The Blazers' Oregon Trail to contention

Harry How/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers didn't want to pay Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe a combined $35 million per season on mega-deals that will be hard to trade -- a problem for a suddenly capped-out team that can only jolt the roster by swapping players.

They wanted Hassan Whiteside, a sneering rim-runner just a year older than Damian Lillard with the potential to plug every hole in a squishy defense that ranked 21st in points allowed per possession last season.

When Whiteside spurned them, the Blazers faced a choice: hoard cap room, pursue a lesser center (Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi), or go whole hog in a fit of irrational exuberance with a team that barely cracked .500. The first path risked spoiling the good vibes of their plucky 44-win season. To maintain even $15 million in room for July 2017, not nearly enough for one max player, the Blazers would have had to choose between Turner and Crabbe; let both Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless walk; delay C.J. McCollum's extension, cracking the door to funky three-year offer sheets from rivals; and fill the roster in the meantime with one-year contracts.

All that for cap room in an isolated market in which undrafted Wes Matthews remains the most significant outside free-agent acquisition of the past decade. "Good players on favorable contracts are more valuable to us than cap room," Blazers GM Neil Olshey told ESPN.com. "Especially in an era where all 30 teams have cap room -- or the ability to get it." The Blazers don't have as much time to wait as you might think; Lillard and McCollum are 26 and 24, squarely in their primes. "With our interest in extending C.J., we weren't going to be a cap room team next year, anyway," Olshey said.

Crabbe and Turner are not on favorable contracts. Turner's deal could end up a disaster, and doing nothing is always a better choice than disaster. The Blazers will barely duck the luxury tax this season, and if they keep this roster together long-term -- which is unlikely -- they would blow past it by nearly $20 million in 2018 and 2019. (A potential amnesty clause in the next collective bargaining deal looms as a wild-card, though the two sides haven't discussed it yet).

They have the payroll of a championship contender, and fair or not, that creates expectations Portland is already tuning out. "We are probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate," said Portland head coach Terry Stotts, owner of a much-deserved big-money extension. "As a coach, you take the money out of it. We just want to grow."

Young teams grow with watering, and the Blazers, expert nurturers, aimed their win-now splurge mostly at young-ish wing players well-suited to a league trending smaller and faster; there is no Tyson Chandler mid-30s appendage here. Portland will start Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, carrying over a late-season adjustment that jump-started them, and play Aminu there almost exclusively, Stotts said. (Uh oh, Noah Vonleh.)

The offense will be fine. The Blazers mostly cycled back the same roster, and they are betting the defense stiffens as the players spend more time in Stotts' conservative scheme. "The kind of continuity we have can be hard to find today," Stotts said.

Lillard has instilled a culture of work and selflessness that will trump any temptation to laze in new wealth.

"When Dame talks," Meyers Leonard said, "people listen."

When one recent draft pick entered the league carrying a whiff of entitlement, sources say, the coaching staff pointed at Lillard: He's way better than you, and he's working harder.

"The money won't be a factor," McCollum said. "Everyone is still hungry. Guys are already talking about their next contracts. We aren't going to lose the chip on our shoulder."

It's fair to wonder what exactly these Blazers are, and whether all that spending made them any better. They won 44 games and snagged the No. 5 seed last season when every mid-tier Western Conference team crapped out. They eked past the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round after L.A. lost their two best players for the series in Game 4.

You could argue all of Turner, Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless are replaceable, with huge holes in their games. Portland absolutely could have found, say, 80 percent of Turner and Crabbe's production on the cheap. The wing position is so thin league wide, the market for merely decent guys like Turner, Crabbe, Harrison Barnes and Kent Bazemore exploded out of proportion with the rising salary cap.

A lot of teams have fled those deals, and kicked the can. The Atlanta Hawks spent most of the past three seasons rustling through the scrap heap, hoping to develop cheapo benchwarmers into rotation guys. On the pricier side, a bunch of teams this summer inked veterans such as Jeff Green, Dwyane Wade, Gerald Henderson, Joe Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Arron Afflalo to one- or two-year deals that do no lasting damage to their cap sheets.

In theory, both those routes are "smarter" than overpaying Turner and Crabbe. Teams that are one star away from the contender's circle need to turn every roster spot into an asset that could somehow net that star -- either via trade or free agency.

Trawling for the next Robert Covington, DeMarre Carroll or Bazemore on a multi-year deal brings the hope of both keeping cap room and conjuring a trade chip from nothing. Portland's starting lineup with Harkless outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions; why not just keep him, sign a Joe Johnson/Gerald Henderson type to a one-year deal, sift for some bargains that will probably bust, win about the same number of games and stay lean?

But all those possibilities -- a free agent star choosing Portland, a minimum-salaried wing blossoming into a killer trade asset -- are extreme long shots. Portland might be trapping themselves into long-term pretty good-ness, but that was the likely result of almost any series of moves. One alternate path -- keeping Nicolas Batum and using a decent chunk of cap space last month -- expired when the Blazers traded Batum to Charlotte.

Pivoting from Whiteside to a Hawks-level offer for Dwight Howard would have been interesting; there's some chance Howard rediscovers his All-Star form, and a connected chance that a rejuvenated Howard catapults Portland into a 55-win team. But Howard is 30, and the Blazers -- like most teams -- wanted no part of a long-term commitment to him.

There's nothing wrong with being pretty good, especially for a younger team. "Every organization's goal is to win a championship," Olshey said, "but when did making the Sweet 16 or Elite 8 -- to use college parlance -- become not good enough while a team is building toward it?" With Kevin Durant at Golden State, the West is like a middle-aged man: fatter in the middle, and thinning up top. The San Antonio Spurs will take a step back this season, and their long-term roster around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge is a mystery. Every important Clipper aside from DeAndre Jordan will hit free agency in 11 months.

If Portland improves and catches some breaks at the right time, they could make the conference finals in two or three years.

And look again at all those alternatives on the wing. The guys on one-year deals (or two-year deals with player options) -- Wade, Green, Henderson -- have zero trade value precisely because their deals expire so soon. No one wants Dion Waiters. Johnson and Jared Dudley are mostly power forwards at this point, and much older than Portland's core players. Luol Deng represents a better win-now option than Turner, but he's 31 with a ton of mileage.

Henderson was a non-threat from deep before Stotts let him fire, and he's not a dynamic drive-and-dish guy. The search for all-around wings in the NBA is desperate. The shooters can't defend or make plays; the playmakers and defenders can't shoot. Some of the proven free-agent 3-point shooters, such as Eric Gordon and Courtney Lee, don't have the size to check small forwards -- a requirement in Portland, since McCollum has the shooting guard spot on lock.

Even the administrators at Mike Budenholzer's School For Anonymous Wings tired of tutoring projects and finally bit the bullet on a $70 million deal to keep Bazemore.

It's disturbingly easy to talk yourself into big deals for Turner and Crabbe. Turner can make plays, Crabbe shot 39 percent from deep (on mostly open looks, mind you), and both are big enough to check either wing position on most nights. Polish the rough spots, and each could turn into at least the facsimile of a do-it-all wing player every team needs.

"The way the game is being played, plus the dearth of available wings, made us willing to pay a premium for two impact players that fit our model," Olshey said.

Those rough edges are rough, though. Turner made 20 3-pointers last season, embarrassing for a wing, and teams will ignore him to strangle Portland's spacing when he doesn't have the ball.

The Blazers will give Turner the green light, and they're confident he'll hit enough catch-and-shoot looks in Stotts' free-flowing system. "People make such a big deal out of his 3-point shooting," Stotts said. "He'll shoot it better for us."

Portland coveted Turner for his ball-handling; they worried they didn't have enough guys who could dribble and pass last season when either Lillard or McCollum rested -- a minutes hole that shrinks in the post-season. If one got hurt in the playoffs, they were toast. The offense felt aimless; Mason Plumlee became their de facto point guard when defenses trapped Portland's stars on the pick-and-roll. Aminu and Harkless either burped open 3s, or drove without a plan straight toward defenders awaiting them in the paint.

Those same defenders will be lagging off Turner, too, but he's a deft drive-and-kick passer with an array of herky-jerky finishes in his bag.

But Turner needs the ball to play up to this contract, and if he has it, Lillard and McCollum -- much better players -- do not. Both are good enough shooters to be dangerous scurrying around picks off the ball while Turner acts as Portland's Andre Iguodala. A few minutes after Portland had agreed to terms with Turner, Stotts sent both McCollum and Lillard a 30-minute montage of Turner highlights; McCollum watched on a beach in the Dominican Republic and envisioned ways they could fit.

"People questioned whether Dame and I were too similar, and we thrived," McCollum said. "It's going to be the same with Evan. We're both comfortable off the ball."

The Blazers will explore Turner's post-up game, just as they did with Matthews, and script sequences in which he catches a pass just as a screener arrives -- a quick-attack antidote to his occasional over-dribbling.

Still, the Blazers should maximize the time Turner plays with only one of their star guards, and that means either bringing him off the bench or yanking someone early in both the first and third quarters. Stotts refuted reports that the team has already decided Turner will start. "I won't even say for sure what our starting lineup will be in training camp," he said. "That's what training camp is for."

Portland should at least consider starting Crabbe at small forward. Even with Aminu sliding down a position, the Blazers still don't have a ton of shooting without either Crabbe or Leonard on the floor. The Crabbe-y version of the starters blitzed opponents by seven points per 100 possessions last season, and Crabbe is smart about skulking into open spaces when his man turns to watch the Lillard-and-McCollum show.

He's still finding his way as a penetrator. He has the assist rate of a plodding center, and he settles for too many pull-ups after blowing by defenders who chase him off the arc.

But he's unselfish, with good vision. Trade some long 2-pointers for plays like this, and the Blazers will really have something.

Crabbe is also tall enough to launch 3s over little guys, a boon for Portland when opponents slot a wing onto Lillard -- and stash their point guards on Crabbe.

He should develop into a solid defender. Crabbe slithers around screens, reads the game well, and works hard. Coaches for the Warriors and Clippers were impressed by Crabbe's postseason work guarding Klay Thompson and Jamal Crawford.

But he's a poor rebounder, without elite length or athleticism to compensate for a size disadvantage against bulkier small forwards. Turner is a stronger rebounder, but faces the same size issues. Don't be shocked if the Blazers kick around starting Harkless to stabilize the defense, even if bringing two $17 million guys off the bench is NBA sacrilege.

For all the "who will have the ball?" shrieking, defense will determine Portland's future. When Portland amped it up on that end, they played well -- especially during the scorching 18-4 winter run that saved their season. They were 32-40 combined before and after that stretch, including the playoffs, and mostly struggled on defense.

The Blazers are right to bank on organic improvement. Typical sins of youth dot their worst possessions, and the Blazers will iron some of that out as they grow together. Look at all the self-sabotage they fit into 10 seconds: a botched switch on a simple hand-off; Lillard slamming into a pick; Harkless up top lunging for a no-chance-in-hell steal; and both Plumlee and Aminu shrugging off rim protection duties:

Lillard and Harkless lose a lot of bad bets.

"There's a fine line," Stotts said last season. "We want them to stunt and be tight in the lane. We don't want gambling, going for steals, losing your man."

Small blips of inattention cascade to become emergencies. Only two teams fouled more often than Portland, and only three had a worse free throw differential. "Part of it is inexperience," Stotts said. "Experienced teams know how to defend without fouling."

Portland will bend the math with a drop-back system designed to barricade the rim, hug the 3-point arc and force teams into midrange jumpers. Even last season, they allowed the sort of shot distribution that would arouse Tom Thibodeau. Cut the errors, and perhaps the Blazers could sniff a ranking of 10th or 12th in points allowed per possession. A healthy Festus Ezeli would help, but no one knows if such a thing exists.

A healthy system can't eliminate structural weaknesses. Lillard is a minus defender, and he and McCollum will always be undersized as a duo. You can hide one, but not both. Golden State went nowhere until they busted up Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.

McCollum is a more well-rounded player than prime Ellis. But unless someone on this capped-out roster pops big-time, trading him might represent Portland's only path to acquiring another stud who might balance their team. None of their other big contracts, save Lillard's, are liquid yet, and they don't have extra picks to rival Boston, Philly or even Phoenix.

That's an issue for the future. The Blazers want to see where this team stacks up in the rejiggered West. It's natural to expect incremental improvement, but that isn't guaranteed. Portland could have a fine season, win 45-plus games, and bow out in the first round. That's fine. The Blazers are good, and they'll stay good with an uncertain path to the next tier up. Overspending this summer cluttered that path with obstacles, but it's hard to find a realistic alternative that would have cleared it up.