This offseason, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves at a crucial crossroads in team-building; a second round postseason appearance (thanks in large part to a perfect storm of Clippers injuries) painted a rosy picture out of a roster comprised of wonky parts–big on athleticism, low on reliable shooting. Despite this, they had a roster composition fit for the modern NBA; two bonafide star guards in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, big men with diverse skillsets, and wings with tremendous defensive range. With over $30 million in cap space this offseason and a bounty of their own free agents, they were free to choose their path whether it be a reboot, restock or rebuild.
They took their fair share of shots, pursuing the likes of Chandler Parsons and Pau Gasol, before ultimately ending up with Evan Turner at four years, $70 million. A peculiar fit, Turner might fit in nicely as a juiced-up third guard off the bench, capable of being a ball-handler in second unit lineups or as the de facto point guard when Lillard or McCollum shift over to the off-guard position. For this, $17.5 million per season is a hefty price to pay, and the Blazers are likely banking on Turner’s ability to accept this role rather than try to fit into one as a premier scoring option for which he is unqualified.
Elsewhere, the Blazers were able to snag Festus Ezeli from the Warriors on a bargain 2 year, $15 million contract. The second year is partially guaranteed, perhaps a negotiating result of his balky knees. Ezeli is an athletic, rim-running big man who plays good pick and roll defense and has a burgeoning post game. His game feels like it has peaked, as he turns 27 before the upcoming season starts, but at $7.5 million per, the Blazers found themselves a more than capable backup big man.
Aside from these two coups, the Blazers re-signed most of their incumbent free agents. Meyers Leonard received $41 million over four years, Maurice Harkless got four years and $40 million, while Allen Crabbe walked away with gobs of money after the Nets lavished him with a four year, $75 million contract through his restricted free agency. Weeks passed before CJ McCollum, a third-year guard coming off a 13+ points per game bump in production, received a four-year maximum contract extension. The deal will pay him $23,962,573 in 2017-2018, increasing by 7.5 percent all the way through 2020-2021.
McCollum has had one above-average year through three years in the league, while Harkless and Leonard experienced bounceback campaigns after unceremonious starts to their respective careers. The Blazers’ investment in their youth is less about their body of work and more about what that body of work can grow into.
Next season, after McCollum’s contract extension kicks in, they will have almost $140 million committed to the roster before taking into account a new deal for Mason Plumlee. $86,497,121 of that is in the backcourt of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe.
Hardly a blueprint for efficent roster-building, the true litmus test for their work this offseason will be in just how movable all those potential moving parts are. Harkless and Leonard at about $10 million per year are certainly that, but the Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe situations could turn volatile quickly. Both were likely paid in accordance with the dearth of wings on the free agent market rather than their own merit, and as such will be traded in a wildly different cap environment then the one they were paid under.
Paying over $30 million of luxury tax is not palatable for a team that tops out as a second-tier Western Conference contender, and the Blazers will not be able to keep the roster as currently constructed intact. There will come a time in the near future when the Blazers will have to focus their roster around the keepers and away from the dispensable.
This upcoming season, as a result, is a crucial one. The Blazers overachieved last season and are thus tasked with proving their ascension was not aberrational. In a more foreboding sense, however, the season will be a test for whether their offseason investments were not only smart in terms of their return, but also if they can be dealt later on.
Spark Sports NBA Contributor