August 20, 2022

The Portland Trail Blazers have checked several items off their “to do” list during the NBA draft, free agency and trade period. They signed a deal with the Detroit Pistons for forward Jerami Grant. They selected Shaedon Sharpe with the 7th pick in the 2022 NBA draft. They used their mid-tier cap exception to blast defensive end Gary Payton II away from the Golden State Warriors. They extended restricted free agent guard Anfernee Simons to a four-year, $100 deal and re-signed unrestricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic for four years at $70 million in total. They even brought back brave reserve center Drew Eubanks for another year.

After all the moves, Portland’s depth chart looks like this:

peak guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Gary Payton II

shooting guard-Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe

Small Forward—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Gary Payton II, Greg Brown III

Forward power— Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford

Center-Jusuf Nurkic, Drew Eubanks

Two first observations come to mind:

  1. The Blazers did a good job.
  2. They’re not a full team yet.

In particular, the bulge at the small positions and the corresponding leanness among the large ones are evident. They’re going to have to iron out that wrinkle if they want a reliable rotation through 82 games and the playoffs.

Here’s the catch. It’s probably not as easy as it looks. The bag of tricks that got the Blazers this far is now empty. They will have to use new techniques. This will make the final move (or moves) much more difficult than the ones so far.

No transaction in the NBA is simple. Some are easier than others, however.

So far, half of Portland’s moves have been of the “captive audience” type. Sharpe’s writing was the strongest example. He had no choice when Portland picked him. Unless he wants to hold on, he has to join the team. Re-signing Simons and Nurkic isn’t that easy. Simons could have solicited offers from other franchises for Portland to match. The Blazers took a shortcut through the process by making a preemptive bid of $25 million a year, right at the top of his reasonably imaginable income range. Nurkic’s contract isn’t quite as big, but for a center, $17.5 million a year isn’t bad.

Either way, due to match right and bird rights, the Blazers had the inside lane on their desired players. Both signings also cost the Blazers a substantial sum.

It was also a key factor in their two other deals: Payton II and Grant.

The Pistons didn’t like Jerami Grant. They knew it was going to cost a fortune. Someone was going to pay him, but either they didn’t agree or he wasn’t going to stay anyway. Having Grant the last year of his contract, Detroit had to trade him or lose him for nothing.

Because of this decision point, the team acquiring Grant was going to be able to buy for a small amount. There is a catch, however. They’d have to back up the acquisition with a long future extension, or they’d end up with the sack when Grant was gone, just like Detroit would have been.

This fiscal reality was at the heart of the trade. If the Pistons hadn’t been in that position, a future non-lottery draft pick and a trade exception wouldn’t have been enough to close the deal.

After buying for that low down payment, the Blazers now have to deal with the inflated fees that will follow. This describes the Portland investment much better than the choice and business exception. If the cost to Grant had simply been a weak first round, many NBA teams would have lined up for his services. Portland only made sense because they are (apparently) willing to pay big for him later, which other teams weren’t ready to do.

The Blazers also paid relatively big for Gary Payton II. They were going to use their MLE on someone, so it wasn’t a big sacrifice for them. For Payton, it was a godsend. He earned $1.9 million with the Warriors last season. The Blazers have just done that to him 14 times in three seasons. If someone offered you 14 times last year’s salary to do the same job you already do, you would also consider it favorably. It’s a big part of why Payton II will fit for the Blazers next year instead of the World Championships.

This isn’t meant to downplay Portland’s moves at all. These were good trades, making efficient use of resources, snagging what most people consider useful players. That’s all you can ask for. The Blazers did well.

But again, they are not over. And they won’t be able to make their next moves the same way they made their last: replacing cash or leverage with assets. They have no more lottery choices this year. They no longer have their own players to re-sign for big bucks. They don’t have another full MLE, or any cap space to attract more free agents. Few important frontline players have their teams over a barrel like Grant has. Even though they did. the Blazers are reaching the limit of their ability to commit money. They are well over the cap and will soon be talking seriously about paying the luxury tax. They can’t do that on speculative moves for an unproven team.

Portland’s next move will likely be the biggest of the bunch, at least in the short term. It may not be as big as the Grant trade in terms of adding talent, but it will give the roster the precise shape and direction it lacks now, at least on the surface.

The Blazers will have to make this move honestly, without drafting or overpaying or underhand trading. They will almost certainly have to find a trade that helps them in their positions of need (small forward or centre) while giving equal talent/position value to the other team.

Josh Hart seems the most likely candidate to move. He can’t have missed how the Blazers have acquired or re-signed players that are compressing his positions and/or minutes at Simons, Sharpe and Payton II. The latter is particularly striking. Had Portland signed a center with their MLE, Hart might have seen an opening in the rotation. That they passed their course of exception completely voluntary on a wing, under contract for three years, eats away at his exact job description, says a lot.

Hart will play the last guaranteed year of his contract this season. He won’t want to make way for anyone, especially after scoring 20 points per game when he was given free rein on offense last year. If Portland is going to roll with Sharpe and Payton, trading Hart is a reasonable expectation for everyone involved. That doesn’t mean it will be moved this summer. The Blazers have until the trade deadline. But expect Hart’s name to appear in trade rumors by next February, and expect them to be credibly discussed.

Moving Hart and/or accompanying players for a significant addition to the rotation will be a difficult task. It’s hard to predict who the Blazers might acquire. And that’s exactly the point. We knew the potential for a lowball Grant deal was there. We were aware of the draft picks, as well as the re-signing of Simons and Nurkic. Every movement more speculative than that – OG Anunoby, John Collins, Deandre Ayton – failed to develop. “More speculative” can also be read as “More difficult to execute”.

The Blazers did well with the bases. They are at a point where we can say they have a credible chance of continuing with their plan of building a contender around Damian Lillard. They are not there yet. After passing NBA Transactions 101, they can now move on to 300-level courses. While these early moves seem helpful, their ultimate fate will depend on their ability to cope with more advanced demands.