NBA free agency.
It’s a time for teams to get better, and that’s exactly what the Portland Trail Blazers did with the shrewd signings of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake.
Although Portland, tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, didn’t make many headlines with these acquisitions, it’s clear that they’re going to be rotation players in the 2013-14 season. Steve Blake, while not a clear upgrade from Mo Williams, will bring gritty defense and solid shooting off the bench, and Chris Kaman is going to be far more reliable than Meyers Leonard or Joel Freeland as long as he can stay healthy.
While we know the Blazers will be deeper this upcoming season, we must first evaluate how the rest of the league has done in free agency before we surmise that the team will take a step forward in the coming year.
Although the East has made most of the headlines this summer, the West is where Portland’s focus will be this next season. In fact, the idea that things have been quiet in the Western Conference actually helps the Blazers, as big-time moves would have meant improvement for the competition.
Let’s start with a familiar foe: the Houston Rockets. Clutch City has been known for swinging and missing on stars in years past, and wouldn’t you know it, Darly Morey and crew stuck to the same narrative in the summer of 2014.
Houston entered the summer, following a heartbreaking defeat to the Blazers, with the Dallas Mavericks signing restricted free-agent Chandler Parsons to a three-year deal worth approximately $46 million. The team still has a chance to match that offer, but the idea at the start was that it would seek top-tier talent before deciding on such a young player.
With visions of superstars running through its head, Houston went out on the prowl. LeBron James was a pipe dream, but one worth sending a pitch. The dream never became a reality, but that was expected.
Then a more realistic target made an in-person visit; that target being Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately for the Rockets, Melo decided to re-sign with the New York Knicks for a massive payday.
Yahoo Sources: Carmelo Anthony finalizing 5-year, $120M-plus deal with the New York Knicks. http://t.co/Abwsmz2phz
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 12, 2014
Once LeBron made his move — a move to return home to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers next season — Houston had its most reasonable target open up in Chris Bosh. The team traded Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers in order to clear cap space, but as it turned out, Bosh returned to South Beach for a big-time contract, making Houston’s big signing of the summer Trevor Ariza.
As for those Lakers, they were potential suitors for big names as well, namely James, Anthony and Luol Deng. Unfortunately for Mitch Kupchak’s crew, the team from SoCal has been passed on by all three, as Deng has reportedly signed with the Miami Heat.
Not only did L.A. miss out on its targets, but it has officially severed ties with long-time power forward/center Pau Gasol. Not only does this help Portland from a Blazers-Lakers standpoint, but it’s crucial where he went. The Spaniard landed in Chicago to play alongside Derrick Rose when he could have gone to either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, giving Portland even stiffer competition at the top of the conference.
At this point, there are three teams out West that have benefited from free agency. First and foremost, the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clips were able to convince Spencer Hawes to sign with them over the Blazers, giving them a true center to come off the bench and make a difference — something they’ve been missing for quite some time.
Along with L.A., the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns have added pieces. Memphis added Vince Carter (someone who was at one time “open” to playing with Portland) to finally give it some perimeter scoring, while Phoenix acquired former Washington Husky Isaiah Thomas.
*Note that the Suns have not come to terms with Eric Bledsoe as of noon P.T., but that move, whether he stays or goes, will impact Phoenix’s roster drastically.
The Blazers don’t play in the Eastern Conference. So why cover them at all, right? In an ideal world, Portland will be playing for a Larry O’Brien Trophy sooner rather than later, and if this is the case, this summer could have a drastic impact on the Blazers’ odds for a championship.
We’ve already hit on which moves helped the Blazers the most. Chicago stealing Gasol away from Los Angeles, San Antonio and OKC is huge. Melo and LeBron staying out East instead of helping the potential powerhouse that could have been the Rockets is equally as important.
The theme to consider, however, is the rankings out East. If Portland had made the finals in any of the past four seasons, it would have been Miami’s to lose. The Heat made it four years in a row, and while they went 2-2, they would have been heavy favorites over Portland in all four series.
Next season, the balance in the conference is going to feature more parity than the past four years, and that’s not necessarily because everyone got better. Teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards are improving, but there’s no long one clear alpha team out East.
If Portland can have a miracle of a season, it will be up against a squad (whoever it may be) that is far more equal to what the Blazers offer than it would have been in the past.
Don’t hold your breath for a championship this season, but note that while nobody will be talking about the moves the Blazers made this summer, things are looking up in Rip City.