The Portland Trail Blazers were perhaps the biggest surprise in the NBA last season and will now look to re-load this season with the goal of continuing to push up the Western Conference ladder.
The Trail Blazers, who started the season with four new starters, went 7-3 over the last 10 games of the season to overtake the Memphis Grizzlies for the fifth spot in the Western Conference. Portland (44-38), led by Damian Lillard, upset the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in the first round (four games to two) before falling to top-seeded Golden State Warriors in five games. The Blazers had the second youngest team in the NBA last season, in terms of players in their rotation with the average age being 24.4-years-old, and sixth youngest team overall.
Lillard, an All-NBA second team selection, posted a career-high 25.1 points and 6.8 assists this past season. He also recorded a personal-best 15 double-doubles. As a result of being selected to the All-NBA Team, the 25-year-old will make $12 million more over the life of his contract than he would of, thanks to the “Derrick Rose Rule,” per the Columbian.
Lillard wasn’t the only Blazer to have a career season as C.J. McCollum – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2016 — along with Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Myers Leonard also had the best year of their careers.
Portland currently has all of their core players under its control as seven players have fully guaranteed contracts and three others will be restricted free agents if the team makes them a qualifying offer – Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Alan Crabbe. Leonard and Harkless hold identical qualifying offers that are worth a little over $4 million, while Crabbe’s qualifying offer is set at $2.72 million according to Basketball Insiders.
Youngsters Cliff Alexander and Luis Montero have cheap non-guaranteed contracts for next season, though Alexander’s ($874,636) salary guarantees on June 30. Both Alexander and Montero spent most of their rookie campaigns in the D-League.
The Trail Blazers have plenty of decisions to make this offseason. A couple of these decisions involve which of their own free agents should they make an effort to keep and for how much money, as well as whether or not to offer McCollum and Plumlee contract extensions? According to RealGM, the Blazers will likely talk to both McCollum and Plumlee about contract extensions but won’t rush into anything.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer believes what Portland ultimately decides to do with Crabbe and Harkless are key to the team’s offseason. Crabbe and Harkless are expected to draw a lot of attention from other teams, but the Blazers are said to be interested in bringing both of the restricted free agents back.
Crabbe has developed into a quality shooter and continues to make strides on the defensive end. The 24-year-old averaged 10.3 points while shooting a career-best 45.9 percent from the field and a career-high 1.4 three-pointers a contest (39.4 percent) last year. He reportedly could command $10-15 million a year this offseason.
Harkless was very good last season and has demonstrated that he can be effective as a starter, or when coming off the bench. The 23-year-old is an athletic defender that rebounds the ball decently well for his position. Harkless thrived as a starter, producing 11.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in 14 opportunities while averaging 5.2 points along with 2.9 rebounds as a reserve. He shot a personal-best 47.4 percent from the field, though he only knocked down 27.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
Leonard was inconsistent last year. The seven-foot-one, 24-year-old produced four double-doubles and averaged 8.4 points along with 5.4 boards. He made a personal-best 1.4 three-pointers a game last season, but shot a career-low 44.8 percent from the field overall.
Gerald Henderson, Brian Roberts, and Chris Kaman are the team’s unrestricted free agents. Henderson, Leonard, and Roberts could conceivably return but it is not a sure thing for any of the three. It is almost a given that Kaman won’t be with the Blazers next year.
Henderson provided the veteran leadership that the team needed and was also productive coming off the bench. The 28-year-old averaged 8.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18.9 minutes a game. Portland was 32-15 when Henderson was on the floor for at least 18 minutes.
Henderson told the Blazers’ website that he doesn’t care if he starts or comes off the bench next year, but wants to play for a contender
“To be a starter in the NBA is a cool thing, I’ve done it for a long time, but what’s really more important to me is playing significant minutes in times where a team needs you and more of your impact while you’re out on the floor – just being a part of what’s going on. You look at different teams, sometimes the best player comes off the bench, it all depends on what kind of team you have.”
Roberts was acquired from the Charlotte Hornets at the trade deadline. The 30-year-old only played 6.5 minutes a game with the Blazers, averaging 2.9 points while shooting 46 percent from the field. Overall last year, he averaged 4 points and 1.1 assists, as he shot 44.8 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Kaman,34, played just 16 games last season for the Blazers. He averaged 2.5 points and 1.6 rebounds.
If Portland renounces its rights to Henderson, Roberts, and Kaman, they will have around $19 million in cap room available as the NBA is telling teams that the cap will be at $94 million.
The Blazers’ biggest need this offseason is to add frontcourt depth. They likely won’t be able to afford any of the top tier free agents so they could look at cheaper options such as Ian Mahinmi, Roy Hibbert, Cole Aldrich, Joakim Noah, and Zaza Pachulia among others. Plumlee and Leonard, along with Ed Davis and Noah Vonleah, who didn’t develop as hoped in his first season with the team, are currently the Trail Blazers only options at the four and five positions.
Mahinmi is not expected to return to the Indiana Pacers, despite having a career year in 2015-16. The six-foot-11, 29-year-old averaged 9.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocked shots while shooting 58.9 percent from the field (all career bests). He has totaled a career-high nine double-doubles, but was still prone to foul trouble — fouling out four times.
Hibbert is coming of the worst season of his career. The 29-year-old contributed just 5.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks in 23.2 minutes a game for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Aldrich was solid as DeAndre Jordan’s backup with the Los Angeles Clippers this past season. The 27-year-old is a big body who mainly provides rim protection and rebounding. He is limited offensively with most of his shots coming within 10 feet of the bucket.
Noah and Pachulia are veterans that provide toughness, defense, and rebounding.
Portland could also be in the market for a backup point guard. The Blazers have already held one of three planned veteran free agent mini-camps. The Blazers could sign a couple of the players that attend these mini-camps with a few options being Pierre Jackson, Dwight Buycks, Russ Smith, and Erick Green — per Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders.
[Photo by Darron Cummings/ AP Images]