Trail Blazers Free Agency: Now Comes the Hard Part

The Portland Trail Blazers have ticked multiple items off of their “to-do” list in the NBA draft, free agency and trade period. They executed a deal with the Detroit Pistons for forward Jerami Grant. They selected Shaedon Sharpe with the 7th pick of the 2022 NBA draft. They used their mid-level cap exception to pry defensively-minded wing Gary Payton II away from the Golden State Warriors. They extended restricted free agent guard Anfernee Simons into a four-year, $100 deal and re-signed unrestricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic for four years at $70 million, total. They even brought back plucky reserve center Drew Eubanks for another year.

After all the moves, Portland’s depth chart looks something like this:

Point Guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Gary Payton II

Shooting Guard—Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe

Small Forward—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Gary Payton II, Greg Brown III

Power Forward— Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford

Center—Jusuf Nurkic, Drew Eubanks

Two initial observations come to mind:

  1. The Blazers did a good job.
  2. They’re not a complete team yet.

In particular, the bulge at the small positions, and corresponding thinness among the bigs, is evident. They’re going to need to smooth out that wrinkle if they want a dependable rotation through 82 games and the playoffs.

Here’s the catch. That’s probably not as easy as it looks. The bag of tricks that has gotten the Blazers this far is now empty. They’re going to need to employ new techniques. That’s going to make the final move (or moves) far more challenging than the ones to this point.

No transaction in the NBA is simple. Some are easier than others, though.

Half of Portland’s moves so far have been of the “captive audience” variety. Drafting Sharpe was the most solid example. He didn’t have a choice when Portland selected him. Unless he wants to hold out, he has to join the team. Re-signing Simons and Nurkic isn’t quite that cut-and-dry. Simons could have solicited offers from other franchises for Portland to match. The Blazers took a shortcut through the process by making a preemptive offer of $25 million a year, right at the top of his reasonably-imaginable earning range. Nurkic’s contract isn’t as big, but for a center, $17.5 million a year isn’t bad.

In both cases, because of right to match and Bird Rights, the Blazers had the inside track on their desired players. Both signings also cost the Blazers a substantial amount.

This was also a key factor in their other two deals: Payton II and Grant.

The Pistons didn’t dislike Jerami Grant. They knew he was going to cost a fortune. Someone was going to pay him, but either they weren’t willing or he wasn’t going to stay regardless. Having Grant on the last year of his contract, Detroit was faced with trading him or losing him for nothing.

Because of that decision point, the team acquiring Grant was going to be able to buy in for a low amount. There’s a catch, though. They’d have to back up the acquisition with a hefty future extension, or else they’d be left holding the bag when Grant departed just as Detroit would have been.

This fiscal reality stood at the heart of the trade. Had the Pistons not been in that position, a future, non-lottery draft pick and a trade exception wouldn’t have been enough to get the deal done.

Having purchased for that low, low down payment, the Blazers now face the ballooning charges that will follow. That describes Portland’s investment far better than the pick and the trade exception. Had the cost for Grant simply been a low first-rounder, plenty of NBA teams would have been lining up for his services. Portland made sense only because they (apparently) have the willingness to pay big for him later, which other teams weren’t prepared to do.

The Blazers also paid comparatively big for Gary Payton II. They were going to use their MLE on someone, so it was no great sacrifice for them. For Payton, it was a bonanza. He made $1.9 million with the Warriors last season. The Blazers just committed 14 times that to him over three seasons. If somebody offered 14 times last year’s salary to you for doing the same job you’re already doing, you’d regard them favorably as well. That’s a big part of the reason Payton II will suit up for the Blazers next year instead of the World Champs.

This is not meant to belittle Portland’s moves at all. They were good transactions, making efficient use of resources, snagging what most people feel are helpful players. That’s all you can ask. The Blazers have done well.

But again, they’re not done. And they’re not going to be able to pull off their next moves the way they pulled out their last ones: substituting cash or leverage for assets. They don’t have any more lottery picks this year. They don’t have any more of their own players to re-sign for big dollars. They don’t have another full MLE, or any cap space to lure more free agents. Not a lot of significant frontcourt players have their teams over a barrel like Grant did. Even if they did. the Blazers are reaching the limit of their capacity to commit money. They’re well past the cap line and will soon be talking seriously about paying luxury tax. They can’t do that on speculative moves for a team that, as yet, completely unproven.

Portland’s next move will probably be the most important of the bunch, at least in the short term. It may not be as significant as the Grant trade in terms of adding talent, but it’ll give the roster the definite shape and direction they now lack, at least on the surface.

The Blazers will have to come by that move honestly, neither drafting nor overpaying nor sneaky-trading. They’ll almost certainly need to find a swap that helps them at their positions of need (small forward or center) while giving equal talent/position value to the other team.

Josh Hart seems the likeliest candidate to move. He cannot have missed how the Blazers acquired or re-signed players that squeeze his positions and/or minutes in Simons, Sharpe, and Payton II. That last one strikes home particularly. Had Portland signed a center with their MLE, Hart might have seen an opening in the rotation. That they spent their completely voluntary cap exception on a wing, contracted for three years, eating into his exact job description, speaks volumes.

Hart will play on the last guaranteed year of his contract this season. He’s not going to want to take a back seat to anyone, particularly after scoring 20 points per game when given free rein in the offense last year. If Portland is going to ride with Sharpe and Payton, trading Hart is a reasonable expectation for all involved. That does not mean he’ll be moved this summer. The Blazers have until the trade deadline. But look for Hart’s name to pop up in trade rumors between now and next February, and expect them to be credibly discussed.

Moving Hart and/or accompanying players for a significant addition to the rotation will be a difficult task. It’s hard to forecast who the Blazers might acquire. And that’s exactly the point. We knew the potential for a lowball Grant deal was there. We knew about the draft picks, plus re-signing Simons and Nurkic. Every move more speculative than that—OG Anunoby, John Collins, Deandre Ayton—has failed to develop. “More speculative” can also be read as, “More difficult to execute.”

The Blazers have done well with the basics. They’re at a point where we can say they have a credible chance to pursue their plan of building a contender around Damian Lillard. They are not there yet. Having passed NBA Transactions 101, they now get to move into the 300-level courses. As much as these early moves appear to help, their ultimate fate will depend on how well they do when faced with more advanced demands.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.