As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2016-17 title, The Post looks at what it has in store this offseason. The series continues with the Portland Trail Blazers, who were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
2017-18 salary cap space (with projected $102 million cap)
None. (12 players with $131 million in guaranteed contracts, three draft picks worth $5.7 million, $1.9 million in stretch payments to Anderson Varejao). Doesn’t include a partially guaranteed contract for Festus Ezeli and non-guaranteed contracts for Pat Connaughton and Tim Quarterman.
2017 free agents
Five questions to answer
1. Can this team be a long-term contender with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum?
This is the issue most relevant to the Trail Blazers as they enter the offseason. Not surprisingly, it was raised in General Manager Neil Olshey’s exit meetings.
“The odds of anything ever coming up of commensurate value is so hard to even fathom. I could give you the trite answer that nobody is untradeable, but clearly they are,” Olshey said.
Well, that’s that. However, if Portland can’t take a step forward next season, it will have to contemplate such a move at some point, given that both players have long-term deals.
2. Can Jusuf Nurkic do this for an entire season?
The Trail Blazers made one of the best trades of the season when they got Nurkic and a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets for Mason Plumlee. Not only did Portland shed Plumlee and what would’ve been another big contract this summer, but it got a monster in the middle in Nurkic, who provided exactly what they needed.
In 20 games in Portland, Nurkic averaged an eye-popping 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds, and the Blazers were an impressive 9.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. Obviously this was a small sample size, but Nurkic showed why he was a first-round pick three years ago.
Now he must prove he can do this over the course of a full season. If so, he’ll earn a rich contract extension next summer — and, in the process, he’ll give Portland the big man it desperately needs to pair with its high scoring backcourt.
3. Can Portland manage to shed any salaries?
The luxury tax line for next season is projected at around $121 million. The Blazers are already $12 million over it with just 12 players under contract, and if they just use their three first-round picks in this year’s draft, they will be approaching $140 million. Combined with luxury tax payments, that would have the Blazers spending roughly $175 million next season — an astronomical amount for a group that still looks destined for the bottom half of the West playoff picture.
So what can the Blazers do? Well, Portland likely will be exceedingly active at the NBA draft. Would, say, the Brooklyn Nets be interested in a first-round pick enough to take on Meyers Leonard’s contract (three years, $30 million remaining)?
It will be surprising if Portland doesn’t move on from at least one of the big contracts it handed out last summer to try to lower its tax bill.
4. Can Maurice Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu improve their shooting?
With Lillard and McCollum as a foundation, the team must surround them with versatile defenders and shooters. In Harkless and Aminu, the Trail Blazers have done the former.
But both could shoot better. Aminu went from a career high of 36 percent from three-point range two years ago to 32.9 percent this season; Harkless actually took a step forward to 35.1 percent from behind the arc. Those numbers are fine, given their defensive prowess.
If the Trail Blazers are going to become a contender, though, they would benefit greatly if at least one of them became an elite “3&D” wing. That means leaping into the high 30s or low 40s as a three-point shooter.
5. Can Evan Turner be salvaged?
The Evan Turner signing last summer was panned almost immediately by everyone outside of Portland. In Portland, the move was sold this way: Lillard and McCollum needed someone to take pressure off them and run the offense so they can score off the ball.
In this case, the wisdom of the masses proved correct. Turner was a disaster, shooting 26 percent from three-point range and Portland was 7.7 points per 100 possessions worse with Turner on the court.
The Blazers have to hope Turner can play better in Year 2. If not, the three years and nearly $54 million remaining on his deal will only look worse.