The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2011-12 season started terribly when Brandon Roy announced his retirement, and then it got worse. It got worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, to the point that they fell behind by 43 points in a recent loss to the Celtics, and damn near surpassed that with a 42-point loss Wednesday night to a team whose coach quit earlier that morning. And then yesterday, it got worse.
Or, if you like, better.
With two deals, and the firing of coach Nate McMillan, Portland didn’t so much press the reset button today as park a bus on top of it. They dealt Gerald Wallace to New Jersey for an expiring salary, a dead salary, and a potentially lucrative pick, and followed that with a second deal that sent Marcus Camby to Houston for Jonny Flynn, Hasheem Thabeet and a second round draft pick. They’ve enjoyed and suffered through the busiest day of anyone since Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” but in doing so, they may have stopped the rot.
What they didn’t do was what we most expected them to do — trade their backcourt. But it wasn’t for a lack of wanting to. Raymond Felton is in the midst of an absolutely terrible year on the court, turning it over too often, having more field goal attempts than points, demonstrating scant little understanding of time and score and yet seemingly not being too bothered about the whole thing. Off the court, he has one-upped that by leading a “revolt” against head coach Nate McMillan. In between his poor play and toxic behavior, Felton has made himself thoroughly undesirable, even (it seems) as an expiring $7.6 million contract.
The Blazers searched “desperately” for a taker for Felton, and the only option with traction was a swap with the Lakers centered around Steve Blake. But Blake has two guaranteed years of salary after this one, whereas Felton expires this summer. Felton may have been a mistake, but compounding it with another one solved nothing. So, for now at least, Felton stays.
Similarly, prized offseason acquisition Jamal Crawford was shopped all over the show, and no one offered enough. The L.A. Clippers offered Ryan Gomes, but the Blazers balked at it on account of Gomes’ guaranteed salary for next year. The same is true of the Lakers’ offer of Derek Fisher. The Timberwolves talked about a swap for Michael Beasley, but changed their minds, and the teams who competed with Portland for Crawford this summer — Chicago and Sacramento — no longer seemed interested. In between shooting 40 percent and selling out his coach, it appeared that like Felton, Crawford ruined his own trade value. And rather than committing to unwanted salary, the Blazers preferred to gamble on him opting out.
While those two survived the cull, a third supposed problem child did not. Not so long ago, whilst making known to the public the depth of the problems with Felton and Crawford, John Canzano also openly cited Camby and his “lethargy” as part of the problem with the team. Combined with the almost 350 career games that the near-38 year old has missed in his career, his declined athleticism, and almost total lack of contribution as an offensive player these days, Camby’s trade value has diminished to this point, a point where he’s dealt for nothing more than two emphatic draft busts and a pick in the 50′s.
The Blazers hope for addition by subtraction. The Rockets hope to score a cheap starter. Both might be right. For whatever reason, Houston thrives on rejects and misfits. Channeling the 1999 Spurs, they actively seek them out, which is why they had Flynn and Thabeet in the first place. It cost them a first rounder to get Flynn, and it cost them a second to move him; in light of what has transpired this season, Camby can be considered a reject, thereby continuing this trend.
Nevertheless, this is nothing but a short rental. All salaries involved in the deal were expiring. Houston had previously declined the team options on both Flynn and Thabeet, two former top six picks not even making it to the end of their rookie scale contracts. This is not the answer to Houston’s center search. This a rental for a second round pick. And Portland knows this too.
Portland will look at Flynn, a man who averaged 13.5 points and 4.4 assists as a rookie only two short years ago, to see if there’s still a spark in the fire. With Armon Johnson given up on, the Blazers have nothing non-negotiable projected long term at point guard, and no one signed long term except Nolan Smith. They might even give more than a cursory look at Thabeet, although it won’t take long to notice that a bowl of guacamole may be of more use. Ostensibly, however, the move is little more than a rent (and a dump) of Marcus Camby. Such is the nature of a house clearance.
The Gerald Wallace trade, too, cleared the house. Wallace wasn’t the problem, but trading him was a solution. Aside from LaMarcus Aldridge, everyone else was available, and Wallace commanded the most value. It was nothing personal, but strictly business.
Trading Wallace set the Blazers up with more future assets than just the pick they returned. With his 2012-13 $9.5 million player option salary cleared off the books, offset in the deal only with Shawne Williams’s $3.15 million option year instead, the Blazers are looking at an awful lot of financial clout. Even when cap holds for their two 2012 picks, as well as still-unsigned first round picks Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, and notwithstanding free agent cap holds on Nic Batum and Greg Oden, the Blazers will have something approaching maximum cap room in the summer if Crawford opts out, means to land a further infusion of premier talent to go alongside their young big man superstar. An all it cost them was two declining non-All-Stars.
As rebuilds go, that was pretty quick. However, the cringeworthy implosion that brought forth this power-rebuild claimed one more casualty, one not so easy to digest. The coach always goes when a team underachieves this badly, and Nate McMillan is no exception. It doesn’t look good when players lead a revolt against the coach and the coach is the one to go. This is particularly true when the players have been there for mere weeks, whereas the coach is (or was) the fourth-longest tenured in the NBA. It smells of pandering to player power, a position no franchise must ever submit itself to.
Ultimately, though, that matters not. This isn’t that. In a few months, everyone will be gone. Nate is already gone. Felton and Crawford are staring down buyouts. Few others are signed beyond this year. Even the General Manager works with the word “interim” in his title. Succinctly put, Portland are turning it all over.
It is tough to say what McMillan did wrong, other than be disliked by the players. That, however, is enough. McMillan had a fine run in seven years in Portland, overseeing several roster turnovers and front office reorganizations on his way to a 266-269 record. He will land elsewhere in time — reuniting with Rich Cho in Charlotte is a logical future unison — but the Blazers, unable to put out the fire, extinguished the accelerant instead. For now, no alternative existed.
For whatever reason, McMillan lost them. A coach not respected is a coach not able to communicate anything, and a coach who can’t communicate anything is a coach who can’t coach. Since Nate couldn’t coach, Nate couldn’t be coach. Instead, the Blazers turn their team over, on an interim basis for now, to a 33-year-old former video co-ordinator, who was a mere intern with the team as recently as seven years ago. As with the playing staff decisions, it is out with the old, and in with the new.
And yet, as with the playing staff, it feels good to downgrade. Instead of rotting at the core, the team can now grow from within.
Portland have nothing cemented in their future, which works in their favor. They now have absolute flexibility over everything, from payroll to personnel, and genuine prosperity from incumbent talents, both coaching and playing staff. They have young talent, more to come, plenty of cap space, and a touted coaching prospect in place. They’ve been bad, much more painfully so than a near-.500 record attests to, and they’ve had to get worse to get better. But in one day, they’ve done just that.
Isn’t that how a rebuild is supposed to be?