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No quick fix likely to help Blazer depth

Olshey's goal to give Core Four more support next season


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Hard-working Trail Blazers center J.J. Hickson is more likely to finish the season in Portland if the Blazers look like a playoff contender at the NBA trading deadline.There will be no quick-fix veteran free-agent signings to help the Trail Blazers in a run to the playoffs.

You’re not going to see the Blazers add a Josh Howard or Chris “Birdman” Andersen (ah, already gone to Miami) or a Kenyon Martin — although under different circumstances, general manager Neil Olshey wouldn’t mind adding the latter, who helped toughen up the Los Angeles Clippers down the stretch last season.

If Portland stays in the postseason picture, it’s also unlikely the local professional quintet will deal its one tradeable veteran commodity, center J.J. Hickson.

If the Blazers falter and appear lottery-bound as the Feb. 21 trade deadline approaches, however, all bets are off.

Olshey would then consider sending Hickson to a playoff team angling for a short-term rental of the high-energy but undersized center, who signed a one-year, $4-million contract with Portland last summer and becomes a free agent on July 1. Or perhaps to a team that would consider the double-double machine as a piece of its future and would offer the security of a long-term deal.

To make a trade, Hickson would have to approve the deal and waive his Larry Bird rights, a loophole that would allow him to make a little more money and add an extra year onto the potential length of his next contract.

Under that scenario, Olshey would be looking more for future assets than immediate help. And he wouldn’t take a player with an extended contract that would cut into Portland’s salary-cap room, which should exceed $12 million next summer.

Olshey is between a rock and a hard place with the Portland roster. The five starters are young, have played well and — aside from Hickson — are part of the GM’s plan moving forward. Unless another team offers a deal Olshey can’t refuse, he won’t move LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews.

The bench has been dreadful. Portland’s reserves have scored by far the fewest points in the league (16.5 per game; next-worst, Memphis at 25.2) with a point differential of minus-21.0 (next-worst, Cleveland at minus-12.0).

Rookie center Meyers Leonard — who missed a recent 11-game, three-week stint due to a sprained ankle — is shooting .560 from the field. None of the other eight Blazer subs is shooting as high as 37 percent.

That’s extraordinary, and perhaps unprecedented, at least in modern NBA history.

Offense is only part of the game, as coach Terry Stotts is always quick to point out, but the point differential is indicative of a serious flaw in production from the bench bunch.

Olshey is only partially responsible for the train wreck. Holdovers Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith and former draft picks Joel Freeland and Victor Claver are products of previous Blazer regimes.

Lillard, Leonard and Barton came along in this year’s draft. Lillard has played so superbly, the rookie of the year award is his to lose. Leonard’s upside is large. And Barton, a second-round pick, is a wild card who might pay off down the road because of his athleticism.

That leaves Pavlovic, Jared Jeffries and Ronnie Price, the three veteran offseason pickups after Olshey’s arrival in June.

Pavlovic was part of a three-team trade in July that sent second-round pick Jon Diebler to Houston and reaped a pair of second-round choices from Boston. Just prior to that, Jeffries came from New York along with three players who were waived and a second-round pick in the deal that sent Raymond Felton and Kurt Thomas to the Knicks.

Second-round selections are assets, though minor ones, and Olshey loves the acquisition of assets. You never know when they might pay off in a future deal.

Olshey needed to add a point guard to fill out the roster. He considered several other players but decided Price was the best option when addressing the three principles Olshey values most — character, chemistry and talent. Also, Price got to know Lillard while both were in Utah (Price with the Jazz, Lillard at Weber State), and they had a relationship there.

Jeffries and Price are high-quality people who fit in well with their teammates in Portland and have served as good role models for the Blazers’ five rookies. On the other hand, their skills are marginal at best.

The plan this summer will be to build around the Core Four — Aldridge, Batum, Lillard and Matthews.

“By the end of July, we want to have depth from 1 to 8 or 1 to 9, where we have no letdowns during the time the (rotation reserves) are playing,” Olshey says.

The biggest order of business will be to add a center. Unrestricted free agents Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson and Chris Kaman are unlikely to wind up in Portland. The best option is probably 6-11, 28-year-old Georgian Zaza Pachulia, now with the Atlanta Hawks — does that ring your chimes?

So Olshey will scan the possibilities in the draft and via the trade route. If Hickson — who carries a $7.98 million salary-cap hold — is still with the club at season’s end, he’ll likely be allowed to go into free agency. That doesn’t mean the Blazers can’t re-sign him later in the summer if other options for either side don’t pan out.

Other big-ticket unrestricted free agents who figure to be available in the $5- to-$10 million range include shooting guards Manu Ginobili and Kevin Martin and power forwards Paul Millsap and David West.

Or, Olshey may be moved to sign more inexpensive options such as point guards Jarrett Jack or Beno Udrih, shooting guards Randy Foye, J.J. Redick, Nick Young or Anthony Morrow, small forwards Matt Barnes, Kyle Korver or Chase Budinger or power forwards Elton Brand or Carl Landry.

Or, Portland’s GM might swing a deal involving draft picks. Portland’s first-round pick is protected to No. 12 (after that, it would go to Charlotte). Its second-round pick is protected to No. 40 (after that, it would go to Denver). The Blazers get the second-round picks of Boston and Minnesota unconditionally.

Despite a season-high six-game losing streak, Portland entered Wednesday’s home date with Indiana at 20-21.

“A .500 record after 40 games probably puts us ahead of the curve,” Olshey says. “What a great job the coaches and players have done in terms of competing every night. They’ve given us a chance to win virtually every night..

“We still have work to do in terms of building the depth of the roster. We have a lot of rookies who are still learning how to play in this league. It’s incumbent upon them to continue to work and develop and not be satisfied they’re getting minutes more out of circumstance right now than because they’ve competed and earned them over veteran players.”

Lillard and Leonard are safe, but Freeland, Claver, perhaps Barton and the rest of the Blazer reserves all could be gone by the start of next season. Olshey is a man on a mission. It will be survival of the fittest beginning July 1.


Blazers' mid-season grades

STARTERS

LaMarcus Aldridge, PF

Averages: 20.5 points, 8.9 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .462 FG, .824 FT

Strengths: No. 1 scoring threat, inside/outside game, can use either hand inside, improved passer

Weaknesses: Not adept at driving to basket, struggles to hit shots in clutch

Grade: B-plus

Nicolas Batum, SF

Averages: 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists

Shooting percentages: .427 FG, .357 on 3s, .866 FT

Strengths: Can score in transition, excellent dunker, solid 3-point threat, good creator for himself and teammates, excellent off-ball shot-blocker.

Weaknesses: Loose with ball at times, can disappear offensively for stretches

Grade: A-minus

J.J. Hickson, C

Averages: 12.4 points, 10.9 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .547 FG, .652 FT

Strengths: One of best double-double threats in NBA, relentless offensive rebounder, good finisher around basket Weaknesses: Undersized at post defensively, poor decision-maker at times, mediocre foul shooter

Grade: B-plus

Wesley Matthews, SG

Averages: 15.4 points, 3.0 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .432 FG, .395 on 3s, .780 FT

Strengths: Clutch 3-point shooter, strong defender, improved at taking ball to basket

Weaknesses: Mediocre rebounder and passer for 2-guard

Grade: B-plus

Damian Lillard, PG

Averages: 18.3 points, 6.6 assists

Shooting percentages: .420 FG, .358 on 3s, .828 FT

Strengths: Clutch shooter and scorer, patient and strong decision-maker, court savvy, excellent scorer on drive and in transition

Weaknesses: Overall defensive game

Grade: A-minus

BENCH

Meyers Leonard, C

Averages: 4.8 points, 3.5 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .560 FG, .861 FT

Strengths: Great athleticism running court, showcase dunker, good hands, terrific foul shooter

Weaknesses: Court savvy, decision-making, prone to bad fouls

Grade: Incomplete (missed 11 games with injury)

Luke Babbitt, F

Averages: 4.5 points, 2.4 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .358 FG, .327 on 3s, .714 FT

Strengths: Best pure 3-point shooter on team

Weaknesses: Streaky on 3’s, improving but still mediocre mid-range game, poor defender and rebounder, rarely gets to the line

Grade: C-minus

Ronnie Price, G

Averages: 2.9 points, 1.9 assists

Shooting percentages: .330 FG, .258 on 3s, .727 FT

Strengths: Willing passer, can penetrate, takes charges

Weaknesses: Poor shooter, overmatched defender at times

Grade: D

Will Barton, G

Averages: 2.8 points, 1.4 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .360 FG, .161 on 3s, .529 FT

Strengths: Electric legs, streaks of offensive firepower

Weaknesses: Court savvy, prone to mistakes

Grade: C-minus

Nolan Smith, G

Averages: 2.4 points, 1.1 assists

Shooting percentages: .322 FG, .125 on 3s, .571 FT

Strengths: Willing passer and defender

Weaknesses: Poor shooter, poor ballhandler, prone to turnovers

Grade: D

Victor Claver, F

Averages: 2.4 points, 1.9 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .321 FG, .240 on 3s, .385 FT

Strengths: Can shoot with range and run the court Weaknesses: Court savvy; has shot poorly

Grade: D

Joel Freeland, C/F

Averages: 2.3 points, 2.2 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .368 FG, .714 FT

Strengths: Good hands, can shoot to mid-range

Weaknesses: Slow and overpowered defensively at times, has shot poorly

Grade: D

Sasha Pavlovic, F

Averages: 2.2 points, 1.4 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .351 FG, .289 on 3s, .000 FT

Strengths: Court savvy, willing shooter with range, takes charges

Weaknesses: Has shot poorly, is overmatched physically at times

Grade: D

Jared Jeffries, C

Averages: 1.1 points, 1.5 rebounds

Shooting percentages: .293 FG, .471 FT

Strengths: Locker-room leader, mentor, decent defender, takes charges.

Weaknesses: Poor shooter and ball-handler

Grade: D

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