rebounding department, and for the most part he’s the endgame when it comes to ball movement. You want someone to finish possessions with a shot, shoot 42 percent from 16-23 feet, spot up and run the break, he’s your man.

Question is, do the Blazers need those skills any longer? They could use another shooter, and they certainly could use another playmaker on the bench unit. But the Blazers should, ideally, be moving away from individual shot creating and more towards fluid team offense, and Outlaw isn’t a beacon of light in that realm.

Amazingly, Travis is still only 25 years old, which makes you want to believe he can improve in those areas, as well as on defense , but judging from his growth curve in Portland, that’s asking a bit too much. And he’ll probably be looking for at least the $3.6 million he made this year, though not too much more, given that he signed for three years, $11.6 million after a breakout season in 2007. Outlaw had more potential back then, and these days team’s will probably only want to pay for his current production.

So what’s the hypothetical with Travis that could bring him back to Portland? I’m not sure there is one. Even if you can get him at a bargain price — as they did in ’07 — the Blazers are, again, ideally in a transition period into both developing better team offense and more interior toughness. Do you want Outlaw backing up LaMarcus Aldridge again, or would you rather find a more rebounding-focused forward? Do you want Outlaw’s long jumpers again, or would you rather try and woo a perimeter player with better ballhandling and passing skills like Mike Miller? Do you want someone to keep missing Greg Oden whenever the big guy has deep position?

And unlike Blake, Outlaw needs to play. He might not be someone you want playing the forward spot for you deep into the playoffs, but he has NBA skills that deserve minutes. There are better options for Portland out there, and there are likely better situations for Outlaw to sign in to. Perhaps with him, its best to finally wish him the best and move on.