2016-17 Blazers Season Review
The Blazers took an expected step back this past season after overachieving in 2015-16. They took a three-game dip in the win column as they finished 41-41, and just barely squeaked into the playoffs. That was despite their outstanding backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum taking their games to an even higher level. The two finished as the highest-scoring backcourt in the league this season, combining for 50 points per game.
But despite spending a lot of money last offseason to keep the team together—and adding Evan Turner in free agency—their offense wasn’t quite as efficient while their defense also dipped. Al-Farouq Aminu regressed back to a 33 percent three-point shooter, production from big men Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis slipped, and the likes of Turner and Allen Crabbe didn’t live up to their big-money deals.
Luckily, they were able to successfully strengthen that supporting cast by trading Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic in midseason. The Bosnian big man was outstanding over his two months in Portland. He put up 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game as the Blazers went 14-6 in 20 games with him in the lineup. Unfortunately, he missed the final couple weeks of the season, as well as 3/4 of their first-round playoffs sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, due to a broken leg.
Although Nurkic’s addition was a terrific move, the Blazers will need to get creative this offseason to overcome their lack of flexibility and continue to improve upon a very expensive, capped-out team.
Quick Offseason Breakdown
Potential Free Agents: None
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts: Festus Ezeli, Pat Connaughton, Tim Quarterman
2017 Draft Picks (3): #15, #20, #26
Projected Cap Space: None
Portland had one of the more curious offseasons in 2016 when they committed a ton of money on the likes of Crabbe, Turner, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard. They now have one of the most bloated cap situations in the league because of that ill-advised spending spree and are on course for a very expensive luxury tax bill if they do not manage to slash enough salary by the end of the season.
The Blazers are not going to be players in free agency, and will only have the $5.2 million taxpayer mid-level exception to use. However, they will have not one, not two, but three first-round picks available to use as they please.
Biggest Offseason Priorities
1. Shed salary
Portland owner Paul Allen has one of the deepest pockets in a league full of super-rich owners. If he wants to, the Blazers could easily keep this team together no matter how exorbitant their luxury tax bill gets. But you’d have to think there’s a number Allen is not willing to pay for a team that isn’t exactly close to championship contention, and this team is getting close to that number, if it hasn't reached it already.
A couple of beneficiaries from last year’s spending spree—Leonard and Turner—are the obvious candidates to let go if Allen indeed decides to cut luxury tax costs, but finding takers for their bad contracts will be tough. Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu are two players on contracts that will be easier to move and could be sacrificed.
The Blazers do have three first-round picks which they can use to entice some under-the-cap teams to take on their onerous contracts. The obvious downside to that would be the reduction of their already limited resources to improve this offseason.
2. Hold off on Nurkic contract
Without a doubt, Nurkic was one of the big bright spots in the Blazers’ season. The Bosnian Beast was an instant hit upon his arrival in Portland. He more than made up for Plumlee’s loss with his surprisingly excellent passing and strong pick-and-roll skills. He was also a big upgrade on the defensive end. Nurkic’s excellent two-month stretch of play was definitely promising enough for the Blazers to strongly consider locking him up to an extension this offseason.
However, the Blazers would probably be wise to hold off on giving Nurkic that big contract as they try to sort out their current cap predicament. While his end-of-season play was certainly impressive, the Blazers should still see whether he can maintain that level for an entire season before handing out yet another big long-term deal that they might live to regret. And if Nurkic is able to prove that this past season wasn't just a flash in the pan, the Blazers will likely be ready to match any offer Nurkic gets in restricted free agency next offseason.
3. Improve the bench
As mentioned earlier, the Blazers’ options to get better this offseason are very limited. They are in luxury tax territory, and will only have the taxpayer mid-level exception to work with in terms of bringing in free agents. They will also have those three first-rounders, which they can either package in a big trade or use to pick immediate impact rookies.
Due to that lack of flexibility, the Blazers likely won’t be able to make a big splash, but they should instead focus on improving along the margins, specifically their bench.
The Blazers could still use a backup point guard upgrade over Shabazz Napier. A veteran like Shelvin Mack should be a realistic target with the taxpayer exception. They could also use a replacement for the departing Festus Ezeli as the third big man, as well as more reliable shooting from the forward spots. The likes of Turner, Aminu, and Harkless were not exactly capable three-point threats last season.
Luckily, there will be a host of promising big men at the mid to late first-round range like Harry Giles and Bam Adebayo that they could target. Portland could also take a swing at a combo forward prospect like Kyle Kuzma or Tyler Lydon who could help space the floor more effectively.