Do the Trail Blazers have a Free Agency Problem?


The story of the NBA this summer is the phenomenal free agent class hitting the market. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony have all opted out of their contracts, and lesser stars like Luol Deng and Kyle Lowry are also flirting with other teams.

The Blazers aren’t getting any of those guys. They won’t even look at the stars, and they probably won’t seriously consider the other guys. The Blazers’ splashiest realistic free agent signing is probably someone like Patty Mills. This is for a variety of reasons, many of them financial and cap-related. But it does underscore an interesting issue for the Blazers moving forward: they can’t seem to attract free agents.

Portland’s recent history in free agency isn’t pretty. The last Blazers free agent signing that registered anywhere near the vicinity of “major” was Jamal Crawford. He left money offered by another team on the table, which is encouraging, but we can probably write that off as a fluke because 1) the other team was the Kings and 2) Crawford “liked the proximity of Portland to his hometown of Seattle.” Although another Seattle native, Nate Robinson, would be a pretty good match for Portland right now given health, Crawford’s an anomaly.

Before that? Probably Andre Miller, right? The large professor played well in Portland, but he was also described by Kevin Pritchard  as “a Plan C.” That’s not inspiring. As a side note, Plan A for the summer of 2012 was Hedo Turkoglu, to whom we offered a five-year deal that would be coming off the books this summer. Maybe we don’t deserve to lure free agents.

“Portland isn’t a great city to live in if you’re a young, African American male with a lot of money”

So the question is whether this free-agent futility is a result of the circumstances around the team in the last decade or a result of something inherent in the city and/or the team. The answer, predictably, is complicated.

Portland, if you were unaware, is not the most glamorous of cities. It lacks the flash of New York or Los Angeles, and this is probably the theory you’ll hear most often from the persecution-complex-addled conspiracy theorists that Trail Blazer fandom turns us all into at some point. Big-shot NBA stars just don’t want to play in our beautiful little logging town.

This ties into the race issue, which has always been a problem for the Blazers. When Greg Oden mentioned in an interview that “Portland isn’t a great city to live in if you’re a young, African American male with a lot of money,” that wasn’t anything new for the city. In David Halberstam’s legendary book The Breaks of the Game (if you haven’t read it, read it. I’ll wait), the race dichotomy between the players and the inhabitants of 1979 Portland was a constant tension. Herm Gilliam, for example, finds himself “intrigued by the adulation of heroes so black by a community so white.” And as anyone who lives here can tell you, it’s very, very white. Portland is by some counts the whitest major city in the US. I can’t speak to how much of a decision factor that is for an NBA free agent–I doubt they spend too much time looking over demographic data of prospective cities–but there’s no way it helps.

Mar 14, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Portland’s size is another interesting issue. It’s the 22nd-largest TV market in the nation, behind cities containing 20 of the 30 NBA teams. But the value of playing in a big market is largely speculative. It certainly has nothing to do with contract size; Paul Allen, until Steve Ballmer butted in, was the NBA’s richest owner. And big-time endorsement deals clearly aren’t exclusive to big markets–Damian Lillard’s new Adidas deal is proof of that. It’s not the 80s, when someone like Magic Johnson almost certainly wouldn’t have been as big a star in a smaller market.

Ultimately, the biggest reason that stars don’t want to play for Portland is that for a long time, the Blazers were a total mess of a franchise. They were the Jail Blazers or they were cursed with chronic injuries or they were just a bad team. A lot of our complaints about the Blazers’ problems luring free agents put the onus on the players to recognize how great a city Portland is. Maybe they should, but the real onus has to be on management to turn the Blazers into an attractive team to play for.

Is this changing at all? Between the playoff success and Lillard’s emergence as one of the game’s brightest young stars, Portland feels slightly less small as an NBA market. And for the first time in a while, management is putting forward a united front, led by Neil Olshey. I’ll never stop reminding people that Roy Hibbert was “blown away” by Olshey’s pitch to him as a restricted free agent in 2012, a year which saw the team finish 28-38 and blow it up and tank halfway through. Hibbert was by all accounts happy to play in Portland if Indiana hadn’t matched the offer sheet. Public opinion on whether that would have been good for the Blazers has swung wildly back and forth since then, but no one can deny it was impressive on Olshey’s part.

The Blazers are basically capped out for next season, so the discussion is largely academic for now. But the Blazers have an exciting team that is not too far from contention, and it’s good to know that there is probably nothing absolutely poisonous for free agents about Portland or its team.

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