This was supposed to be the year of the Trail Blazers — the year in which they took that next step as a franchise after their surprising 2014 playoff run.
For much of the season, things seemed to be going as planned. Damian Lillard was playing at an All-Star caliber clip. LaMarcus Aldridge was entering some people’s fringe MVP discussions with his dominant play. The decisions made to add depth to their rotation with Steve Blake and Chris Kaman appeared to be paying off. And the Blazers climbed as high as number two in the Western Conference standings.
Life was good.
And then March happened, and Wesley Matthews went down with a torn Achilles and Aldridge revealed a torn ligament in his left thumb. Suddenly, what seemed like a surefire number three seed, went 10-12 to end the season, including a four game and a five game losing streak respectively.
They then limped into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed — thank you moronic division championship rule — and proceeded to lose in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies in a surprisingly non-competitive series.
What The Heck Happened?
I think ultimately the Blazers missed Matthews much more than anyone thought they would. It also didn’t help that Aldridge, Arron Afflalo, Chris Kaman and Dorell Wright were all hobbled as well. Bottom line, the Blazers were absolutely snake-bitten by injuries. That’s not to say those injuries were the entire cause of their downfall. I think there are some more systemic issues that need to be addressed as well.
But, with Matthews out, the Grizzlies were able to completely lock in on Damian Lillard, forcing him into a terrible shooting performance after terrible shooting performance. On the series, Lillard made only five of 31 shots from beyond the arc, for a horrendous 16 percent. For a career 37 percent three-point shooter, that is unacceptable.
It wasn’t just Lillard that couldn’t find their stroke however. Nicolas Batum, Aldridge, Steve Blake and Afflalo all shot below 40 percent from the floor. It was one of the poorest shooting displays I have seen in any playoff series in recent memory. Only the incredible performance of C.J. McCollum stood out in terms of players stepping up. His 17 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the floor, and from beyond the arc was the only thing that offered any hope for the Blazers moving forward.
What became painfully obvious over the course of this series was the Blazers’ lack of depth, an issue that was exacerbated even further by the extensive injuries sustained by many of their rotation players. The Blazers arguably had the worst bench in the league over the past two seasons, an issue they definitely need to address this summer.
Where Do They Go Now?
The Blazers have some really tough decisions to make that could take them in many different directions. Their roster could look very similar entering next season, or it could look entirely different. With only $39 million on the books entering the summer, the Blazers have plenty of money to spend to give their roster an overhaul if they so choose.
The biggest decision they will need to make is whether they want to go all in on Aldridge, who is one of the marquee free agents entering the market, or whether they want to instead build around Lillard.
From Aldridge’s perspective, it makes much more sense for him to re-sign with the Blazers on a one-year deal setting him up for a huge pay increase entering 2016 when the salary cap explodes, and when he will have been in the league for 10 years increasing the percentage of the salary cap he can receive from 30 percent to 35 percent.
The Blazers own Aldridge’s Bird rights, which means they can offer him an extra year over any other team, and they can also offer him an additional three percent increase year-over-year.
All that said, I am of the opinion it is time for the Blazers to let Aldridge walk. As much as I love his game, and as important as he is to this team, he will be 30 years old when the season starts, and with him commanding a max contract, he will eat up a huge part of their salary cap for the foreseeable future.
Do the Blazers really want to lock him up for five years, while watching his play on the court slowly deteriorate? I can’t see a scenario where that is a responsible decision for the future of this franchise, especially when they have proven their current composition is flawed come playoff time.
I do think there are players on their current roster they need to lock up. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez are both integral parts of this team, and have their best years ahead of them. They may even be able to get Matthews on a discount given the fact he is coming off of a serious injury. Prior to his injury, I thought he was heading for somewhere around the $10 million per season range, but with the uncertainty around his health, he could probably be had for a similar rate to what he made last season, around $7 million.
Lopez on the other hand is probably looking at a healthy pay-raise. Last season, he made $6.1 million, putting him at 22nd overall compared to the other centers around the league. He will likely be looking at somewhere around the $10 million mark, putting him next to players like Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
Assuming they can re-sign both of them, that would put their cap number at around $56 million, leaving them $11 million under the projected cap, and $25 million under the luxury tax line. That would leave them plenty of money to build around a core of Lillard, Matthews, Lopez, McCollum, Afflalo (yes, they need him) and Batum.
With Aldridge gone, the Blazers’ most pressing need would be to replace his production at the power forward spot. Obviously there isn’t anybody on the market would be an equal replacement, but there are players that could be signed for much cheaper and would add much more depth to a bench that ranked dead-last in the league in scoring last season (23.6 points per game).
The Los Angeles Lakers have a team option on Jordan Hill, and it is unclear whether they will bring him back. If not, he would be a decent option, and based on his performance last season, he is likely looking at a pay deduction from his $9 million a season ago. He probably belongs somewhere next to players like Taj Gibson and Boris Diaw, somewhere south of $8 million. Hill would bring in some much-needed interior toughness and offensive rebounding, and he really started extending his shooting range last season.
Thaddeus Young is also an intriguing option in Portland. He has been in numerous no-win situations over the past couple of seasons, and has remained professional while excelling on the court. He isn’t the rebounder or perimeter shooter that Aldridge is, and he would cost them some size, but he is an incredible scorer from different places on the court, and is really good at defending multiple positions. He would cost the Blazers somewhere around $10 million.
Either option would bring the Blazers right up to the salary cap, but would leave them somewhere around $15 million under the luxury tax limit to address their backup point guard position, and to add some additional depth to their front-court.
Jameer Nelson (player option), Norris Cole (restricted) or Aaron Brooks (unrestricted) would all be upgrades over Steve Blake in the backcourt and could all be had for $3 million or less.
Lavoy Allen (unrestricted), Darrell Arthur (unrestricted) and Amir Johnson (unrestricted) would all be excellent rotation players for the Blazers, and could be signed while keeping the Blazers under the tax line.
If the Blazers decide to go this route, a clear message will be sent to Lillard — we believe in you and want you to be the focal point of our franchise. I think a few strategic moves could keep this team competitive, while allowing them to sustain the loss of Aldridge and would give them flexibility they need to continue building for the future with a modified core.
I still think the future is bright in Portland. Not every team is lucky enough to have a player the caliber of Lillard to move forward with. The Blazers need to fully embrace this and surround him with the type of players he needs to take them to the next level. This team, despite their apparent step backwards this season, isn’t that far away from being a true contender.