What now for the Trail Blazers?
Nuggets mined from Tuesday's exit interview media session at the Trail Blazers' practice facility after their elimination by Golden State in the NBA Western Conference finals ...
• Biggest news tidbit of the day was GM Neil Olshey's revelation of a contract extension for Terry Stotts.
Also, a report from Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes that the Blazers are expected to agree on a four-year, $191-million super-max contract extension with Damian Lillard in July — if Lillard qualifies by being named to either the first, second or third all-NBA team this season.
That's going to happen. Houston's James Harden and Golden State's Stephen Curry will form the backcourt on the first team; Lillard will be one of the second-team selections at guard.
Lillard has two years and approximately $62 million remaining on the five-year, $120-million extension he signed in 2015. The new deal, which would extend the four-time All-Star point guard through the 2024-25 season, would average $47.8 million after his current deal expires, starting at $42.3 million in 2021-22.
Olshey wouldn't comment on the report, other than to say this: "Clearly, Damian is our biggest off-season priority."
The extension wouldn't affect Portland's salary-cap situation until 2021. But ESPN's Scottie Pippen thinks his old team should wait until Lillard's current contract expires.
"I don't think right now is the time for it," the former Trail Blazer said. "They have a couple of years to wait, and I would wait. The Blazers need to improve their roster a little bit. It would limit what they can do.
"There's only one player who deserves a super max — Steph Curry. For anyone to get a super max in this league, you need to be on the MVP level or winning championships. The Blazers have been swept the last three times in the playoffs. I don't know if they have a player on their team that is deserving of the super max."
Looks to me like it will happen this July, and then Portland can join Philadelphia and Denver as sites for the U.S. Mint.
I'll cover what could happen in free agency in more detail in a future column, but the Blazers have five players who will go on the market on July 1 — center Enes Kanter, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Jake Layman and guards Rodney Hood and Seth Curry.
The NBA salary cap for the 2019-20 season will be set at about $108 million, with the luxury tax threshold at about $132 million. If the Blazers stay with their 10 salaried players, sign their first-round draft pick (at No. 25) and fill a 14-man roster with minimum salaries, they'll be at about $132.5 million in salary. So there's little room for much action on the free-agent market.
Aminu, 28, made $6.96 million last season and has been Portland's starting power forward for four seasons. He had a fine regular season and a very poor postseason.
Curry, 28, made $2.8 million. He was a valuable asset off the bench in the regular season and had a couple of good games in the playoffs, but showed little consistency.
I don't think either of those players will return to the Blazers next season.
Layman, 25, showed great promise when given the opportunity this season, which wasn't often. He made $1.54 million, and the Blazers would like to keep him if he doesn't get a prohibitive offer elsewhere.
Portland would love to retain both Hood and Kanter — but Kanter only as a backup center to Jusuf Nurkic (after he returns from surgery for a compound fracture of a leg).
With Meyers Leonard's emergence in the West finals, Kanter would be hard-pressed to start in Nurkic's absence. Kanter, 27, made $18.6 million this season from New York before being waived by the Knicks and acquired in February by the Blazers. He won't get that kind of money this time, but he is going to command a decent contract.
The Blazers have only the taxpayer's mid-level exception ($5.7 million) available to sign a free agent unless they can get under the luxury tax, which would raise the figure to $9.2 million. The latter is doable by paring about $2 million in salary.
I think the Blazers value the 6-8 Hood's versatility — he can play the 2 and 3 spots — more than the skills of Kanter, who is primarily a post-up center.
Hood, 26, made $3.47 million last season, and he'll require more than that to sign this time. I'm guessing he'll get the first mid-level exception offer from Portland.
Then there are Evan Turner ($18.6 million), Moe Harkless ($11.5 million) and Leonard ($11.3 million), who will be in the final year of their contracts. I believe all will begin the season in Portland and, depending upon performance, be potential chips to bargain with at next February's trade deadline — although Leonard proved his value during the West finals and could be in the market for a new deal next summer.
Remember, just prior to the trade deadline is when Olshey acquired Kanter and Hood, who proved to be invaluable pick-ups.
"If this year proved anything, it's that roster-building is a fluid process," Olshey said. "Everybody wants everything to be done on July 1. It doesn't necessarily work that way.
"Who would have projected last July that we'd end up with two starting-quality players at positions of need at the trade deadline in the buyout market? When you're limited in terms of the available tools at your disposal, you have to take more of a longer view."
Olshey couldn't resist this mild admonishment: "After seven years, it has to be taken on faith that, when an opportunity comes to continue to build the roster so we can continue to move forward, we're going to do it."
Hood had a few big-impact games toward the end of the regular season, then had several in the playoffs. He was sensational during the Denver series — "he won two games for (the Blazers)," TNT's Charles Barkley said.
"It was fun," said Hood, sent to Portland by Cleveland for Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin and a pair of second-round picks. "Getting a chance to come here and play with such a great group of guys, in front of a great fan base ... I couldn't have asked for a better situation for me. It's something I'll always remember, no matter what transpires."
Hood's free-agent value rose considerably during the postseason. He said he's not sure if he'll be back in Portland.
"We know it's a business," he said. "I love it here and want to be back, but we'll see how that works this summer."
What's important to him?
"Just being embraced, like I was here," he said. "That's the big word that means a lot to me. Whether that equals to a dollar amount, I just want to be embraced. Hopefully, that's here next season, but if not, that's what I'm looking at in general."
Kanter reiterated what he has said many times since shortly after joining the Blazers.
"It's been an amazing experience here," he said. "This organization — the whole state — made me not just a better basketball player, but a better person, on and off the court. Signing here was the best thing that ever happened to me in my career."
Will that play into his decision on where to sign this summer?
"Of course," he said. "From Day One, they opened their arms, gave me a warm welcome. I feel like I've been part of this team for years. Everybody in the the locker room was amazing, the coaching staff, the organization — that's going to help."
Money will be a factor, "but the most important part of it is (the opportunity for) winning. Winning is the No. 1 priority."
Kanter will leave the decision to "my agent and Neil to take care of. But it's not a question how much I love this team, my teammates, this whole organization. I'm not talking just about on the court — off-the-court stuff, too. It's been family to me."
Aminu said "it would be nice" if he could re-sign with the Blazers.
"The stuff we keep on doing as a team is encouraging," he said. "I feel like I really want to see this out. The team we lost to again (the Warriors) — man, it's annoying. We keep running into these guys.
"I remember growing up, watching the (Michael) Jordan film, where he was talking about how he felt about the (Detroit) Pistons. Going through it in real time is not easy. To keep going against a team that is at that level that is what you want to get at and having to learn what it takes to get there is not easy ... you see why it's so emotional when they get to that level. I understand why now."
Aminu said he liked how the Blazers fought through several bouts of adversity this season.
"But sometimes just being a good team is not enough," he said. "You have to learn to connect all the dots on a lot of different ends. We are connecting a lot of the dots. We just have to continue to connect them."
The 7-foot Nurkic was seen walking without much of a limp around Moda Center during the playoffs, but it's going to be awhile before the "Bosnian Beast" steps onto the basketball court again.
Here's a story I did with an orthopedic specialist from New York after Nurkic's leg injury in March. Blazer officals aren't counting on him returning until perhaps February. Dr. William Ricci thinks it could come earlier — perhaps before the end of the calendar year.
Olshey said there is no time line for a return by Nurkic, who turns 25 in August.
"It's continued rehab for him," Olshey said. "We'll keep trying to hit all these benchmarks. He's in great spirits now. He's making great progress. The guys can't believe where he is relative to where they saw him four weeks ago.
"He's a foundational piece going forward. We're going to drive him, but we are going to do what's best for 'Nurk' on a long-term basis. He's in the strengthening mode now. We don't know when he'll get to basketball-related activities. He's on a great trajectory in terms of getting back to play, but we're not going to sacrifice anything in his recovery just to get him on the court faster."
Zach Collins is going to get the opportunity to be a starter to open next season — either at center, in Nurkic's absence, or at power forward. He'd rather it be at center.
"It's good for me and good for this team that I can play a little bit of both," said Collins, who finished his second NBA season as a key component off the Portland bench. "To get to the starting position, it's going to have to be one or the other.
"If I put on a little more weight, the 5 position is good for me. I like playing the 5, where I'm involved in everything, especially defensively. Almost all the pick-and-rolls are with the big man. I like to be involved and impacting the ball."
I think he'll eventually play the 4, as his range from 3-point territory becomes more consistent.
Does Collins, 21, think he can be a starter next season?
"Absolutely," he said. "This playoff run was a great experience for me. Going through that, being able to play a big role and help our team win a lot of games — I've already learned so much in the last month that will help me and propel that transition into being a starter.
"There have been a lot of great role players in this league. If that's what my career is defined as, that's fine. But I've always wanted to be the guy — a starter, someone who plays a lot of minutes every night to help the team win. I won't stop until I get to that point."
A couple of days earlier, Collins told me he has something else in mind.
"A big personal goal for me is to be (the NBA's) Defensive Player of the Year some day," he said. "That's reachable, especially if I continue to learn about the mental side of it and try to be more consistent from game to game. If I can get those things down, I'll have a good shot."
The Blazers' team captain and floor leader gives Collins a shot.
"It's definitely possible," Lillard said. "To be a Defensive Player of the Year, you have to have everything — defensive instincts, timing, shot-blocking, the desire. You have to be able to recognize what (offensive) actions are happening, know the opponent's plan of attack. And you have to have that toughness, that edge to you. Zach has all those qualities. I don't see why he couldn't be."
The 7-foot Collins, incidentally, now weighs between 240 and 245 pounds. "I think I can get organically to 250 or 255 by the time I hit my peak years," he said.
Todd Forcier, the Blazers' sports performance specialist, told me Collins began his NBA career at 219. That's a 25-pound gain of heft and muscle in less than two years — impressive.
If Curry doesn't return, look for Anfernee Simons to join the Blazers' rotation in the backcourt next season.
The 6-4 Simons, who doesn't turn 20 until June 8, saw little playing time this season, but in one brilliant burst — the regular-season finale against Sacramento — showed a glimpse of what he can do. The rookie scored 37 points, hitting 13 of 21 shots from the field and 7 of 11 from 3-point range, and had nine assists.
Simons' biggest proponent might be Lillard.
"His potential is crazy," Lillard said. "Last year, I was here for both of his (pre-draft) workouts, and he looked so young. But he was so explosive. He is a shot-maker. He can get to spots on the floor that a lot of people struggle to get to.
"But his demeanor is what sold me. It reminded me of myself a lot. In a room full of grown men in the locker room, he is never uncomfortable. And he works. He puts the time in. He doesn't complain. He has a lot of qualities about him that make me believe if he keeps working and developing, when I'm on my way out, y'all gonna be talking to him every game."
The Blazer players stage periodic shooting contests after practice through the season. The daily champion gets to wear a WWE-style belt. Simons won the competition once this season.
"We usually don't let rookies even play," Aminu said with a smile. "It was awkward just to let him in there. We shouldn't have let him. Even (Gary Trent Jr.) won. It was dark days of the shooting competition.
"But that's the kid (Simons). He makes the most of his opportunities. I wish I was the type of professional (Simons and Trent) were coming into the league."
Simons came into the contest with pro wrestling bravado.
"I told 'Dame' the day before, 'I'm going to go in and win the belt tomorrow,'" Simons said. He said, 'All right, we'll see.' He didn't believe me. I came out the next day with the belt around my waist, and he was like, 'OK.'
"It was a cool moment. He has so much confidence in me. That gives me confidence as well, knowing that somebody like him believes in me so much. He has been a good mentor for me the whole season. I've learned from him through the good times and the bad times."
Kanter said he will host 30 free youth basketball camps in 30 states this off-season, beginning Saturday in Portland (he said details will be available via Twitter at @eneskanter).
The Turkish native is an outspoken critic of his country's president, Recep Erdogan, who has issued a "red notice" on Kanter, meaning he would be subject to arrest outside the U.S.
"I cannot leave the country," he said. "I don't want to sit at home or go to the beach and waste my time. I want to give back to the communites. No. 1 is Portland."
Kanter said he hosted "more than 20" free camps throughout the country last year.
"America gives me so much," he said. "I want kids to be able to come to my camp for free and enjoy it. The most important thing — whenever I hold a camp, we don't just talk about basketball. We talk about education and off-the-court stuff.
"When I'm done with my career, I want to look back and (think about) how many people that I inspired."
Kanter will also spend some time in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress — including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden — to discuss the situation in Turkey.
"Basketball is like my escape," he said. "As soon as I step on the court, all I care about is my teammates, basketball and winning. Then when I wake up in the morning or step off the court, the fight begins.
"God gave me a gift, and I'm trying to use this platform to be a voice for all those innocent people who don't have one."
The late Paul Allen's sister, Jody Allen, took over after the Blazer owner succumbed to cancer last October at age 65. Olshey said Allen, who lives in the Seattle area, intends to continue to own the team.
"Jody has been fantastic in terms of her engagement," he said. "She has addressed the team when we've asked her to after each series. She was really emotional after the OKC series. That was a validation, knowing how much Paul believed in the core of this group."
Olshey said after the final loss to Golden State in the West finals, "Jody spoke to the team in a way that resonated with everybody and struck a chord with all the players and staff."
"She has our back, she has a vision for the franchise, she believes in the group, she cares about the players," Olshey said. "At a time when we needed ownership to show solidarity with the front office, the coaching staff and the business division, she was there for us.
"I made a recommendation to Jody about (Stotts' contract extension), and she signed off on it right away. That's what you want — decisive decisions, and someone looking out for the best interests of the organization as a leader."
THIS AND THAT
• Simons, Trent and forward Skai Labissiere will be on the Blazers' entry to the Las Vegas Summer League.
• Collins will attend the pre-summer league camp in Portland and will work out with the team in Vegas, but will not participate in the games.
• Olshey left Tuesday night for Phoenix, where he will attend an "agent pro day" on Wednesday, watching a group of potential draft picks work out. From there, he'll be in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Calabasas, California, for similar look-sees over the next week.
"They have become commonplace," Olshey said. "The agents are controlling the post-Chicago pre-draft combine time line."
• The Blazers, who do not have a second-round pick (yet) this year, are looking at three to four days of group workouts for draft prospects in Portland, beginning May 31.
• There will be two Blazer weddings this summer. Layman is to be wed in July. CJ McCollum will be married on Sept. 20.
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