With the NBA Draft fast approaching on June 22nd the Portland Trail Blazers sit in the enviable position of having three first-round picks in what is considered the deepest draft in years. However, Portland being a team with holes to fill on the roster, GM Neil Olshey may find it difficult to maneuver even with these assets at his disposal.
After a massive spending spree in the summer of 2016, which included a $106 million extension to CJ McCollum that takes effect this season, matching Allen Crabbe's offer sheet from Brooklyn and the somewhat befuddling four year-$70 million deal to Evan Turner the Trail Blazers are saddled with $133 million in guaranteed salaries for the 2017-18 season. With a projected salary cap of $101 million (up from $94 million the previous year) and a tax line $121 million, they will almost certainly be a tax paying team come seasons end, which this summer will require Olshey to be creative in ways to improve the roster.
Portland will be tempted to attach one or more of those coveted draft picks to a player in a salary dump to a team that is in an extended rebuild phase (i.e. Brooklyn, Phoenix etc). Financially this makes sense considering the Blazers don't even have the cap room to sign a draft class, however, the player they attach could get tricky. Players like Jake Layman don't have a salary big enough to make the financial impact great enough to lose a draft pick and a contract like Evan Turner's may prove extremely difficult to be moved, which leaves the guys in the middle salary ranges of about $10mil per season.
To many reading this and to the Rip City faithful that points to one guy, Meyers Leonard. Brace for the collective grown throughout the city when I tell you trading him should not be any part of the Blazers plans.
Although the mercurial big man played poorly down the stretch and in their first-round series against Golden State, Leonard mainly drew the wrath of Blazer fans for the simple reason that he is not Jusef Nurkic. The Bosnian came from a deadline deal with Denver as a sort of a throw in along with one of those aforementioned first round picks, and stole the hearts of the Moda Center regulars. When Nurkic was injured down the stretch that left Leonard as the only center remaining to carry the load.
It should not be forgotten that in a league that gives up on young players all too quickly, Leonard is still just 25 years old and if he had spent a full four years at the University of Illinois would have just concluded his second full NBA season. Leonard's development has been slightly hindered by multiple shoulder surgeries. Still, he has managed to hit 37% from three over his career thus far. Not bad for a guy that's 7'1". This coupled with the fact that Leonard has shown flashes of being a physical presence that Portland lacked prior to Nurkic' arrival, provide hope that just maybe Leonard might be ready to break free from his habit of disappearing in plain sight for long stretches at a time.
The Trail Blazers even to the common NBA fan are a franchise historically known as snake bitten when it comes to the center position. However everyone always remembers the ones that were injured and didn't work out, Sam Bowie and Greg Oden come immediately come to mind. What's hard to remember are the players they gave up on.
Jermaine O'Neil was traded after the 99-00 season to Indiana in a win now move for Dale Davis and immediately saw his per season numbers spike from 3pts per game to 12. He then went on to become a six-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA and Most Improved player for the 00-01 season. Zach Randolph was jettisoned as one of the final remaining pieces of the Jail Blazers era and has averages of 18 points, 10 rebounds per game since, including two All-Star appearances.
This isn't even considering the players that left on their own. Or Moses Malone, which might be the worst trade in Blazer history.
Trading Leonard's $10 million a year salary will have little impact on getting the Blazers below the tax threshold, but could leave them with a gaping hole at a position they already lack depth in. Fact is, Meyers Leonard needs to be on the roster and the Blazers need to give him the time and the freedom to grow.
Look at it this way, taking names out of it if your team decided to add a 25-year-old center, that was over 7-foot, shot 37% from the 3pt line, is a five-year veteran and has caused skirmishes with the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol any fan would be pretty excited right?
That guy just might already be on the roster.