The Portland Trail Blazers players and staff assembled Tuesday, one last time before heading off into the summer. They were a day removed from a game 4 elimination at the hands of the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
It felt a bit different then last year when the Blazers met up for their annual goodbyes with the media. They had lost 10 straight playoff games and were swept in the 1st round for the 2nd postseason in a row. There were rumors swirling of blowing up the team. Firing head Coach Terry Stotts. Starting over. Again.
This time around the Blazers made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. There they hit a brick wall. That wall was the defending champions. No, the Blazers didn’t find their way past the Warriors. Yes, they were swept in aggravating fashion. Vexing not because the Warriors blew out the Blazers, but because three of the four games were so close. The Blazers found themselves competing. They just couldn’t finish. The Blazers actually led 101 minutes to 83 in the series.
The Blazers otherwise did everything they were supposed to do. They won 53 regular season games. The best the Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games. They outlasted the younger Denver Nuggets. Losing to the Warriors was not unexpected. They played a team CJ McCollum called the example. They got to take an exact measure of where they are as a team and as individual players. They got to appraise their weaknesses and strengths. They had no experience at the Western Conference Final level. They do now. The Blazers will learn and grow from it.
Key topics throughout the interviews were the progress the Blazers have made, and the inevitability of change in terms of roster composition. Olshey stressed the balancing the two is important. Continuity is essential. Maintaining the teams core while taking the risks to move forward is necessary. Fluidity is expected.
The Trail Blazers already signed head coach Terry Stotts to a multi year extension. They are about to sign Damian Lillard to a supermax deal once it becomes official that he makes an All NBA Team. Jody Allen has taken on ownership and wants to be part of the organization instead of selling the team. There is a certain dedication already to stability here.
Still, there is an inescapable conclusion looking at the Trail Blazers salary and cap situation. The roster will not look the same come september. The Blazers simply don’t have the money to resign everyone. Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, Al Farouq Aminu, and Jake Layman are all free agents this summer.
Who will go? Who will stay? The Blazers will only have a out $5.7 million for their mid level exception. Curry has a player option. Aminu is eligible for an extension of up to $48 million for four years until June 30th. The Blazers have until then as well to extend the qualifying offer ($1.9 milion) and will have Layman’s bird rights. No matter what though, not everyone can return as is.
Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey will have his work cut out for him. He touched on the necessity of making trades though didn’t offer specifics. The Blazers will have to trade some players to get better and make cap room. He named Lillard and Nurkic as foundation players, but never brought up McCollum when speaking on the core.
CJ McCollum took a step up this season. He has been a proto sun to Lillard’s main sequence star. He has shown he can break down defense, put up and make difficult to seemingly impossible shots under pressure. He was a big part of Portland’s semi final victory over the Denver Nuggets in game 7.
It is interesting he wasn’t named by Neil, not that it means anything. In fact I can hear Olshey now: “Look, I didn’t name CJ as a foundation player so now that must mean he is being traded right? It’s all about Narrative. Something to jump on. CJ is an important piece to our core. He remains a foundation player…”
That said, trading CJ say in a deal for Anthony Davis is a way to get better. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s an avenue. I like CJ. He has grown on me. I’m not saying trade him or don’t trade him. I am advocating for open mindedness. Olshey did also say the Blazers would have to take risks, and that if opportunity came to make this team better via a trade, he would do it.
Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless still have one more season left under the terrible contracts Olshey signed them to in 2016. Along with Allen Crabbe who Olshey was able to trade, there was a combined $228 million in deals. Turner, Leonard, and Harkless are do almost $40 million next season. Olshey will likely look to move them this offseason.
It will be hard to do so for complete cap space as no teams have the room to take on those contracts for nothing. Any trade would have Portland send out several players and this years draft pick (potentially future pucks as well) for a better player like Blake Griffin and perhaps a little bit of room to resign Kanter or Hood.
When reporters brought up Meyers Leonard and his potential for starting next season till the return of Jusuf Nurkic, during the exit interviews, Stotts responded that such a question would be better asked in September. That he didn’t know what the roster would look like and therefore whether Meyers would still be on the team.
Questions of uncertainty remain. Though that uncertainty is far different then the brand that permeated in the air last year. It’s not about blowing the team up or firing the coach. No, there is no such chaotic essence. But, rather the challenge of maintaining the upward trajectory of this team in light of the vast improvement we have seen this past season.