With the possibility of major roster changes looming once free agency opens, the Blazers dealt a longtime member of their core on Wednesday, sending Nicolas Batum to the Hornets in exchange for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson.
Batum, 26, averaged 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists last season in a down year. The French small forward is set to make $12.2 million in 2015-16, the final year of his current contract.
Vonleh, 19, was the No. 9 pick in last year's draft. The 6'10" power forward averaged 3.3 points and 3.4 rebounds in 25 appearances as a rookie.
Henderson, 27, averaged 12.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists over 80 appearances in 2014-15. The seven-year pro has spent the entirety of his career in Charlotte. Henderson will make $6 million in 2015-16, the final year of his current contract.
Let's grade the trade for Portland and Charlotte.
What's sure to be a busy summer in the Rose City is off to an early start. Four short months after Blazers GM Neil Olshey traded a first-round pick for Arron Afflalo with a title pursuit in mind, Portland has reversed course, sending out a longtime starter for a high-upside prospect and a capable, but unspectacular, rotation player. Of course, a lot has happened in those four months: a series of injuries made a deep playoff run improbable, Wesley Matthews was lost to a season-ending and perhaps career-altering torn Achilles, the Grizzlies humbled the Blazers in a five-game first-round playoff series, and franchise centerpiece LaMarcus Aldridge appeared to distance himself from his teammates in advance of his upcoming unrestricted free agency.
The trade of Batum, in this context, can be read in two two different ways: 1) it's a preemptive cost-cutting measure before what is guaranteed to be an expensive summer, or 2) it's the first step in planning for a post-Aldridge reality.
Under the first scenario, Olshey is happy to shed $3.6 million from his payroll, knowing that he will need to max out Aldridge, ink Matthews to a long-term extension that will likely run eight figures a year, and re-sign starting center Robin Lopez, who is also likely to command a significant raise over his $6.1 million salary. Vonleh enters as a long-term developmental piece behind Aldridge and Henderson becomes insurance against the possible departure(s) of Matthews and/or Afflalo.
The big problem here is that it will be incredibly difficult to replace Batum's production—as disappointing as it was in 2014-15—if Portland does pay up to keep its major free agents. A member of the Blazers since he was drafted in 2008, Batum has filled a vital role in recent years as a complementary scorer, a secondary ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, and as a versatile perimeter defender capable of handling multiple positions. Even if Batum was the least important and most overpaid member of the Blazers' starters, which he certainly was, his exit comes at a real cost for a team that won 54 games in 2013-14 and 51 games in 2014-15. Last season, Portland's starters posted an excellent +10.7 net rating in more than 600 minutes together, and the Blazers' outside shot at competing for the 2015 title was heavily reliant upon the strong chemistry and balance of that unit. Trading Batum breaks up that success for good, with no clear path to reassembling a similarly effective quintet in the short-term. The Blazers' bench, one of the worst in the NBA for seasons, is utterly lacking in promotion candidates, and the 6'5" Henderson lacks Batum's size and length.
Under the second scenario, Olshey turned Batum's expiring contract into a top-10 prospect with the potential to be a big-time impact player down the road. Portland reportedly weighed trade offers for Batum throughout last season, with Blazers coach Terry Stotts choosing to stick with his struggling forward once no deal materialized. This move frees the Blazers from the seemingly endless wait for Batum to regain his top form, while also introducing a prospect whose 7'4" wingspan left scouts salivating last year to a bench that desperately needs whatever help it can get.
Although Vonleh clearly isn't ready to step into the massive hole that would be created by Aldridge's departure, he could function as part of a platoon group as he matures before potentially blossoming into a full-time guy in a few years. Big picture, Vonleh could be on track to join a younger core that might include recent Blazers lottery picks Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard, or he could stand as a very liquid trade chip.
Frankly, as unsettling as this might be to Blazers fans, this trade makes more sense under the second scenario than the first. Aldridge and Batum spent the last seven seasons together in Portland, going through the ups and downs of the Brandon Roy and Greg Oden experiences while also playing for Nate McMillan, Kaleb Canales and Stotts. Now, the Blazers are asking a 29-year-old Aldridge, who has made it clear that winning is a top priority considering he's advanced out of the first round just once during his nine-year career, to say goodbye to a longtime running mate without making a short-term upgrade. Aldridge might reasonably wonder, very reasonably, how a teenager and Henderson will improve Portland's 2016 championship hopes.
The message from Olshey to Aldridge seems clear: Portland still has to go about its business, and the franchise's long-term roster-building will take precedence over placating any individual player, even its All-NBA power forward. And, if one removes the Aldridge factor from the assessment, this absolutely looks like a deal worth doing. Batum has almost certainly peaked as a player, his season-long inconsistency was maddening, and he will need to be paid again next summer. Why not trade those headaches for a little hope?
Ironically, if Aldridge does depart come July, it will likely be because he reached the same conclusion as Olshey: that the Blazers' core just didn't have enough to get it done after Matthews's Achilles tear, with or without Batum.
Michael Jordan's impatience is legendary, but giving up on a 19-year-old project less than 12 months after drafting him is especially impressive, even by the Hornets owner's standards.
To be clear, Jordan has every reason to be frustrated after a 33-win campaign that represented a major step back from Charlotte's appearance in the 2014 playoffs. Step one was to ship out his chief headache, Lance Stephenson, in a deal with the Clippers. Step two is to add Batum, a proven two-way contributor, to a talent-deficient roster that can use all the offensive spacing and defensive versatility it can get. Step three, according to the Charlotte Observer, will be to acquire 23-year-old shooting guard Jeremy Lamb from the Thunder to help offset Henderson's departure.
Batum addresses some issues for the Hornets, even if he's not equipped to solve all of their problems. Charlotte has desperately needed to add shooting for multiple years, and Batum is a career 36.3% three-point shooter (even though he shot a career-worst 32.4% last year). Charlotte needs complementary pieces on offense, given the presence of ball-dominant guard Kemba Walker and high-usage center Al Jefferson, and Batum has played that role his entire career, alongside the likes of Aldridge, Lillard, and Roy. Charlotte needs a wing that can serve as an alternate play-maker, given Stephenson's departure and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's limited skillset, and Batum offers a little bit of that in a pinch. Charlotte needs all the reliable contributors it can get, as it's had a tendency to cycle through a lot of players in recent years, and Batum has averaged 30-plus minutes in each of the last five seasons.
Hornets GM Rich Cho, who previously held the same position with the Blazers, will be hoping that Batum enjoys a nice bounceback season in a contract year. Last year, Batum complained of nagging injuries and seemed to show signs of fatigue from playing year-round, and his production was off considerably from the four previous seasons. Assuming he comes back rested and refreshed, there's good reason to believe in a return to form. Hornets coach Steve Clifford will like the idea of having two interchangeable defenders in Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist at his disposal, and Batum's arrival could open up the possibility of more small ball lineups using Kidd-Gilchrist at the four.
Although Vonleh remains a totally unproven commodity in the NBA, a team in Charlotte's position needs to rely on internal development if it hopes to sustain excellence. Batum plugs in a nice Band-Aid, and this trade will likely look very favorable to the Hornets 12 months from now. But Batum's addition doesn't drastically affect the Hornets' ceiling, and it's unlikely to swing a first-round series. Is it really worth tossing away a top-10 pick to chase a reality that's only slightly better than mediocre? Probably not, especially when Batum arrives with only one year of cost certainty and no particular allegiance to the Hornets once he becomes a free agent next summer. In the end, forfeiting Vonleh's potential and low-cost rookie contract in favor of Batum's inconsistency and the possibility of a one-and-done tenure looks impulsive.