Nobody expected the Portland Trail Blazers to be any good last year, and for much of the season they weren't. (They were 19-26 through 45 games, then an 11-2 stretch propelled them through the rest of the year.) After an offseason in which they lost LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs, Robin Lopez to the Knicks, Wesley Matthews to the Mavericks, and Nicolas Batum (via trade for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh) to the Hornets, their Las Vegas over/under at the Westgate Super Book was 26.5 wins. ESPN's Summer Forecast projected them for 31. The average of 32 different projection systems pegged them for 29.8.
The Blazers blew those projections out of the water with a 44-38 record, which was good enough to make them the Western Conference's No. 5 seed. Led by the NBA's third-highest scoring duo in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland finished the season with the league's seventh-best offense, a scoring attack good enough to overcome their 21st-ranked defense. Head coach Terry Stotts designed a system that, though it was predominantly based on the exploits of Lillard and McCollum, nevertheless gave the team's cadre of relatively inexpensive supporting players ample opportunity to stretch themselves.
Most of those supporting players rose to the occasion and filled their prescribed role. For a combined $31,470,455, the Blazers got plus defense across three positions and slightly above league average three-point shooting from Al-Farouq Aminu; space-eating defense and hard-as-hell rim-rolls from Ed Davis; solid two-way versatility from Gerald Henderson; 30 or so games of pick and pop niceness from Meyers Leonard (he wasn't that great for half the season and missed 21 games due to injury); all-court versatility and a pre-playoff jolt from Moe Harkless; there-every-night solidity as a screener, roller, and playmaker from Mason Plumlee; a third high-level three-point threat in Allen Crabbe; and, well... 56 mostly meh starts from Noah Vonleh, who at least doesn't turn 21 until late August.
Those contributions, plus what they got from Dame and CJ—well, that and some well-timed injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin—thrust the Blazers into a second-round series with the then-inevitable Warriors. Portland made that series fun, but simply didn't have enough in the way of defense to do anything more than make things a little difficult for the Dubs. That team, which lasted five games against the Warriors, is the one that the Blazers just finished spending a small fortune to keep intact.
Since free agency began, the Blazers have thrown Paul Allen's money around like they were Leo on Jordan Belfort's yacht. GM Neil Olshey retained Leonard, Harkless, and Crabbe on new deals that pay them approximately $155.8 million combined over the next four years. On Monday, he extended McCollum's rookie contract for four years and approximately $106 million. And before he did any of that, he signed Evan Turner away from the Boston Celtics for four years and $70 million in the opening days of free agency. Those five deals plus the two-year, $15.1 million pact they handed Festus Ezeli push the total figure the Blazers have doled out this July over a third of a million dollars. It's $346.9 million, to be closer to exact. Even by the standards of this spendy NBA offseason, that's a lot.
Crabbe and Turner alone will make over $3.4 million more in 2016-17 than Crabbe, Aminu, Davis, Henderson, Leonard, Harkless, Plumlee, and Vonleh did in 2015-16. By 2017-18, Portland will be shelling out approximately $122 million to Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Turner, Harkless, Davis, Leonard, Aminu, and 2016 second-round pick Jake Layman. That figure, which already brings the Blazers to the brink of the projected 2018 luxury tax line, doesn't include Ezeli's non-guaranteed $7.7 million, Plumlee's $3.4 million qualifying offer (let alone his much higher cap hold), the team options totaling approximately $5.9 million that Portland holds on Vonleh and Shabazz Napier, or the non-guaranteed total of just over $2 million they've committed to Luis Montero and Pat Connaughton.
Per Spotrac, Portland's 2017 salary commitments (less cap holds) total almost $32 MILLION more than the next closest team. And again, that figure doesn't include anything for their starting center (Plumlee) or the only remaining fruits of the Batum trade (Vonleh, who still can't legally drink). Throw Plumlee's cap hold on the books and their 2017-18 luxury tax bill works out to nearly $60 million, a figure that'll undoubtedly rise if and when Plumlee's actual contract comes in with a starting salary greater than $8.5 million.
All of which is to say that as of now, the Blazers are looking like a perennially capped out team that will be making luxury tax—and, eventually, repeater tax—payments for a while. And because of that, they're banking on a whole lot of internal improvement to get where they want to go. They don't have a choice, as they won't really be able to bring in any outside free agents due to their cap situation.
That means Lillard and McCollum, offensive stars that shoulder a huge burden but haven't yet shown themselves to be even average defenders, are going to have to make a pretty big leap and become positive forces on the less glamorous side of the floor. It means Crabbe is going to have to turn some of his potential into production. It means Harkless has to maintain last season's shooting efficiency while building on his gains in the rebounding and ball-moving departments, all while not losing a step defensively. It means Turner needs to prove his improvement in Boston wasn't just a Brad Stevens creation. It means Leonard has to do more than just pick and pop, and has to stay healthy. And it means making some hard choices about their big guys. Aminu, Ezeli, and Davis' contracts expire in 2018 and neither Plumlee nor Vonleh are currently signed beyond this year. It's not financially feasible to retain them all. Even if it were, they'd still need all those guys to make gains on one side of the floor or the other.
Luckily for Portland, it can likely count on at least some of those improvements actually coming to pass. Improvement in basketball isn't as linear as we sometimes assume it is, but the Blazers were the NBA's fifth-youngest team by minutes-weighted age last season and swapping Henderson for Turner and Chris Kaman for Ezeli made them even younger. Portland's guys won't magically get better just because they're getting older and gaining experience, and they may not get better at all. But at the very least, nobody in the long-term core is sure to suffer from age-related decline. Turner's the oldest guy on the roster and he won't turn 28 until the third day of the regular season. So long as they stay healthy, the Blazers should still be a team on the rise.
It's just not clear if that rise will be enough to put them over the top, especially with a potential long-term superpower burgeoning in the Bay Area. Given that team, and given the careers-to-date of Portland's core and the general lack of high-level defensive potential on the roster, the answer appears to be "probably not." Barring enough internal gains to push past the Warriors, the only way the Blazers will be able to take the step after the next step will be via trade. And that's why it's entirely possible that Olshey's summer spending spree was actually at least in part his version of Ujiri-ing.
In December 2011, former Nuggets GM and current Raptors GM Masai Ujiri handed Nene a five-year, $67 million contract. Four months later, he sent Nene packing to Washington in exchange for JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf. Rather than just let Nene walk out the door because the price tag wasn't something he was comfortable with, Ujiri paid him anyway, betting that some other team would think he was worth the cash in time. He was right, and if McGee hadn't been such a doofus, the Nuggets would've benefitted from Ujiri's foresight even more. It's not difficult to imagine the same thing happening with one or more of the guys the Blazers paid this summer somewhere down the line.
There's no telling who it might be, or when, or what type of player the Blazers might target if they do decide to go that route. Maybe the plan is to field-test the core a bit longer to see where that improvement needs to be made. But a move will have to be made at some point. Financial situation aside, the Blazers just can't be finished yet.