Following a spectacular start to their season, the Portland Trail Blazers limped to the all-star break, and then made headlines as they traded away starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, receiving a potential lottery pick and valuable salary cap space in return. Fielding a group of mostly unknowns the remainder of the season, the team won just 28 games on the year, lost their final seven games, and secured a lottery pick of their own to pair with the pick secured in trading Wallace.
With the NBA draft approaching and free agency set to immediately follow, we asked five of our staff writers to debate where the Blazers are headed, who they should keep, who they should pick up, and who they should target to be their next GM and head coaching candidates.
1. Is Nicolas Batum worth the rumored $10 million he will receive in offers? Should the Blazers match such an offer?
Casey Mabbott: In a word…no. Many Blazers fans will be sad to see Batum walk out the door, but the fact is that this team had an option to sign him to a realistic deal and failed, and now must live with their gamble, not buy their way out of it. The worst move this team can make is to re-sign Raymond Felton, the second worst would be to match an insane offer on Batum, and make the same mistakes they made clinging to the dream of Greg Oden. Batum is an outstanding defender, a starting caliber player, and yet is still in project mode, and may lack mental toughness. Is that worth 8-10 million of the Blazers’ cap space? No.
Grant Lucas: Absolutely. For two reasons. First, from the first day Portland acquired Batum in a draft-day deal, he has progressively developed into one of the most versatile players in the league, falling in the rare Kevin Durant category. Batum's an elite defender (something Portland lacks) and has the ability to rack up points (consistently increasing his production from 5.4 points his rookie year to a career-high 13.9 this season). His efficiency ranks among the best in the NBA as both his effective field goal percentage and usage percentage creep closer to All-Star levels. The second reason to keep Batum is cap flexibility. If Batum gets away, the Trail Blazers will have $27 million to throw around. Re-sign him, and around $19 million remains - still enough to go on a spree.
Andrew Plummer: In this day and age of NBA talent, Portland could do far worse in doling out money! (See Rashard Lewis $21.1 mil, Ben Gordon $9.5 mil, DeAndre Jordan $10.07 mil) WHY? I believe the possibilities are endless for Nic when talking about potential; and yes he should be one of the key building blocks of this organization as it moves forward in putting together a contender. Offer quadruple his yearly salary and match anything up to $10 million.
Anthony Burrola: Before I answer, let me give you a list of the best guys in the 9 to 11 million dollar range (this list excludes players still under their rookie contracts). We’ll call this Group A:
If you ask me, these guys are paid proportionally. They are good enough to warrant the money they make. In some cases, with guys like Nash, one might even say he is underpaid. There isn’t a person on this list who doesn’t belong on it. And then there’s the other group of players, who we’ll call Group C (the dropoff between the two is not one letter grade, but two):
These guys get a sad face by their names and contracts because each and every one of them is overpaid. Not only that, but all except for West are legitimate amnesty candidates, are they not? Tell me Charlotte doesn’t want to cut ties with Maggette after this season. No player making $10 million dollars is worth his salt if he allows his team to post the worst win percentage in NBA history. The Spurs jumped at the chance to unload Jefferson and reacquire ex-Spur Stephen Jackson. Camby has been traded and cut more times than I can count, this year by your very own Portland Trailblazers. Biedrins is stealing money, at this point. And Gordon hasn’t done anything relevant since trading big shot after big shot with Ray Allen (another appropriately paid $10-mill guy) in the first round of the playoffs (quite possibly the best first round ever) in 2009.
Now answer me this: under which group would Batum fit more? If you say Group A, you’re disillusioned. If you say Group B, you’re COLD-BLOODED (in Rick James’ voice), but correct. Batum is obviously not a franchise player, but he is a necessary piece to win a championship. As such, he should be awarded between $6-$8 million a season as opposed to $9-$11 million.
Don’t get me wrong. Batum is a nice player. I love his potential, as I’ve even raved about before in a previous column. I don’t buy him as that kind of player, though. If you ask me, there’s a reason those players in Group B have all been traded: because of their contracts. Some trigger happy GM is always ready to make it rain like Lil Wayne and R. Kelly. Just look at DeAndre Jordan, or Gerald Wallace. Are those guys worth $10 million? No. Neither is Batum. And if the Blazers want to keep him, they need to make him realize that, because he’ll soon be an overpaid player not living up to his contract and thus available for trade once the Blazers start losing again.
Kyle Boggs: Yes, plain and simple. Going forward Nicolas Batum should be LaMarcus Aldridge’s complementary piece. Portland must retain him. He is 23 years old and just finished his fourth season. He has improved his averages of points, rebounds, field goals, field goal attempts and steals every season he has been in the NBA. Unofficially, he improved his highlight-reel, chasedown blocks last year as well.
This season was one of the most trying for Batum, as he had to figure out where he fit in with Gerald Wallace. With Wallace gone, a healthy Batum is a lock to be in the starting lineup for 82 games next season. That should increase his confidence, which in turn will lead to him becoming more aggressive and even more productive.
2. Is JJ Hickson worth starter’s pay to be a backup to LA?
Casey Mabbott: Probably not. Like Batum, Hickson has shown the ability to compete with the best in spurts, but never on a continuous basis. In an ideal world, the Blazers would be able to pursue a new deal with Hickson after they figure out what is happening with Batum, however the NBA is far from an ideal world. In all likelihood, the team will need to pick between Hickson and Batum, and that is if they do not draft a guy who could potentially replace them both.
Grant Lucas: No, but he's worth more than a role player's salary. Hickson has proven to be effective as a fill-in if LaMarcus Aldridge can't go and just as effective as a reserve. He's the No. 2 power forward Portland hasn't had since Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. He averaged 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds on 50 percent shooting in 37.2 minutes per game as a starter and 11.3-5.9-50.3 while averaging 12 fewer minutes. Not only that, but players around him seemed to catch fire, most notably Aldridge and Wesley Matthews. Aldridge went from 21.2-7.98-50.5 to 23.5-8.3-54.2 after Hickson came aboard. Matthews followed suit: 12.45 points and 37.3 percent shooting from three-point range to 16.8 points on 40 percent from beyond the arc. He's not just worthy of a contract. He's necessary.
Allen Plummer: Although I’ve liked this kid ever since coming into the league with the Cavaliers, I must question his integrity. We got a high energy guy after signing him, but he was traded to cellar dweller Sacramento then waived back in March. I understand the effect losing has on a player, being worthy of starter money in any league means consistency and professionalism no matter the situation. If JJ’s willing to play next year for this season’s money we can talk about starters pay then.
Anthony Burrola: Hickson is wildly underrated, despite at one time being wildly overrated (If you remember, he’s a guy that Cleveland would not let go of in a potential trade to land Amar’e Stoudemire during LeBron’s final season as a Cav). Unfortunately for Portland, though, he’s redundant. His skillset is not as good as Aldridge’s, but it is similar. On top of that, he doesn’t fix the Blazers’ problems. They need a true franchise player, a guy who can get his own shot, and a big center. Aldridge is a career 8 rebound a night guy, which doesn’t cut it for bigs on championship-caliber teams. If they ever want to compete, Aldridge has to get bigger (not going to happen, since he’s done growing and is a jump-shooter), or they need to find a guy to play beside him. J.J. Hickson isn’t that guy.
Kyle Boggs: No. JJ Hickson was a great addition to the Portland Trail Blazers this season, whether that be as LaMarcus Aldridge’s backup, his replacement or playing alongside of LaMarvelous. If the Blazers plan to retain Hickson as a backup power forward, they can’t afford to pay him more than about $2-3 million a year.
Based on the stretch run he had with Portland, Hickson will command more than that in the open market. Portland will likely be able to retain the Rhino Craig Smith for cheaper, and the Rhino showed early last season he is a capable backup, although not the offensive weapon Hickson is.
3. Who are the GM and Head Coach candidates Portland should make offers to that they cannot refuse?
Casey Mabbott: Danny Ainge and Steve Kerr have the best track records of anyone the Blazers could get, however those are at this point the two least likely to sign on the dotted line to work for Paul Allen. On the other hand, since they are head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, they are exactly who Portland needs to pursue. If Chad Buchanan is the back-up option, at the least the Blazers would not be totally screwed if they are not able to land a new GM. Mike D’Antoni needs to be brought in as the new coach, damn the cost. He runs an up-tempo, high octane offense that is exactly what the Blazers want to implement. Ainge or Kerr would be great at finding him talented and healthy players to run his scheme, Steve Nash anyone?
Grant Lucas: Rumors are flaring about ex-general managers turned TNT analyst or former agents possibly taking over the GM spot. The answer is already in place. Chad Buchanan has an interim tag slapped on his forehead, yet the guy has arguably the best relationship with Paul Allen compared to past general managers. He brought an end to the tortuous Oden era and wasted little time scrapping a failing season. His know-how of team needs and what's available in the field combined with the highly underrated player development system in Rip City makes Buchanan the target. As far as the head coaching position goes, fingers are pointing to Stan Van Gundy. Pass. Mike D'Antoni? Pass. It's another guy with an interim tag. Kaleb Canales has been there since 2005. He knows management. He knows the style of play Portland can succeed with. He knows the game. Most of all, he knows the players. He's a hands-on, Erik Spoelstra-type coach who, with a full offseason and extra practices, can reroute the Trail Blazers back to the postseason. Canales earned at least a one-year trial run. Buchanan earned at least a one-year deal (the shelf life of Portland general managers, apparently).
Allen Plummer: My opinion is that there are far more candidates for the GM spot than the coaching job, Otis Smith had done a good job up to this year in Orlando; Larry Bird’s name alone would be an interesting and certainly a popular pick. My choice would be Bryan Colangelo not for his accomplishments in Toronto, but for the decision making he was a big part of in Phoenix. As for a coach the big fish is Phil Jackson, he’s not coming to Portland we’re just not big enough. So make an offer to the one guy whose challenged the Zen master over the last two decades and spent his entire coaching career in a small town, none other than Jerry Sloan.
Anthony Burrola: I’ll admit that I’m not up-to-date on the value of my GM trading cards, so you have me there. I do know that they’ve reportedly tried to make a run at my team’s GM, which I find funny. As far as coaches, though, I think who they go after should depend on the makeup of their team. I’ve said before that Nate McMillan is a really good coach, but he’s not good for what kind of team Portland is right now.
Part of me wants to say Mike Fratello, but that’s just the basketball fan in me being selfish because I don’t want to hear him as an analyst during games. The unselfish part of me would say Jeff Van Gundy. JVG is the sexy answer, in my opinion, so I’m sorry to disappoint. He failed to get out of the first round with the Rockets, but it’s not his fault that he was always short one of his big 2. Also, he’s a great defensive mind, and he would do wonders for both Batum’s and Aldridge’s development, not to mention the accountability he’d instill in his point guard, whomever that may be at the start of next season.
It’s too bad Larry Brown isn’t an option anymore. I guess they can always go after Isaiah Thomas?
Kyle Boggs: Hiring a quality general manager will be tougher than getting a difference-making coach. Paul Allen and Co. need to get in the ear of Boston’s Danny Ainge and see if they can coax him back to the West Coast. Ainge is a former NBA Executive of the Year after transforming a 24-win Boston Celtics team into NBA champions by landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. As a native Oregonian who spent time playing for the Trail Blazers, Ainge makes a great fit. Not only does he bring executive flair and firepower, he is also someone the Portland fan base can be excited about on a personal level.
Any offer to Kaleb Canales would be too good for him to refuse. Portland should offer a one-year contract. Canales has earned it. Although the Blazers were a mere 8-15 with Canales as head coach, those games came with a roster decimated by trades, injuries and funerals. Canales has the players’ ears. They are willing to play for him and motivated to help him to succeed. He is in the unique position of being someone the players can relate to and at the same time respect. With an entire offseason to implement his own sets and schemes, Canales can guide the Blazers back into the playoffs.
4. Who is the one “big-splash” free agent who can instantly help Portland’s turn around?
Casey Mabbott: While many think landing Deron Williams or trading for Dwight Howard would instantly upgrade the team to being competitive, if the Blazers plan to draft a point guard and a small forward with their two lottery picks, and they should; they MUST find a quality center and a proven point guard in free agency, and at reasonable values. Brooke Lopez, Epke Udoh, and Spencer Hawes will be available this summer, and all would be decent to great upgrades over Hasheeb Thabeet, or Chris Johnson for that matter. Kris Humphries should be considered as he averaged a double-double this season, however JJ Hickson has already proven he can fit the scheme in Portland and may be a cheaper option. Andre Miller and Steve Nash would be fantastic mentors to any young point guard the team drafts such as UNC’s Kendall Marshall, and whether the Blazers get UK forward and Portland native Terrance Jones or UNC forward Harrison Barnes, their outlook will look pretty good if they can get some veteran talent to aide LaMarcus Aldridge and the two rookies.
Grant Lucas: When it comes to adding new faces, whether via free agency or the draft, the focus is on three spots: point guard, center and sixth man. Two guys jump out as possible front men in Steve Nash (long shot - blast that miracle-working Phoenix training staff) and Goran Dragic. Both play similar styles, using speed and quickness to split defenses, making pin-point passes and knock down shots. Both are pivotal for an effective, up-tempo system Portland aims to use. At center, use the draft unless Andrew Bynum or Roy Hibbert unbelievably decide to uproot their All-Star careers. The sixth man is a higher priority, preferably Lou Williams, who brings instant energy and offense off the bench, as shown by his team-leading 15 points per game. Other candidates include Mo Williams, O.J. Mayo (who Memphis has frequently tried to shed), or even Trail Blazer killer Jason Terry. All shooting guards. All viable options for a role Portland has failed to fill.
Allen Plummer: There’s only one free agent that can step on the court next year as a Blazer and immediately turn around this organization. Deron Williams! He’s the floor general we sorely need and brings a tenacity the Rose Garden hasn’t seen since Terry Porter led our team.
Anthony Burrola: Clearly the answer is Brian Scalabrine.
But if he’s not available because he’s too hot a commodity, I’d say the Blazers ought to go with their glaring needs: point guard or center. Since one of the best, and most forgotten, point guards is up for grabs this off-season, the Blazers could be a dark horse to get him. We all know I’m talking about Deron Williams. D-Will worked wonders for Carlos Boozer in Utah, something even Derrick Rose couldn’t do these past two years. Imagine what he could do with Aldridge? The Laker fan in me cringes at the thought. Plus, with Williams manning the point, the burden placed on Wesley Matthews and Batum is alleviated, allowing them to play freely, and thus more effectively. The center position would still be an issue, but it can be done by committee if need be. The only free agent center even worthy of mention is Chris Kaman, but he’s likely out of Portland’s price range. D-Will is the best player available during free agency, so they might as well make a run at him. If they can’t get him, there are a plethora of solid point guards available this off-season. Portland just needs to make sure it evolves its play regardless and cuts back on being a jump-shooting team.
Kyle Boggs: If the Blazers can pry Roy Hibbert away from the Indiana Pacers with a “toxic” offer, Portland gains a coveted center entering his prime. Hibbert is a 7-2 giant who is only 25. He just finished his fourth year. Unlike most Blazer bigs, he’s proven to be durable – Hibbert missed only one game in the last two years. He’s been very consistent over those two seasons as well, averaging 13 points per game on a very balanced Pacers team. He also grabbed about 9 rebounds per game last year and blocked 2 shots a game. Center is one of two positions – along with point guard – Portland must address immediately. With Hibbert, the Blazers obtain a player who can make a difference right away and still has a lot of productive years ahead of him.
5. Portland will have two lottery picks in the June Draft, what two rookies can they get to come in and immediately provide an impact?
Casey Mabbott: If they get the number one pick, and the Blazers have a chance, then they must draft Anthony Davis. Sure, you have an amazing power forward already, and no, Davis does not appear to be an NBA-caliber center, however he is the best of the best this year and you simply cannot pass that up. Assuming Davis will be off the board, landing Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes, who both had hugely successful years at UNC, would put this team in a position to seriously compete from day one. Barnes is a great wing player who defends well, and has great finishing ability. Marshall had a record breaking season and is the assist-happy floor general the Blazers are desperately lacking. Bringing in two teammates would have its advantages, and would eliminate the need to get two rookies comfortable playing alongside each other while learning to play basketball at the pro level. UK forward Terrance Jones would be another great pick up, however he may not be the shooter and pure-scorer Barnes is.
Grant Lucas: With potentially two picks in the top 11 slots of the draft, the Trail Blazers have a great chance to nab incredible talent. The most necessary is a rare, can't-miss point guard: Kendall Marshall. He comes off not only a record-breaking season, but also a record-breaking career. He averaged 9.7 assists per game last year and set an ACC career mark for assist-to-turnover ratio (3.01). His shooting continues to improve, but Marshall remains a quick, play-making point guard Portland desperately needs. Damian Lillard is another hot prospect after logging 24.5 points per game (second-most in the nation), but John Henson is the way to go. The two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year swatted a school-best 2.56 shots per contest throughout his career. The perk is that his offensive prowess bloomed, shooting 50 percent from the floor this past season en route to 13.7 points and 10.1 boards per game. He has the ability to swing between power forward and center and could possible make an immediate impact for a weary Trail Blazer front line.
Allen Plummer: Anthony Davis is the only pick in this year’s draft that will jump right in and be successful; Portland has no real chance of getting him. So the front office must find the two kids that can get some playing time next year and show promise of great things in the future. I like Jeremy Lamb of Connecticut he’d fill a need at the 2; he’s long and can defend with the potential to someday be a great scorer. The other need of course is PG and big things are being said about this kid out of Weber St. Damian Lillard has got great speed and a nose for the basket with the ability to penetrate the lane, other than the quickness these are things we’ve missed since trading away Andre Miller. These two would be intelligent picks by the draft day decision makers…
Anthony Burrola: College basketball is not my forte. The one thing I do know is that the NBA is not like the NFL where a player can transition seamlessly from collegiate play to professional play. The truly NBA-ready rookies are rare, and they eventually hit the rookie wall. Since Portland has two high draft picks, they should work towards solidifying both their back and front courts. A solid two-guard like Florida’s Bradley Beal might fit nicely. He’s an adept rebounder for his position and can score the ball in clever ways. His body type is similar to Matthews, but he’s more than just a thievy jump-shooter. Their other pick has to be a big man, and it has to be someone who can play with Aldridge. Tyler Zeller and Perry Jones have got to be on Portland’s radar, as they need some serious height if they want to truly contend. Both of them are borderline seven-footers, so they’d be welcome additions to a porous frontline.
Kyle Boggs: Andre Drummond and Kendall Marshall are the two players Portland must keep its eye on.
Drummond is unpolished but physically he is a beast. He can be a shot-blocking presence on the defensive end and a power-dunking fan favorite on the other. He looks like a second coming of Dwight Howard – except without such concern for his marketability or willingness to talk trash about his coaches.
It’s tough for point guards to step into the NBA and make a splash right away, but Kendall Marshall is the type of player who can do just that. He doesn’t care about getting his own shot. Instead he prides himself on creating open shots for teammates. That singular quality will have fans remembering Andre Miller, the point guard who immediately became a fan favorite after Feltdowns took over the Rose Garden.