Portland's Critical Draft
While the New Orleans Hornets, who are now well on their way to an Oklahoma City-like rebuild, were the biggest winners from Wednesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers weren’t far behind them. Thanks to some short-sighted decision-making from the New Jersey Nets, who essentially dealt a No. 6 pick for a half-season of Gerald Wallace, Portland can rapidly accelerate their rebuilding process with two lottery picks in one of the deepest drafts in the last decade.
The Trail Blazers decision-making process should be made easier by the two excellent building blocks they still have on their roster: LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Aldridge, the most complete big man in the NBA, is an athletic two-way forward at 6’11, 240 still only 26-years-old. Batum, an athletic 6’8 200 swingman with a good three-point shot, is 23.
Batum is a restricted free agent, but Portland’s cap situation is so pristine they should have no problem matching any contract he could receive on the open market. With Brandon Roy’s retirement, Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, a versatile two-way perimeter player with a very reasonable contract, are the only players they currently have under contract past next season.
And thanks to the increasing importance of young players on cost-controlled salaries due to the luxury tax penalties in the new CBA, the Trail Blazers’ two lottery picks could be the most attractive trade asset in the entire league. For example, if the Thunder decide they can’t afford to give James Harden a max contract, they couldn’t get a better deal than two chances to replace Harden’s production and salary at the top of the draft.
At the same time, holding on to their picks wouldn’t be a bad option either. With long-term starters at the power forward and small forward already in the fold, Portland could find the answer at two more positions in the draft. Like the Utah Jazz before them, the Trail Blazers could take advantage of New Jersey’s impatience to create a deep young core with the potential to be a title contender.
Their first priority should be assembling a championship-caliber front-line, which means pairing Aldridge with another 6’10+ player upfront. His versatility will give them a lot of options: they could either keep him at the 4 and take a center (Andre Drummond, Meyers Leonard) or move him to the 5 and take another power forward (Perry Jones III, John Henson).
Their second priority should be a perimeter player they could run offense through, something they’ve been lacking since Roy’s knees gave out. And while point guard is the weakest position in the draft, the Trail Blazers will be able to choose from a deep collection of shooting guards. Bradley Beal will almost certainly be a top-5 pick, but Terrence Ross, Jeremy Lamb and Dion Waiters should all be available at the latter stages of the lottery.
At that point, point guard would be the only hole Portland would still need to fill. Nolan Smith could become a serviceable NBA player, but he’s unlikely the long-term answer at the position.
That’s where their salary cap space could come into play. Deron Williams is an entertaining pipe dream, as the Trail Blazers could offer him the best chance to consistently win over the next five years that doesn’t involve depending on Dwight Howard. But, given that the Rose City has never been a free-agent destination, Goran Dragic may be a more realistic option.
Dragic is an unrestricted free agent, and after splitting time in Phoenix and Houston to start his career, he’s ready to become a full-time starter. This season, per-36 minutes, he averaged 16 points and 3.5 rebounds on 46% shooting with 7.2 assists to 3.2 turnovers. He’ll never be a star, but he doesn’t have any holes in his game and he’s just 25.
If the Trail Blazers play it safe, they could go into next season with a potential starting five of Drummond, Aldridge, Batum, Ross and Dragic. Those names may not jump off the page, but that’s one of the most talented young cores in the league. And with cap space and multiple high draft picks, if they decide to make a move, they have the pieces to insert themselves in trade discussions surrounding any player in the NBA.
It’s a lot of pressure for interim GM Chad Buchanan, but if he can pull it off, he will be able to write his own ticket in a few years.