From The Elbow #13: Growing Gradually

Amid the noise of free agency, the Blazers have quietly improved.

The eyes of the sports world were fixed intently on the NBA as soon as the bell rung on the annual free agency period. The prize catch, Dwight Howard, proved to be just a little more competent with social media than many leading news agencies, and just slightly less annoying than Amanda Bynes, adding a bit of new media theatricality to the over-hyped proceedings.

When the dust settled, and the proper dues had been paid as to which national basketball journalist pulled the trigger first on announcing Howard’s announcement, the Houston Rockets had inherited a 6-foot 11-inch headache from the Los Angeles Lakers, and speculation had already begun as to how the league would compensate the losing team in the battle for Dwight Howard. Considering that a failing Laker franchise is at the top of the list of worst things that could happen to the NBA, LA's recompense might go by the name Andrew Wiggins.

Out in the Pacific Northwest, things weren’t quite as frantic or frenetic. The wild speculation on a LaMarcus Aldridge trade for the betterment of the Blazers’ long-term future turned out to be both wild and speculative. A small market like Portland making a big splash in cash-on-the-barrel free agency deals was a non-starter. 

At the end of the day, the Blazers were content to watch a couple major market teams scramble to make a happy home for Dwight Howard. Portland brass was probably even a little bit excited to watch as the Golden State Warriors, a Western Conference rival and fellow small market franchise that has been hand-picked as the NBA’s next team to watch, dumped a couple major contributors in an effort to make room for Howard only to fall short and end up with perpetual underachiever Andre Iguodala.

That doesn’t mean the Blazers stood idly by as the rest of the league re-loaded (or unloaded, as the case may be, in the second most important race, the one to the very bottom of the standings), far from it. In fact, the Blazers made so many shrewd and calculated moves that Bill Simmons, ESPN’s resident Blazer-fan Troller in Chief, couldn’t help but congratulate Rip City on Twitter.

So what were those moves? And what do they mean for the Blazers’ future?

Well, the most significant move included playing facilitator in a deal between the Sacramento Kings and the newly re-named New Orleans Pelicans. The Blazers helped the Pelicans (it sounds odd, but people will come around to the name) acquire Tyreke Evans, and for their trouble they brought home Robin Lopez. 

Starting his sixth season in the NBA, Lopez is a solid seven-footer with a wealth of experience to his credit. Though not an All-Star like his twin brother in Brooklyn, Lopez is a distinct upgrade from what the Blazers had in the way of experienced centers in 2012-13, which was nobody.

After locking up Lopez, General Manager Neil Olshey proceeded to fill in the Blazers’ roster holes with serviceable vets available on the cheap. Dorell Wright comes to Portland from the Philadelphia 76ers, bringing with him an NBA Championship, nine professional seasons, and a lifetime average of 36% shooting from behind the three-point line

Earl Watson, one of the many outstanding point guards produced by UCLA, may have his best NBA days behind him, but has expressed an interest in helping groom Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

"We've had a busy and productive couple of weeks. These guys are the result of it," General Manager Neil Olshey said in an introductory press conference last week for the newest Blazers including Thomas Robinson, aquired from the Houston Rockets in an effort to make room for Dwight Howard. "They're going to make for a much stronger, more competitive team this year. I appreciate all of them these being so gracious and excited about coming to Portland." 

Regardless of what Lopez, Wright, Robinson, or Watson add to the Blazers in the near-term, none of the four is making all that much, and not one is signed for more than two years. In short, Olshey is hedging his bets.

If the new additions pay off, and the Blazers are back in contention in 2013-14, Olshey wins because those were his moves. If the Blazers struggle through the first half of the season, the roster is ready-made to blow up. Every new contract is movable, LaMarcus Aldridge will still be trade bait, and best of all, the Blazers aren’t on the hook for any massive deals nobody wants to take on for players no Blazer fan wants to watch. It’s about as close to a win-win as can be expected.

Certainly there will be Blazer fans upset with what has transpired in the last few days. Many will lament the fact that Eric Maynor, so prized and pivotal in last-season’s second half, switched coasts without so much as a peep. The real die-hards have already cried foul on the abandonment of Elliot Williams, the embodiment of potential with a penchant for season-ending injuries. Real masochists will be watching Jeff Withey in New Orleans, a steal in the second round of this most recent draft, and won’t hesitate to make their voices heard when he has a good game and Robin Lopez does not. Even a few deluded Blazer fans are not impressed that J.J. Hickson was allowed to skip town for Denver.

Such is the plight of Blazer fans: it could always be better.

A few favorites chopped from the 2012-13 roster notwithstanding, the Blazers as they stand following free agency are significantly improved. Improvement, however gradual, is what the off-season and free agency is for after all.

"I think we're well on our way. We've increased our talent base, we've added assets." Olshey said. "We've added guys that are still in the prime of their career that can continue to grow with this roster. We're setting ourselves up for a long run without really giving up any long-term flexibility."

Mike Acker is the former editor of the Blazers fan site Rip City Project. Follow him on Twitter: @mikeacker