June 14, 2018, 11:28 am
The playoffs were extremely instructive for the Portland Trail Blazers, and not just because they were summarily swept by a lower-seeded team missing an All-Star big man. Watching the remainder of the postseason from home, it was no doubt apparent to Paul Allen and Neil Olshey that the league might have have past their team by.
Portland has been searching for high-quality wings who can play both ends of the floor since trading Nic Batum and letting Wesley Matthews walk in free agency four years ago. Even finding multiple players of that ilk, increasingly valuable in the modern NBA, wouldn’t solve the Blazers’ problems. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, despite marked improvements in 2017-18, will be exploited defensively every time they take this team to the playoffs. The same goes for Jusuf Nurkic, and the offensive limitations of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, less glaring as they were last season on the whole, will continue to come back to bite Portland under the postseason microscope.
The Blazers need change, that much is clear, and with five players expected to hit free agency this summer, it was always going to come regardless of how they finished the regular season or fared in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Olshey’s spending bonanza in 2016 has left Portland without the necessary financial flexibility to sign available free agents with cap space. The Blazers will have to use use the draft, salary-cap exceptions and aggressive team-building ingenuity to upgrade a once-promising roster that the game seems to have left behind.
Before that happens, though, these are the incumbent free agents who will factor heavily into that process, ranked from most important to least important.
Jusuf Nurkic (restricted free agent)
Other than Lillard, it’s not outrageous to suggest that Nurkic will have the biggest impact on Portland’s present and future than any other player. That’s not solely related to what he brings to the floor, of course, but it’s telling of his tenuous place within the organization that just a few months ago many considered the hulking seven-footer a central member of the Blazers’ core. The first round of the playoffs changed everything for this team, and for no individual more than Nurkic. After playing back-line protector for a defense that ranked eighth in the league during the regular season, Nurkic was played off the floor against the Pelicans by Anthony Davis’ all-court dynamism and Nikola Mirotic’s ability to stroke quick-hitting threes from several feet beyond the arc.
The Blazers led the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at the rim in 2017-18 by a comfortable margin. Their commitment to Terry Stotts’ ultra-conservative scheme, with the big dropping in ball-screen situations as the primary defender fights over the top and trails in rear-view pursuit, most accounts for that achievement, but Nurkic’s role in it was crucial nonetheless. Ninety players in basketball contested at least three shots in the restricted during the regular season, and Nurkic’s allowed field goal percentage of 54.8 ranked 11th among them, per NBA.com/stats – just ahead of likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. That number ballooned to a mind-numbing 77.3 percent in the playoffs, where New Orleans shot a league-best 76.4 percent at the rim against Portland as a whole.
Nurkic had his moments in the first round offensively, especially late in Game 4, feasting on designed post-ups and owning the offensive glass. But the negatives of his presence still outweighed the positives, as the Pelicans were able to load up on Lillard and McCollum in pick-and-roll play due in part to Nurkic’s inability to stretch the defense to the 3-point line. While he took major strides as a playmaker throughout the season, it’s not like Nurkic has the vision or ball skills of a frontcourt maestro like former teammate Nikola Jokic; he needs space to function as an ancillary creator, and New Orleans took it away.
As the league gets smaller and smaller, just what is the place of plodding centers who don’t shoot threes, can’t switch onto the perimeter and aren’t worthy of touch after touch on the block? Unlike most players cut from that cloth, Nurkic has already shown he can anchor a top-10 defense – at least during the regular season. There’s value in the sense of stability that reality provides over the course of the 82-game grind. Come playoff time, though, guys like Nurkic are either forced off the floor or exist as an imminent liability on both sides of the ball.
His prime is coming at the wrong time, basically, and unfortunately for Nurkic, so is his free agency. There just isn’t enough cap space around the league for a desperate team to cough up the contract offer he surely would have received two or three years ago. As is, Nurkic’s best bet for lasting financial security might be signing a one-year qualifying offer of $4.7 million, then dipping back into the open market next summer as an unrestricted free agent when more teams have more cash to spend. That outcome could make sense for the Blazers, too, whose only other good option is to play the waiting game and hope an overzealous competitor doesn’t break the bank with an offer sheet, then try to convince Nurkic to re-up on a deal worth $10-12 million over two or three years.
Regardless of what happens with Nurkic, Portland is stuck in salary-cap purgatory for the next three seasons barring a complete roster overhaul or series of cost-cutting trades that range from implausible to impossible. With Zach Collins waiting in the wings and Ed Davis coming cheaper, the Blazers would probably feel inclined to part ways with Nurkic if they weren’t stuck between a rock and a hard place with regard to the salary cap. But they are, and Lillard, in the thick of his prime, has made no secret of his desire to win a championship playing in Portland, a development of which this franchise must take advantage.
Can the Blazers do that with Nurkic playing a central role? On the court, probably not. But as part of a potential trade package that somehow nets Portland another star? Absolutely, which is why Olshey and company’s likely plan of attack is to re-sign Nurkic at a value that reflects his diminished standing in a league bereft of cap space, then dangle his eight-figure salary while courting the type of long-shot, blockbuster trade that could drastically alter the Blazers’ fortunes.
Ed Davis (unrestricted free agent)
Unless Nurkic accepts his qualifying offer, there’s pretty much no way Portland brings back both he and Davis next season. Before 2017-18, Davis seemed like the type of player who might be forced to play the rest of his career on cheap, short-term deals. He finally found a home with the Blazers, though, bringing stoic leadership to a team that needed a solidifying force behind Lillard. Davis ranked an impressive fifth in offensive rebounding percentage last season, and together with Collins, formed an active, energetic and overtly physical frontcourt that spearheaded Portland’s quietly-effective bench during the regular season. At 28, in his eighth professional season, Davis flashed a newfound ability to make plays with the ball in his hands, catching on the roll, taking a dribble and routinely picking out awaiting shooters in either corner.
Such nuance has always loomed large in an offense helmed by Stotts, and will even more so going forward after New Orleans gave the league a blueprint to defending Lillard and McCollum in that first-round sweep. Before last season, counting on Davis to play major minutes would have been a losing proposition for any team. But after a healthy campaign in which he rounded off the rough edges of his game while showing off the explosiveness that made him a high-lottery pick, it’s no longer remiss to suggest that Davis is steady enough to be a full-time fill-in at center for the Blazers – until Collins is ready for a featured role, of course.
Davis signed a three-year, $20 million deal with Portland in 2015, and has clearly outplayed the terms of that contract in the interim. Like Nurkic, though, he’s affected by the paucity of cap space around the league even more than most other free agents. Few teams need big men, and fewer still have the ecosystem necessary to mitigate the sweeping influence of making a non-shooting, defensively-limited center a starter. The Blazers don’t, either, but have managed to get the best basketball of his career out of Davis anyway. His bond with Lillard also can’t be discounted here. At the trade deadline, as rumors of Davis’ departure swirled, Lillard compared their relationship to the one Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem have shared over the last decade-plus while shaping the Miami Heat into one of the NBA’s most successful organizations.
Davis probably won’t be playing in Portland next season if Nurkic is still around, and may be playing elsewhere beyond it if Collins develops as expected. Either way, his ultimate free-agency destination will say a lot about the direction the Blazers are going in the middle.
Shabazz Napier (restricted free agent)
Napier’s first go-around with Portland was a tale of two seasons. Before the All-Star break, Napier was one of the most pleasant surprises in all of basketball, captaining the Blazers’ drastically-improved bench and often coaxing Stotts into playing three-guard lineups featuring he, Lillard and McCollum, averaging 9.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 40.3 percent from deep. He reverted back to career-long norms from there, though, shooting 34.6 percent overall and 32.4 percent on threes over the last 23 games of the season – a stretch that included Portland’s record 13-game winning streak.
The biggest difference between those stints was Napier’s effectiveness as a spot-up 3-point shooter. He made a scorching 48.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples prior to the All-Star break, according to NBA.com/stats, third in the league behind Buddy Hield and J.J. Barea. Napier shot just 34 percent on catch-and-shoot threes from that point forward, and didn’t adjust his shot selection to account for those struggles. When he’s not draining jumpers, there just isn’t much Napier does that separates him from other backup point guards barely hanging onto their careers. He’s prone to tunnel vision, and doesn’t make the high-level passing reads upon which most players of his diminutive stature rely. And while Napier was a pest defensively all year for the Blazers, especially in the post, his lack of size and length ensures that he’s imminently exploitable in the postseason, just like Lillard and McCollum.
It’s unclear where Napier fits in Portland’s plans. If he’d been able to sustain the level of play he reached over the first few months of the season, the 26 year old would have been due a relatively big payday from the Blazers or a competing team in restricted free agency. But after watching him clank jumper after jumper down the stretch, not to mention the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics consistently single-out overmatched defenders in the last two rounds of the playoffs, the league has no doubt soured on Napier as a potential secondary target in free agency.
Nevertheless, last season proved a major step in the right direction for a player who was previously on the NBA fringes. In Portland or elsewhere, Napier has a future in the league. For now, it just won’t be as lucrative as it appeared it might be a few months ago.
Wade Baldwin (restricted free agent)
Napier’s late-season labors aren’t the only reason why the Blazers might decide to look elsewhere for backcourt depth. Baldwin, after being picked up off the scrap heap in October following his surprising release by the Memphis Grizzlies, showed some tantalizing two-way ability once Portland called him up from the G-League in March. At 6-foot-4 with a wingspan just below seven feet, he has the requisite combination of length and athleticism to capably defend three positions. Baldwin’s dogged demeanor on the defensive end helps, too. He created backcourt turnovers by both James Harden and Chris Paul during a 32-minute audition against the Rockets with Lillard sidelined, and proved a reliably disruptive defender each time he took the floor. Baldwin also scored 14 points in that topsy-turvy 96-94 loss to Houston, hitting two 3-pointers, attacking the paint for a pair of smooth finishes and exhibiting overall poise beyond his years.
That performance, it’s key to remember, is rendered an outlier by objective context. The Grizzlies, desperately in need of promising young talent, certainly wouldn’t have waived Baldwin just one season removed from making him a mid first-round pick if they believed he could play at that level on even an semi-frequent basis. Baldwin also shot just 23.9 percent on over four 3-point attempts per game in the G-League last season, and was similarly inefficient from mid-range. Even rangy, versatile defenders with nascent playmaking knack only have so much value in today’s NBA if they don’t have to be guarded on the perimeter.
Again up against the luxury-tax next season, the Blazers will be carefully counting every dollar they dole out in free agency, which increases the likelihood Baldwin will be re-signed. He’ll come cheaper than Napier, has more room for growth and is an easier fit next to Lillard and McCollum. Don’t be surprised if Baldwin flirts with signing a $1.7 million qualifying offer, particularly if Portland earmarks him a spot in the rotation and another team doesn’t come calling with a multi-year, fully-guaranteed offer. His earning potential with the Blazers is limited because they only have his non-Bird rights, while the dearth of spending money throughout the league increases the odds that possibility comes to fruition, too.
Pat Connaughton (restricted free agent)
It’s pretty simple for Connaughton: If he can’t knock down open jump shots, he doesn’t have a place in the league. Fortunately, the 2015 second-round pick did exactly that early last season, shooting 44.8 percent on nearly three catch-and-shoot triples per game before December. But he came crashing back down to earth thereafter, connecting on an ugly 30.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts over the season’s final four and-a-half months – a far larger sample size. Fallout from Connaughton’s streaky shooting ability would be lessened if he had any floor game whatsoever, but that just isn’t the case. He made 16 of the 41 shots he attempted after taking two dribbles last season, only 39 percent shooting, and lacks both the ball-handling ability and court sense to run a functional pick-and-roll when randomly called upon.
The good news is that Connaughton established himself as a bothersome individual defender, often drawing the assignment of the opposition’s top perimeter player, and generally fared admirably. He has natural instincts, active feet and never gives up on the play, most memorably in transition and as a help defender. Still, at 6-foot-5 with below-average physical dimensions and a shortage of quick-twitch athleticism, it’s not like Connaughton is anything close to a bonafide stopper – which is what he’d have to be make up for his glaring deficiencies on the other side of the ball.
There were times last season when Portland was at its best with Connaughton on the floor, surrounded by cogs, but that development says more about this team’s dire need for an upgrade on the wing more than anything about his individual staying power. With Evan Turner locked into one of the league’s least desirable contracts and Moe Harkless having overcome the mental hurdles that prompted his midseason benching, it’s unlikely the Blazers will feel inclined to give Connaughton much more than his $1.8 million qualifying offer in a potential multi-year deal. Portland can do better with the minutes reserved for a third perimeter bench player; all reports indicate Olshey is focusing on wings with the 24th pick in the draft.
Connaughton’s 2017-18 season was better than almost anyone could have realistically anticipated. Given the Blazers’ scant means of roster flexibility, though, it probably wasn’t quite good enough to keep him in Portland much longer.