The Portland Trail Blazers Gambled On Small Ball, And Lost

The Portland Trail Blazers gambled on small ball and it simply hasn’t paid off

Halfway through the season, it is no longer too early to declare the Portland Trail Blazers a disappointment. They were last season’s Cinderella team, but that was all a fluke – and their bad investments in overrated wing players will cost them the chance to contend for the next half decade.

You can hardly blame them. When they lost LaMarcus Aldridge in the summer of 2015, the Blazers were expected to tank, but they embraced small ball – and the emergence of C.J. McCollum, superstar – and won 44 games before beating the cursed Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

So, the Portland Trail Blazers tried to emulate the Boston Celtics, who have had a lot of success playing small ball. They re-signed three-point marksmen C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe to max contracts, and even brought in former Celtic Evan Turner. These were smart moves in an NBA that saw Evan Turner thrive playing the point forward spot along with three guards who shoot a lot of threes – but they overpaid.

No amount of money is too much for a transcendent scorer like Lillard or McCollum. But the Blazers will now also be paying Crabbe and Turner – who are combining for only 20.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game – a combined $144,832,500 through 2020.

Compare that to the Celtics, who only have to pay a combined total of $52 million to keep Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas through 2018. (For one more example of smart, future-oriented signings, compare the Rockets, who inked veteran 3-and-D players Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverly, plus likely 6th man of the Eric Gordon, to team friendly deals. These three players combined will earn about 30% less through 2018 than Turner and Crabbe through the same 2 years.)

The Portland Trail Blazers chose this small-ball, three-point happy, style, and – offensively – it is working. They are shooting a very respectable 36 percent from three. But they are allowing opponents to shoot 38.1 percent from three, and shoot 27.6 free throws per game (second most in the NBA), while surrendering an average of 44.8 rebounds per game (fourth most), a predictable side-effect of playing small ball.

Mason Plumee’s 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and team-high 1.2 blocks per game make the team better on both sides of the floor, so resigning him in 2017 should’ve always been the plan…except they are already over the cap for the 2017-18 season, with their “max four” of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe and Turner alone making over $85 million that year, with raises around $5 million total each season through 2019-20.

As was the case last year, Lillard and McCollum are again amongst the league’s worst defensive guards, posting ratings of minus-2.7, and minus-2.3 Defensive Box/Plus Minus, (DBPM) respectably. Crabbe and Turner are not as terrible, but both have negative DBPM ratings. Building around four bad defenders under 6-foot-7 has led to last year’s Cinderella team ranking 29th in defense, allowing opponents to score 110.7 points per game.

Clearly, the roster the Blazers have assembled isn’t working, and they don’t have cap room to sign two-way difference makers. Maybe too-big teams, like 76ers or Magic will be interested in Turner and Crabbe, but they won’t give up elite or affordable bigs for them.

Even C.J. McCollum should be fair trade bait, if offered the right package of two way players with salaries under his $26.5 million/year. Otherwise, it will be near-impossible to clear up cap space and help the Blazers compete before Lillard decides he wants out.

Salary information obtained from www.hoopshype.com

stats obtained from www.basketball-reference.com  accurate through January 17, 2017

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