Now that the Utah Jazz have matched the offer sheet to forward Paul Millsap the Trailblazer fans are lining up at the top of the KOIN Center building contemplating a leap to end the off season of frustration and embarrassment. But hold the elevator. Are the faithful in the Rose City being a bit hasty?
Blazer fans have become somewhat spoiled in the recent turnaround of a franchise that won merely 21 games a few years ago and had more time in jail than in the playoffs. Kevin Pritchard took over as the GM and promptly conducted a record 6 draft day trades that netted the Blazers Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Sergio Rodriguez. This frenzied pace set the Blazer fans up for expectations that every year there would be wild wheeling and dealing and the Blazers would ultimately part with a spare part, a bad contract, a head case or a few shares of Microsoft stock and receive the most talented players in the league. The Blazers have gone on from there to unload Zach Randolph and the Jailblazer image. They have ascended from the depth of the worst record in basketball to the second best record in the more competitive Western Conference and they have done so with what is now the youngest roster in the NBA. Yet Blazer fans are yelling Geronimooooooo as they flee the bandwagon. This pandemonium would suggest that the management of the Trailblazers had recently experienced such a severe laps in reason that they traded Roy and Aldridge back to the teams that drafted them for Tyrus Thomas and Randy Foye.
The truth is, the Portland Trailblazers made a failed attempt to get a very skilled and versatile free agent in Hedo Turgolglu. This was not due to low-balling the player or not applying full court pressure in his pursuit. The failure was due to him being from the near east and wanting to live in a community that would be more culturally comfortable to him and his wife. So, shucks. Whiffed on that one. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
The next transaction is the one that makes me smirk though. Because Hedo jilted the Blazers and their faithful, an inordinate amount of pressure has been placed on the next move the Blazers were to make. As the fans nearly broke their fingers crossing them across the state of Oregon, Kevin Pritchard coolly signed Paul Millsap to an offer sheet. This is where it gets funny. The offer sheet was constructed with a “toxic” structure. Suddenly Blazer fans began to squawk because they didn’t understand Millsap’s value or fit. Fans began to fret because they worried Utah would match, again leaving the Blazers empty handed. In sum, fans were freaking out that the Blazers might get Millsap and simultaneously that the might not. Nice little psychosis there. As the whole world expected, Utah matched the offer. So, why would the Blazers sign Millsap to an offer that they knew would be matched? What happened to this alleged “toxic” structure?
The truth is, the Blazers not only expected the Jazz to match, but wanted them to. The toxic element in the contract was not to make the contract prohibitive or unattractive to the Jazz but merely so front loaded that they would be under extreme pressure to make subsequent moves upon matching the offer. Front loading the contract sent the Jazz deep into the luxury tax for this year if they are to stand pat. As such, and because Carlos Boozer had surprised the Jazz by not exercising his escape clause, er I mean option to become a free agent, the Blazers were able to tighten up some variables surrounding player movement. So, when the Jazz matched the Blazers’ offer to Millsap that put the Jazz in a situation that they would have to pay heavily for keeping Boozer (is he worth $24 million?) or they would have to trade him in a deal that brought back a smaller contract. In order to accomplish this, there must be a team with room under the salary cap involved. There are only three at this point, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Portland. Memphis and Oklahoma City have shown almost no interest in being involved in such a deal. So, Turkoglu-less and Millsap-less, where does that leave Portland? In the driver’s seat. As Utah, who is under new and extreme financial pressure, and any team who might want some financial relief consider reducing payroll, attempt to make trades to bring home some relief, one team will be in all of the discussions. One team will have leverage in all uneven trades. One team will be able to use its cap space in a trade with other teams as if it were simply plucking free agents. That team is Portland. This leverage is magnified as teams look to the 2010 free agents and realize they need cap room to be players for the well regarded crop of All Stars.
So keep in mind, the NBA off season didn’t end the first week of July. It began. And for all of you fans that would like to construct a team like a fantasy roster with no consideration for cohesion, fit or coaching philosophy ask yourself this: who is the point guard at the end of the game? It’s Brandon Roy. Wouldn’t a scorer who played off of Roy’s creativity be valuable then…um, maybe Bayless? Also keep in mind that whether a player is added today or in a month makes no difference. Perhaps remind yourself that Blazers, unlike nearly all of the other teams in the NBA, suffered no roster losses (unless you consider the likes of Trevor Ruffin a loss). The team that orchestrated a record number of trades in 2006 no longer needs a roster overhaul. The youngest team in the NBA won 54 games last year, which was second best in the strongest conference. The team has some nice talent stashed away in Europe developing for free. The team also holds a trade exemption that could be used in addition to the cap space it’s sitting on. The team is still under the salary cap. Greg Oden and Nicholas Batum will only get better. Martell Webster is almost like a free agent addition in that he has been absent for so long. LaMarcus Aldridge is on the verge of becoming the player he is capable of being. The Blazers finished crushing teams by 20 plus points as they became a cohesive and explosive team. Teams are only playoff virgins once and that deer-in-the-headlights response to playoff basketball will have created wisdom. In short, I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend…