Last season was a true storybook year for the Portland Trail Blazers. A few months removed from a heartbreaking sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Trail Blazers lost their revered owner, Paul Allen, on the eve of the season’s beginning in October. What transpired from there was something out of a Hollywood script – the team they mostly kept together from the previous year posted 53 wins, their best regular season performance in six years, and not only bounced back in the playoffs, but advanced to the Conference Finals for just the seventh time in franchise history, dominating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round and then outlasting the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the second round. And all this without their starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, who was in the midst of a career year and had been the team’s second-best player throughout the season before breaking his leg in gruesome fashion late in the year. Compared to just a year ago, rosy feelings are back in the Rose City, though the club are not without their issues as we move into the offseason.
The aforementioned ownership situation is hanging over the entire franchise going into the summer. After Allen died in October, his sister Jody took over ownership of the team, but reports popped up throughout the year that she was looking to sell her stake in the team. While nothing further has been reported with respect to a buyer coming forward or a sale going through, the winds are changing in Portland and that may have an effect on the team going forward. The uncertainty is what may drive some of their decision making this summer, rather than a particular cost-cutting directive from Allen, though she also may want to cut back on the Trail Blazers’ spending in order to make the team more attractive to buyers. President of basketball operations Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts both signed extensions with the club shortly after their playoff exit, presumably for at least as much, if not more, money than they were making under their previous contracts, which could be an indicator of the type of spending Allen will green light for the team this summer, but nothing is certain at this point.
Five Trail Blazers from last season will become free agents this summer, with just one replacement on the books in the No. 25 pick in next week’s draft, and the team is already within $4.4 million of the luxury tax threshold. They’ve paid the tax two of the last three seasons under Paul Allen’s leadership and are staring at a third season in the last four. Should they jump into the tax this season, that would trigger the repeater tax for 2020-21, though the expiration of contracts for Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless would make it unlikely they would pay the tax that season. After the 2020-21 season, Damian Lillard’s supermax extension will kick in, which will pay him a total of $191 million over four years and represents a massive expense for any ownership group to undertake. If reports are true that the supermax extension is all but done and just needs to be signed this summer, that would be another strong indicator that Allen is willing to spend heavily on the Trail Blazers, whether they’re eventually sold or not.
Given the Allen family’s reputation for spending significantly on the Trail Blazers, the extensions for Olshey and Stotts, and the assumed upcoming supermax extension for Lillard, it seems relatively safe to assume that Olshey will be given the green light to go into the tax as far as he deems necessary to continue to put a contending team on the floor. Whether Allen is willing to spend or not doesn’t totally help the team on the free agent market, as they’ll likely only have the taxpayer mid-level exception to bring in a free agent for up to $5.7 million, otherwise relying on minimum contracts, re-signing their incumbent free agents, and trades to upgrade the roster.
Al-Farouq Aminu is the highest-paid and most important of Portland’s free agents, as he’s their incumbent starting power forward and has been in the organization for the last four years. He’s been a key part of their defensive fortitude over the years, but his offensive shortcomings have made things more difficult in playoff settings. Still, given that they’d have no financial flexibility to replace him, Aminu has a very strong negotiating position with the team and should be able to sign a contract for nearly double what he made annually over the course of his last contract, which paid him an average $7.5 million per year and was a bargain contract for a Portland team that heavily relied on his production at the power forward spot.
Rodney Hood and Seth Curry, two of Portland’s better bench players during their playoff run, are both up for new contracts after signing one-year deals last summer. Hood arrived via trade midway through the year and lost his full Bird rights in the deal, knocking him down to Non-Bird and making it much more difficult for the Trail Blazers to retain him. With a maximum allowable raise of 20 percent over his previous salary, the club likely won’t win the war for his services with just $4.2 million available. They could break into their taxpayer mid-level exception to get the deal done, but they should really retain that to bring in an outside free agent. The same applies to Curry, who will be a Non-Bird free agent and thus can’t be brought back for more than $3.4 million without using that taxpayer mid-level exception. That exception isn’t nearly large enough to split between the two of them, as it tops out at $5.7 million and isn’t unlimited like the minimum salary exception; Portland can only use it once. Retaining either or both of these players will require them to take discounts to return to the Trail Blazers, which is always a possibility when a team has the sort of institutional culture that exists in Portland, but given how little each player has made throughout their NBA careers, it might be time for them to move on the greener pastures.
Like all teams way over the cap, Portland has a strong opportunity to hit on their first-round draft pick this season and add some much-needed youth and depth to the squad. Zach Collins, in his second season with the Trail Blazers, flashed some strong play during the postseason that they’re hoping will carry over to 2019-20, particularly with Nurkic out for a long while to begin the season. Anfernee Simons, their first-rounder last year, gave them essentially nothing through most of the year before nailing down the third seed on the final night of the season and confirming their path through Oklahoma City and Denver to the Conference Finals. If they can get more out of Simons next season as a third guard off the bench, that would go a long way toward replacing what Curry did this past season. With another pick in the mid-20s, Olshey has his work cut out for him to identify the right player who has the perfect mix of long-term upside with an ability to contribute fairly soon to a winning team.
Adding start power at the top of the roster will have to come through a trade, unless they absolutely hit the jackpot in the draft. Rumors have swirled around CJ McCollum for years as analysts and non-Portland front office personnel have thought the Trail Blazers would eventually have to move on from their offense-first backcourt at some point. They stood pat when the noise was deafening last summer and McCollum paid them back in kind, with multiple high-end playoff performances during their run that showed just how indispensable his shot creation and ability to knock down difficult attempts are for Portland. When things got really difficult for Lillard, McCollum’s shotmaking was paramount to the Trail Blazers’ success.
There are some other trades they can look into, depending on how aggressive they want to get with their current and future first-round picks. Using Turner as salary ballast to go after someone who can help them this year, there are a wide variety of moves they could make if they’re willing to part with draft capital to get it done. They’re not returning a star, unless one gets unhappy in their current spot or Olshey really wants to swing for the fences, but there are some role players who could make a difference for the Trail Blazers. Marvin Williams would be an interesting addition, particularly if they want to move on from Aminu this offseason. If Houston decides to swing the bat around on an Eric Gordon or P.J. Tucker trade, Portland should be calling every fifteen minutes to try to get a deal done. Should Kawhi Leonard move on from Toronto in free agency, Serge Ibaka would be a nice candidate for Portland to target as a interim starting center until Nurkic is healthy before becoming a high-end backup center and occasional power forward. A financial move regarding J.R. Smith’s unique contract would be a good way for the team to save some money, if that’s a directive from ownership. Fully swinging for the fences could get them involved in the Anthony Davis trade talks, in the same way Oklahoma City undercut the Lakers for Paul George and Toronto took the chance on Leonard (and are heavy favorites, at this point, to win a title for their risk).
Portland’s strong 2018-19 campaign was perhaps overrated due to the luck they had with the bracket, as the three best Western Conference teams (Golden State, Houston, and Utah) all fell on the opposite side of the bracket, allowing them an easier path to the Conference Finals. That said, they’re a far cry from the team that was swept out of the playoffs by the Pelicans in 2018, despite making very few personnel changes in the intervening 12 months. Now, it’s largely going to be up to that same personnel, from Olshey all the way down, to prove that the Trail Blazers can take the next step and become true title contenders.