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Rip City Roadblock: Can the Blazers Be More Than Just Good Enough?

Portland is still suffering the consequences of bad front-office decisions made in the summer of 2016. There is hope, but it comes in the form of an underdeveloped rookie. The team’s core might not have time to wait it out.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Damian Lillard is tired of waiting. The Blazers star recently had a meeting with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, and whether it was committed to building a championship contender around Lillard while he’s in his prime. Portland has regressed since its unexpected breakthrough to the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago. The team is no closer to putting the right pieces around Lillard and C.J. McCollum than when it started, and the mistakes it made along the way have made the process even harder. There aren’t many paths left for the Blazers to become relevant.

The Blazers are nearing a crisis point: They are paying nearly $4.4 million in luxury-tax fees this season for a middling team, and four of their nine rotation players will be free agents this summer. They can’t afford to keep this group together, but they can’t blow it up, either. The team has won seven of its past eight games, and is riding the high of McCollum’s 50-point game against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, but little has changed in the grand scheme. As the trade deadline approaches, they have to balance between undoing their past mistakes, remaining competitive, and preserving their future. They will be lucky to do two of the three. Checking all those boxes at the same time will be close to impossible.

Portland is still paying dearly for the summer of 2016. It was a perfect storm of bad decisions. The salary cap had exploded thanks to the league’s new cable TV deal, and the team was riding high after winning a playoff series with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. It saw an opportunity to accelerate the rebuilding process. Like most get-rich-quick schemes, it ended poorly. The Blazers went all in on a team that wasn’t ready to take the next step, handing out $243 million in contracts to Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Festus Ezeli. All five of those signings are busts 18 months later.

Turner has been a disaster since Day 1. If you look at the size of his salary, his impact on the team, and the position he has put the franchise in, he might be the worst signing of the past decade. The league’s most vocal midrange enthusiast can’t space the floor (he’s a career 30 percent 3-point shooter on only 1.4 attempts per game), so using him means putting the ball in his hands and out of Lillard’s and McCollum’s. He’s not nearly good enough to justify that, and his average athleticism makes him a difficult fit on defense next to two undersized guards. Turner is not only not helping, he’s also actively making their stars worse. Both Lillard and McCollum have been significantly more productive without Turner this season:

Lillard and McCollum, With and Without Turner

Player Lillard McCollum
Player Lillard McCollum
Minutes w/Turner 827 946
Net rating w/Turner Minus-0.1 Minus-2.9
Minutes w/o Turner 744 830
Net rating w/o Turner Plus-4.8 Plus-4.7
Difference Plus-4.9 Plus-7.6

The other four signings have somehow done even less. Ezeli did not log a single minute for the team because of ongoing knee issues. Crabbe has already been shipped away, and the only thing Portland got in return from Brooklyn was a player (Andrew Nicholson) it immediately waived via the stretch provision, so it will have to pay off his contract incrementally over the next six seasons. Leonard is a good 3-point shooter who has never added much else to his game. Harkless has the 3-and-D skill set teams want on the wing, but he hasn’t been consistent enough on either side of the ball. They both fell out of the rotation after posting two of the worst net ratings on the team this season.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts spent four seasons with Rick Carlisle on the Mavericks, which was one of the first teams to really emphasize plus-minus and individual net rating as a lineup-setting tool. I asked Stotts about how those numbers impacted his decisions before their 107-93 victory against the Mavs last Friday: “I do think there’s something to [plus-minus numbers]. When it happens over and over, I think it means something,” Stotts said. “I’ve always felt that it meant a little more to players coming off the bench. For guys like Damian and C.J., their plus-minus is generally reflected by the team. The different rotations bench guys are in affect things. I think it’s worth noting. I don’t make all my decisions based on it, though.”

Benching Leonard and Harkless has allowed Portland to foster interesting young talent in their place. Player development has been one of the strengths of the organization in the past few years, and the credit should go equally to Stotts and the front office. The latter found the players, but it wouldn’t matter if the former wouldn’t play them. Both may have learned a lesson when they dealt Will Barton at the deadline in 2015 to acquire a washed-up veteran with a bigger name (Arron Afflalo). That move bothered Lillard so much he reportedly brought it up in his meeting with Allen three years later.

Portland’s track record in the draft is the best argument for keeping the current regime under GM Neil Olshey. Not many teams have this many hits. Getting three NBA-caliber players in the second round (Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, Pat Connaughton) in such a short time span is practically unheard of. Their only real miss since 2012 is Leonard.

The Blazers’ youth movement has allowed them to stay above water. They have four players (Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier, Connaughton, and Zach Collins) on rookie contracts making big contributions this season, none of whom make more than $4 million. It’s not just guys they drafted, either. They acquired Nurkic after he fell out of favor in Denver, while Napier bounced around in Miami and Orlando before catching on in Portland.

Nurkic anchors their defense, which had been Portland’s Achilles’ heel before his arrival. The 23-year-old center is a genuinely massive human being (7 feet tall and 280 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) with surprisingly nimble feet that allow him to seal off the paint and protect the rim. He’s not afraid to mix it up inside and set a physical tone. Portland became significantly better defensively after it got him at the trade deadline last season. Their defensive rating was 7.6 points lower when he was on the floor. With a full season of Nurkic in the middle, Portland’s defense has moved all the way up to no. 8 in the league.

Napier and Connaughton have brought needed perimeter firepower off the bench. Napier has emerged as an excellent third guard and secondary playmaker, with per-36-minute averages of 16.2 points and 3.9 assists on 46.3 percent shooting. Connaughton is one of their most consistent shooters outside of their two stars, shooting 36.4 percent from 3 on 5.4 attempts per 36 minutes of playing time. Both players give up size on defense, but they are smart and competitive enough to hold their own on that side of the ball.

They won’t be bargains for much longer. Nurkic, Napier, and Connaughton will be restricted free agents this offseason, and Portland will have to go deep into the luxury tax to keep them unless it can dump some of its bad contracts. The Blazers’ financial picture only gets bleaker in the years to come. They will be paying Turner, Harkless, and Leonard until 2020, and Nicholson until 2024:

Portland’s Bad Contracts

Player 2018-2019 2019-2020
Player 2018-2019 2019-2020
Evan Turner $17.9 million $18.6 million
Maurice Harkless $10.8 million $11.5 million
Meyers Leonard $10.6 million $11.3 million
Andrew Nicholson $2.8 million $2.8 million
Total $42.1 million $44.2 million

Portland could have avoided the upcoming salary crunch. The Blazers had three first-round picks (no. 15, no. 20, and no. 26) in the 2017 draft, and they could have used those picks to move some of their bad salaries. The model for that approach is the deal Toronto made with Brooklyn, when the Nets took on the last two years of DeMarre Carroll’s contract in return for a first-rounder in 2018. The Nets had already grabbed Crabbe from the Blazers, but other rebuilding teams like the Mavs and the Bulls would have done something similar for the right price. The Blazers weren’t interested in making that type of trade on draft night. All that would do is keep them stuck in place. They swung for the fences instead.

Portland made one of the more controversial moves in the 2017 NBA draft, sending a package of its no. 15 and no. 20 picks to Sacramento to jump up to no. 10. And with high-profile college stars like Malik Monk and Donovan Mitchell still left on the board, the Blazers acquired Collins, a player who didn’t even start in his one year at Gonzaga. Collins didn’t rise on draft boards until relatively late in the process. The Blazers were gambling on his skill set.

“[Collins] has good length. He has a really good feel defensively. He really competes. He’s gaining a lot of confidence with his shooting. All along, though, it has been his defense and competitiveness that stood out,” Stotts said after the game in Dallas.

Collins has flashed the ability to do three key things. At 7 feet tall and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he can shoot from the perimeter, defend out in space, and still protect the rim. He’s still a long way from being able to do those things consistently, though. Collins has taken only 70 3s during his past two seasons in college and the NBA, and he’s not yet strong enough to hold his own in the paint. He’s not even playing center right now. He plays primarily at power forward on their second unit next to Ed Davis, a more traditional big man. The good news is that playing out of position has forced Collins to stretch himself as a perimeter defender, which will help in the long run. He’s the rare 7-footer who can stay in front of smaller players out to the 3-point line:

“I played a little 4 in college, but I was mostly at the 5. I did it more in high school. I had two bigs [Stephen Zimmerman, a 2016 second-round draft pick of the Magic, and Chase Jeter, a junior at Arizona] in front of me until my senior year, so I had to play some at the 4,” Collins told me in the locker room before their game in Dallas. “Guarding on the perimeter just depends on the player. If they can shoot, make them put it on the floor. Keep them in front of you. Keep them out in the middle. If they can’t shoot, close out short, and it’s easier to keep them in front.”

Collins is still growing into his body. He was a post player at Gonzaga, but he hasn’t been able to establish position inside against bigger and stronger defenders in the NBA. It’s unclear whether he will ever be able to create his own offense off the dribble. He didn’t get a chance to do it much in college. He’s so young that it’s hard to put a firm ceiling on his game. Collins doesn’t need to become a big-time scorer to be a difference-maker. He is special not just because of what he could be, but how he could impact everyone else. The best version of Collins would allow Lillard and McCollum to become better versions of themselves. The Blazers stars would be unguardable if they could play in the pick-and-roll with a 7-footer who forced defenses to extend out to the 3-point line.

“I’ve always felt pretty confident in my jump shot, whether it’s 3 or midrange. I always have confidence to where if my role is to be a shooter, that’s my role, and I can knock down shots,” Collins said. “The way the NBA is now, shooting is one thing that separates me. That’s especially big on a team like this, where our guards are so good at getting in the lane. It helps them a lot if my guy can’t help and they have a free lane to the basket. If he does help, I can shoot the 3.”

Leonard was supposed to be that player, but he kills their defense. Portland has a defensive rating of 112.4 in his 152 minutes this season, by far the worst mark of anyone on their roster. They don’t have many legitimate two-way players in their frontcourt.

Nurkic has improved the defense at the cost of the offense. An NBA big man has to either be able to stretch the floor or finish inside. Nurkic can’t do either. He has never made a 3-pointer in the NBA, so no one guards him outside of the paint. He clogs up the lane if he’s not involved in the offense, but he doesn’t have the touch or explosiveness to finish over NBA-caliber length and athleticism. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he is in the 34th percentile of players league-wide when scoring out of the roll, and in the 20th percentile when posting up. Defenses can force the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands when Nurkic is screening for them, knowing he can’t make them pay:

Collins could eventually combine Nurkic and Leonard’s strengths into one player. The question is when. He will be only 21 next season. He needs to play as a center on the second unit before he’s ready to be one on the first. Stotts gives Davis, who will be a free agent this offseason, a lot of credit for how much he’s helped Collins, but Davis has a pair of training wheels that have to come off. Drafting Collins probably eliminated the chance that the Blazers would make a long-term commitment to the Bosnian mammoth.

Portland could make an immediate upgrade at center if it goes after DeAndre Jordan, whom it has been linked to in rumors for awhile. They would presumably build a package around Nurkic, though the Clippers might prefer Collins. DeAndre’s ability to roll to the rim would add a dangerous new element to the Blazers offense, but he can’t space the floor or make plays off the dribble, and he wouldn’t be particularly helpful in a series against the Warriors. They would still need to make more moves to become a legitimate contender. The problem is any additional trade would be even tougher financially after adding DeAndre, who has a player option for the final season of his contract and reportedly wants a max contract extension.

Collins may end up being trade bait either way. Lillard is ready to win now, and Collins is still more than half a decade away from his prime. They are on different timetables. Portland could be developing Collins to use him in the same way the Thunder used another ex-Gonzaga big man (Domantas Sabonis) in a deal for Paul George. However, they would have to get rid of some of their bad long-term salaries before a trade like that would even be possible. No one takes back money when giving up a star, which is the issue they would face in any deal for DeAndre.

The easiest way for them to go forward might be to look to their past. Wesley Matthews, who is still beloved in Portland, is everything Turner is not. He’s a tough-nosed defender who can guard all three positions on the perimeter, and he’s shooting 38.6 percent from 3 on 6.2 attempts per game this season, despite not playing with guys who can set him up for easy shots in Dallas. Matthews will make $18.6 million next season should he opt into the final year of his contract, so he could be traded straight up for Turner, whose contract will run at least one year longer than Matthews’s. The Mavs have already said they would move him for a first-round pick. That deal would improve Portland immediately while also giving the Blazers more future flexibility.

All the Blazers can do for now is tweak around the edges. There is no one trade that will make them a contender. They need to make a trade at the deadline to set up another trade down the line. They have to make the best out of a bad situation, and hope their ability to draft and develop players will get them out of the mess they created for themselves in free agency. Their best chance is for Zach Collins to either become their third star, or the piece that gets them that player. There is hope on the horizon in Portland. It just may not be coming fast enough to keep Lillard happy.