Portland Trail Blazers 2022 Moves So Far: Keeping Core Free Agents

For the last two weeks, the Portland Trail Blazers have employed a flurry of trades, signings, and draft picks to rebuild their roster in preparation for the 2022-23 NBA season. If you haven’t been paying careful attention you could be forgiven for missing out on some of the details. Even if you have, it’s time to take a deep breath, recap, and reset.

Throughout the week, we’re going to break down Portland’s moves so far this summer, examining each in detail, bringing you up to date and teasing out the significance of each transaction.

The players we’re looking at today aren’t revolutionary surprises. They’re not new to the roster at all. A key part of Portland’s Summer 2022 strategy was coveted retaining free agents from their own squad. In three cases, they’ve done that, but what’s the cost and what’s the plan?

The Transaction: The Blazers signed restricted free agent Anfernee Simons to a four-year extension, re-upped center Jusuf Nurkic with a four-year deal, and brought back center Drew Eubanks on a one-year contract.

What it Cost: Cap space and future dollars. Theoretically the Blazers could have created room to sign other free agents by releasing Simons and Nurkic. (Plus not guaranteeing the deal of Josh Hart and a couple other moves.) Instead they brought back the crew: Simons for a reported $25 million per year, Nurkic for $17.5 million, and Eubanks on a minimum contract.

NBA Reaction: Shrugging, mostly, not because the moves were bad, but because they were expected, thus passing beneath notice. Nurkic and Simons would have created far more of a stir had they hit the free agency market fully than they did coming back to Portland.

The salaries offered were on the high end of expectations, but not beyond them. The general consensus seems to be that $25 million is a little pricey for Simons right now, but if the Blazers believe in him, it’s a good bet on his future value.

Portland had few options besides re-signing Nurkic. Releasing him in isolation wouldn’t have created any usable cap space. In that situation, the contract looks reasonable. The deal amounts to a modest raise for Nurkic, but devoting 14% of your base salary cap to a starter isn’t that remarkable.

The Stats

Simons: 17.3 points, 3.9 assists on 44.3% shooting from the field, 40.5% from the three-point arc in 29.5 minutes per game over 57 appearances in 2021-22.

Nurkic: 15.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists on 53.5% shooting from the field, 26.8% from the arc in 28.2 minutes per game over 56 appearances.

Eubanks: 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds on 64.6% shooting from the field, 26.7% from the arc in 29.5 minutes per game over 22 appearances.

What Portland Gained

The better question might be what Portland would have lost had they not re-signed these players.

SIMONS

Simons could have been replaced by Hart in the starting lineup, but that would have left the smaller end of the roster much thinner. Shaedon Sharpe, Nassir Little, and Gary Payton II would have been the main reserves covering point, shooting guard, and small forward. Hart, Sharpe, Little, Payton, and Damian Lillard isn’t a bad five-man corps, but Simons makes a huge difference.

As we keep saying, Portland wouldn’t have generated significant cap space without jettisoning almost all their incumbent veterans, leaving gaping holes in the roster. They couldn’t have signed enough new players to replace the talent and positional security they would have lost. The only way not signing Simons made sense was if the Blazers were going into total rebuild mode, giving up on this season entirely. Even then, his age and production would have argued for keeping him into the next generation.

With Simons on board, the Blazers have too many small players instead of too few. They’re buffered against injuries. They’ve also preserved trade assets for the future—Hart, Simons, Little-, Payton—allowing them to make further moves.

NURKIC

Take all that and underline it twice for Nurkic. Before re-signing him, the Blazers had no (read: zero) centers on the roster. Whatever one thinks of Nurkic in the abstract, had he signed with another team, the Blazers would have been forced to reconstruct the position using mere pennies. Again, the only way this would have made sense is in a total roster reset.

Nurkic will continue to rebound. He’ll need to recapture his passing game on offense, as Portland fields a surfeit of players who deserve shots. If he wants to be a hub of the attack, his ability to dish will be as important as his ability to score. His pick-setting will also be valuable. Head Coach Chauncey Billups should be able to give Nurkic plenty of targets to screen for. Nurk is apt on the roll, though the skill has been underutilized the past couple years. Might he be able to screen and pop with consistency? If so, he’ll be one of the few, true mid-range threats the Blazers field. He could find his niche there.

Hopefully Nurkic can also return to the defensive form that once made him stand out in Portland’s rotation. He’ll be surrounded by better defenders this season. He was unable to stop last year’s collapse and his defensive skills went to waste. With a better wall around him, he’ll get another chance to become the tower anchoring Portland’s fortification.

EUBANKS

Re-signing Eubanks was quietly important in a couple ways. First, he gives Portland a reserve center where they had none. He started during the late season last year and performed well. The Blazers don’t want him to have to start again, but if Nurkic is injured, at least they know Eubanks can step in. Second, Eubanks—along with forward Trendon Watford—provided the kind of, “Jeepers, this is awesome!” energy that every team needs. He played with passion every time he hit the court. He looked proud to wear a Trail Blazers uniform.

Basketball is a human endeavor. At some level, caring matters. It’s harder for mid-rotation players to go through the motions when the lower-rotation participants are chomping at the bit, selling themselves for every possession. That’s not going to win you championships, but it’s an important lift in professional locker rooms that threaten to become stale.

Potential Pitfalls

Most of the worries surrounding Portland’s roster can be summarized with, “Here we are again.”

Nurkic’s flaws from 2016-present will likely remain through 2022-23. Portland hasn’t done anything to augment or disguise the center position.

Simons blossomed big-time last season, but that was in the absence of backcourt mate Lillard and, frankly, most everyone else of significance. Can Simons flourish playing beside Dame instead of behind or in place of him? Will that guard tandem be able to play enough defense to avoid the perpetual glass ceiling that Lillard and CJ McCollum hit for most of a decade?

If this new mix doesn’t work, Portland’s still spending a lot of money for modest success. They had a chance to transition to a new era this summer in a painful, but fairly smooth way, collecting future assets and riding themselves of obligations. Instead they decided to re-up and give it one more try. If it crumbles, or even ends up in the same relative spot, they’ll have to count it as another year frittered away amid a litany of them.

Final Verdict

All of these signings made perfect sense, given Portland’s chosen direction. We don’t know if they’ll work, ultimately, but we do know there was no chance of it working without them.

The potential pitfalls of the situation are mitigated by the Blazers stocking up on, and/or retaining, young players along with their veterans. Simons himself is one. Sharpe and Little give them two more. They didn’t go all-in on veteran help. Instead they split the middle.

Most of Portland’s older players are on reasonable contracts given their production, leaving the option open to make adjustments (or bail out) later. That gives the Blazers an emergency escape route, without which they’d need to be more worried.

There was little doubt the Blazers were going to retain Nurkic and Simons heading into free agency. They did, and within a couple million dollars of projections. Fair enough. Let’s see how it works.

Up Next: An actual free agent signing!

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