Thursday, February 19, 2009

Portland Should be Looking to Deal

The transformation of the Portland Trailblazers in recent years, burying the harsh memories of the “Jailblazers” era and reinventing them as one of the NBA’s most likeable young teams, has been nothing short of incredible. In three short years, the Blazers have gone from an unlikable, overpaid 21-win team to a near-50-win team in serious contention for not only home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but a division title as well. Since taking over the Blazers’ GM post in early 2007, Kevin Pritchard has positioned the Blazers to once again be a contender in the Western Conference in the years to come. Pritchard’s done a fantastic job of assembling a core of talented young players, all of them “character guys”, led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.

And while this current incarnation of the Blazers has been a breath of fresh air, winning back the hearts of the fans of Portland (possibly the league’s best), Kevin Pritchard, with less than 100 minutes remaining until the NBA's trade deadline and with a full complement of assets at his disposal, should be looking to make a bold move that will catapult the young Blazers from “up-and-coming” to legitimate title contenders, lest one of the NBA’s best young teams inch ever-so-slightly toward becoming a sequel of the Chicago Bulls of this decade- loaded with good, young players, and seemingly always accumulating more, but too in love with their own assets to recognize that another step needed to be taken. Those Bulls never came close to fulfilling their potential.

It’s been mentioned before, most recently by ESPN’s Bill Simmons, that in addition to being a
very shrewd executive with a phenomenal sense of the big picture, Pritchard is particularly gifted in the area of guiding the perceived value of his players to rather lofty heights. However, as any stock trader from the late 1990s will tell you, those paper profits are meaningless if you can’t realize the gains.

One advantage the Trailblazers have over the Hinrich-Deng-Gordon Bulls is that, for all the talent and potential on the roster, in Brandon Roy they have an undeniable primetime player, helping to avoid any potential ambiguity when trying to integrate new pieces into the roster. Roy has the look of a player who’s ready to go deep into the playoffs, but, despite his absurd ability to carry a team, the Blazers, as presently constructed, don’t have the look of a team that could potentially play in June. They do, however, have a few assets that could be parlayed into a leap to the next level:

Raef Lafretz’s expiring contract- Hey, it’s everyone’s favorite piece of paper! At just over $12.7 million, Raef’s deal will deliver a massive dose of cap relief to someone this summer. In a normal year, this expiring deal would be a valuable chip, but right now, in the midst of an economic crisis that has hit some NBA owners pretty hard and has some teams hemorrhaging cash, it is an absolute jewel. Portland, a team with a well-funded owner that is more focused on the product on the floor than on financial relief, should be looking to capitalize on this scenario, potentially bringing in a Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter or Gerald Wallace (just to name three), without sacrificing much on the floor.

Travis Outlaw- The captain of the Kevin Pritchard All-Stars. Travis Outlaw is a fantastic athlete with a great contract ($4M this year and next) and a nice inside-outside game, but just how high is his ceiling? Just how much better is he going to get? His deal expires next summer, and he’s likely to command a significant raise, and in a world where there’s only one Manu Ginobili, probably a spot in the starting five. At $4 million sixth-man scoring 12 a night, Outlaw is phenomenal, but how do you like him as a $7-9 million starter? This may be the ideal time for the Blazer to “sell high” on Outlaw, as virtually every team covets him, and pairing him with Raef’s contract could net Portland a top-10 player.

Nicolas Batum/Sergio Rodriguez- A pair of talented young players, either of which, if paired with Lafrentz’s expiring deal, could bring back a top-flight swingman to team with Roy and Aldridge. As young and cap-friendly (Batum is making ~$1M and would cost less than $5 million over the next three; Sergio is due $1.9M next year and his 2010-11 qualifying offer is $2.8M) as this duo is, neither has been a major factor in Portland’s success this season (each is averaging under 20 minutes/game), and neither has a ceiling that would warrant “untouchable” status.

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