Blazers Make Play To Return To Top Of West With Impressive Run Of Signings And Trades
Historically, the free agent signing period isn’t an especially enjoyable time for Trail Blazers fans. As a small market team situated on the outer fringes of the country in a region known for foul weather, courting free agents, especially those with multiple suitors, has always been a difficult endeavor, even when there’s ample money to throw on the table. While this is not news to anyone invested in the Trail Blazers’ success, the pill of seeing other teams improve overnight thanks to dynamic free agent signings while your squad has to rely on incremental moves and internal growth is always a bit tough to swallow.
But this time around, and in over the course of less than a week, those in Rip City have ample reason to rejoice. Thanks to a combination of trades that have required little expense and a number of shrewd free agent signings, Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and his staff have addressed nearly every issue laid bare over the course of the 2019-20 season, a season that saw Portland go from the Western Conference Finals to eking out the eight-seed and a first-round exit.
The result is a team that looks poised to contend in the West and near unanimous praise for making significant win-now improvements without mortgaging the future.
Olshey’s opening offseason salvo came prior to last Wednesday’s draft, with Portland sending Trevor Ariza, the 16th overall pick in the 2020 Draft, which turned out to be Washington center Isaiah Stewart, and a conditional future first-round pick for Robert Covington, a 6-7 Swiss Army Knife of a defender who holds career averages of 12.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.89 blocks in 396 games with the Rockets, Timberwolves and 76ers.
After significant early-season injuries to Rodney Hood and Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers had to rely on a patchwork of forwards, with varying degrees of success, for the majority of the 2019-20 season. But acquiring Covington, who can play both forward positions, instantly plugs what was a gapping hole in Portland’s rotation.
“Robert is an elite defender and consummate professional that will make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor,” said Olshey via release. “His versatility enables him to play multiple positions and his character and professionalism will allow him to transition seamlessly into our culture.”
Next, Olshey turned his attention to the center position. While the starting slot was already squared away with the return of Jusuf Nurkić, who looked every bit the player in the Orlando bubble that he was prior to suffering a gruesome leg injury in March of 2019, there was a need to find a backup with the likely departure of Hassan Whiteside and uncertainty about Zach Collins’ availability coming off ankle surgery in September. It’s a situation the Trail Blazers have faced before, and they opted to remedy in this instance the same way they did the last time: by acquiring Enes Kanter, albeit this time in a three-way trade with the Celtics and Grizzlies.
The 6-10 center out of Turkey signed with Portland as a free agent in 2019 after being waived midseason by the Knicks and comported himself well, especially after being thrust into the starting lineup after injury ended Nurkic’s season. The hope was that he would re-sign, but he ultimately chose to head to Boston, a wedding that never seemed to fit all that well for either party. Nevertheless, Kanter picked up his player option and was subsequently dealt to the Trail Blazers, with Portland only giving up the majority of the trade exception generated by the traded that sent Kent Bazemore to Sacramento in exchange for Ariza and Mario Hezonja, who had one year at the vet minimum left on his current contract.
In Kanter, the Trail Blazers pick up an elite offensive rebounder and a big who can score off the bench and and the capability to slide into the starting lineup if necessary, all for reportedly around $5 million this season.
After trading for Kanter, attention turned to free agency. While they didn’t have any cap space to speak of, armed with the Midlevel Exception, worth around $9.3 million per season, the Biannual Exception, around $3.6 million and enough space below the luxury tax for a few minimum signings, the Trail Blazers were actually in the rare position of having some money to spend on free agents.
First order of business: re-sign Rodney Hood. After taking a discount to sign with the Trail Blazers back in July 2019, a few months after being acquired via trade from Cleveland, Hood opted out of the final year of that contract despite sitting out most of last season with a torn Achilles. The decision turned out for both parties as Hood snagged a significant raise -- he will reportedly earn around $10 million this season -- while the Trail Blazers were able to sign Hood outright despite not having any cap space thanks to owning “early” Bird rights, allowing the team to retain an integral member of their 2019 run to the Western Conference Finals without dipping into either exception.
“Rodney played a critical role in our run to the Western Conference Finals in 2018-19 and was off to a great start last year prior to his season being cut short due to injury,” said Olshey via release. “Now fully healthy we expect him to make an immediate impact and are pleased he chose to stay in Portland.”
And with the full Midlevel, the Trail Blazers turned their sights to two areas of need: defense and athleticism on the wing. They managed to greatly improve the roster in both areas by signing 6-6 forward Derrick Jones Jr, who spent the last three seasons with the Miami Heat.
“Derrick’s elite athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to rebound on both ends of the floor enable him to make an immediate impact in multiple areas of need,” said Olshey.
At just 23 years old, Jones Jr. gives the Trail Blazers long, lanky defender who can also finish around the rim -- he won the 2020 NBA Dunk contest -- thanks in no small part to uncommon athleticism. Undrafted after leaving UNLV in 2016, Jones Jr. fits in as a certified NBA rotation player who still has plenty of room to grow alongside the likes of Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little. If he is able to continue his maturation in Portland, he likely qualifies as one of Portland’s most useful free agent signings in the last decade.
After plucking an up-and-comer from a team on the other side of the country, the next order of business turned to a future Hall of Famer whose addition last season helped salvage both Portland’s season and his own career.
Despite the symbiosis, there were questions about whether Carmelo Anthony, a 17-year veteran who joined the Trail Blazers last season after sitting out almost the entirety of the 2018-19 season, would return for the 2020-21 campaign. Anthony, who stepped into a starting role his first day with the Trail Blazers, proved over the course of the season, and especially in the Orlando bubble, that he still had plenty to offer an NBA team. But the questions of whether he would accept a lesser role -- a concern Anthony always insisted was overblown -- or if another team might offer more money than the Trail Blazers could afford made his return uncertain.
But in the end, the two sides decided it was in everyone’s best interest to run it back, much to the delight of his teammates and fans, both of whom came to appreciate Anthony’s influence on and off the court. The signing gives the Trail Blazers a certified “bucket” who can play both forward positions and whose voice is widely-respected in every NBA locker room.
With most of their bases covered between trades and signings, Olshey was able to finish off the weekend by taking a flyer on 6-10 center Harry Giles, who spent the first two seasons of his career with the Kings. Technically drafted by the Trail Blazers with the 20th overall pick of the 2017 Draft (he was sent to Sacramento in the deal that netted Portland Zach Collins), Giles has struggled to find consistent time on the court due to injury. But at just 22 years old and with a recent track record of good health, Giles joins the Trail Blazers with a chance to prove he can be the player many pegged as one of the best in his high school class.
As for the Trail Blazers, they get get a chance to get a first-hand look at a player with significant upside without expending much more than a minimum contract and a roster spot.
Assuming everything proceeds without issue, the Trail Blazers will have 14 players under contract for the 2020-21 season after signing second-round pick CJ Elleby. That leaves one open roster spot which they could fill before the start of the season or simply leave it open in the event that a player is bought out midseason.
But regardless of what happens next, the shortest offseason in NBA history already goes down as one of Portland’s best.