In an NBA offseason filled with exclamations of, “He got what?” and “Well, I guess I should have just been an NBA player,” one of the biggest sources of sticker shock was reserve Portland swingman Allen Crabbe. The first shock wave was felt when Brooklyn presented Crabbe a four-year, $75 million offer sheet, with the aftershocks continuing three days later when the Blazers matched it. With Portland committing some serious cap space to several players this summer, Crabbe’s deal perhaps raised the most eyebrows. In assessing whether or not Portland got good value, factors like the rest of the Blazers’ roster, this year’s free agent market, and Portland’s place in the organizational life cycle, just to name a few, arise. Oh, and of course the abilities of Crabbe himself. Before discussing this from the Blazers’ point of view, however, let’s examine why Brooklyn concocted this contract in the first place.
The Brooklyn Nets, recently crowned as the NBA’s consensus Loman family, entered free agency this year in splashy fashion, led by new general manager Sean Marks. Veteran signings of Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, and Justin Hamilton, as well a flyer taken on Anthony Bennett (and Joe Harris), are good, mid-level signings for a team with not much to offer free agents. Cap room does not spend like it once did.1 When every team has cap room and every market can offer global brand exposure, players are looking more closely for roster pieces, coaching staffs, and front offices with proven or foreseeable success. The Nets have approximately zero of these things, with apologies to Brook Lopez and their new coaching and front office staff. However, Brooklyn made big waves this offseason by agreeing to offer sheets with two restricted free agents it failed to sign, Miami’s Tyler Johnson and Portland’s Allen Crabbe. Each of these players’ respective teams ended up matching the offer sheets. For Miami, this means paying Johnson $50 million over the next four seasons. However, this is not simply a $12.5 million per year contract for Miami, as its structure follows the ‘poison pill’ format made famous by the Houston Rockets, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik.2
Johnson’s cap hit averages $5.75 million over the first two years and balloons to roughly $19.2 million for the last two years of the deal. Those last two years represent the poison pill for the incumbent team, during which the team is really in a bind if the player doesn’t work out. If the cap hits the projected $102 million in 2016-17 and stays around there, the Heat will spend roughly 18.8 percent of their cap room on Johnson in 2017-18 and 2018-19. On the other hand, Crabbe’s contract is much more straightforward. The Blazers will devote approximately 18.1 percent of their cap on Crabbe in 2017-18, with his salary over the next four years looking pretty stable: $18.5 million, $18.5 million, $19.3 million, then an $18.5 million player option.
For the Nets, the two contracts, if signed, would have resulted in a combined yearly cap hit of $31.25 million.3 While this is quite a large sum for these two players, it would have allowed Marks to pair those deals in exchange for a star player in a trade, similar to the idea that’s outlined in the above footnote. Moreover, this free agent market simply has more available dollars than quality players, even in the context of the expanding cap. The caveat hanging over all of these calculations, however, is that the CBA will likely be renegotiated next summer. This throws every one of these details up in the air; most importantly the salary cap, the consequences for exceeding it, and possible team-friendly remedies to bad contracts.4
For his part, Marks did what every GM in his position should do: take big swings on young restricted free agents. Johnson and Crabbe are only 24, and if they develop enough to warrant those deals, Brooklyn could really have had something by locking the duo up through their prime years of production. Now, he’s making other teams incur the risk associated with those deals. Relatively speaking, that risk is greater for Miami and Portland, which have considerably more to lose compared to Brooklyn given their respective timelines of contention.
Matching Rationale (on-court):
For the Blazers, especially, the pressure is starting to build. Second Team All-NBA Point Guard and locker room stalwart Damian Lillard just turned 26, entering his prime years. Blazers GM Neil Olshey has done a great job building a roster with pieces that complement both Lillard’s age and skillset. On the ground, the coaching staff has done a fantastic job of developing those players as well as installing offensive and defensive tactics to maximize their talents. The former Cal swingman fit neatly into Portland’s pinwheel offense as an off-ball cutter and shooter. On most possessions, his offensive actions consisted of coming off of screens and doing one of the following: shooting a jumpshot off of the catch, taking a couple dribbles before shooting a jumper, or taking a few dribbles before passing.5 His ability to read the coverage and choose the most appropriate of those options kept the Blazer offense flowing, and his ability to knock down those shots kept the pressure on opposing teams. Let’s watch:
He shot 39 percent on 3.5 three-point attempts per game, which helped Portland’s offense rank 8th in effective field goal percentage at 51.1, per Basketball Reference.6 It is also worth noting that Portland’s stars and its scheme certainly open up better shots for Crabbe. Per NBASavant, 186 of his shots were taken with a defender four or more feet away, which comprised almost half of his shots in the regular season and playoffs. Crabbe still should get credit here for fitting neatly into the scheme. Or maybe it’s the coaching staff who’s implemented sets that highlight his abilities.
Let’s try to answer that question by comparing him to Portland’s other bench wing, Gerald Henderson. The rate at which Henderson took shots with defenders four or more feet away was slightly higher than Crabbe’s, despite Crabbe playing more of his minutes with both McCollum and Lillard. However, Crabbe hit shots at a much higher clip and with more efficiency, as his effective field goal percentage was about six points better than Henderson’s. Since they both were afforded roughly the same percentage of open looks, it is safe to say that Crabbe was the better shot maker, especially since he’s more able to shoot the long ball. While Portland’s scheme and other personnel clearly create high quality shots for their wings, it was the 2011 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year who hit these shots more efficiently. Based on this evidence, he fits their offense better than similarly, yet differently, talented wings.
Portland also rebounded slightly over a quarter of their misses last season, which was good for fourth in the league. Essentially, they scored well on average from the floor, and during games that they missed a lot of shots, the Blazers were able to keep possessions going by hitting the offensive boards. The Blazers’ turnover and free throw rate were average and below-average, respectively, holding the team outside of the top five in offensive rating. While Crabbe did not draw a lot of shooting fouls, he only gave the ball away on 8 percent of his possessions. Neither of these figures should surprise based on his offensive actions. At this point, Crabbe is neither a playmaker nor a slasher.
While Crabbe’s offensive skills bolstered areas of the offense that were already strong thanks to Lillard and C.J. McCollum, namely outside scoring and decision-making, his defensive strengths can be unique to the roster. On defense, his frame and sound technique have the potential to quell perimeter threats. He didn’t force an abundance of turnovers, as Crabbe’s steal rate was 1.5 percent, 120th out of 202 perimeter players who played at least 700 minutes. However, it was his aversion to taking those risks made him as effective as he was defensively. NBA.com’s player tracking stats report that Crabbe lowered his man’s shooting percentage by 1.1 percent last season, one of the best numbers on the team.7 He generally does a well staying on a ball handler’s hips, though struggles at times to fight over screens.8
Crabbe’s length partly atones for that weakness, but he’ll need to bolster his ability to fight through screens to become the type of defender that Portland needs on the wing. As one can see from the above clips, his lanky frame displays the tools and effort of a good defender. Coming off his first full NBA season, it’s not hard to project a little improvement through more consistency. Al-Farouq Aminu, and eventually Mo Harkless, offered good defense on the perimeter; however, their defensive versatility was truly unlocked when Stotts and Co. were able put Crabbe on the perimeter alongside them. Per Basketball Reference, Aminu played 45 percent of his minutes at the 4 or 5 during the regular season, by far the highest total of his career. Harkless played 28 percent of his minutes at the 4, though his previous sample size in Orlando was extremely limited.9 Basketball Reference’s lineup data backs this up, as Portland’s fifth and sixth most-used lineups featured Crabbe at the three and Harkless or Aminu at the four.
Crabbe clearly excels while marching to the beat of Portland’s drum and the Blazers move forward accordingly. However, Portland has a couple other players on their roster that may be able to fill in this role should it have been vacant. Second year players Luis Montero and Pat Connaughton have shown flashes that they, too, could act as the weakside release valve in Portland’s offense. Though both showed a vastly improved handle and jump shot in Summer League, Connaughton’s steadiness on the ball may be preferable to Montero, who’s more creative but less refined as a decision-maker. The strength of Crabbe’s decision-making lay in its quickness and simplicity. Montero flashes some of the same here:
As we can see, Montero can make similarly good, quick reads in hand-offs and off-ball screens. Shooting consistency is the offensive question mark for him, and he’s still pretty loose with the ball. Additionally, while Montero did move the ball reasonably well, both he and Connaughton would have to grow into that role, if thrust into it. Defensively, neither of them showed the type of defensive dominance one would want to see from a second-year player at Summer League.10 It was Montero who created more turnovers in Portland’s five games at Vegas, but neither was particularly consistent on the defensive end. Featuring superior ball handling, Connaughton may have the edge if he shores up his defense. All things considered, the surest way for Portland to sustain and build on its success was to retain Crabbe, maintaining the team’s biggest strength, its shooting.
Matching Rationale (off-court):
How Crabbe’s skills fit into Portland’s on-court style was not the perplexing aspect of their decision to match this contract. It is how his contract fits into the broader context of their cap situation that has been the objection of fans and pundits alike. In spending $18.5 million on Crabbe in 2017-18, as well as extending C.J. McCollum and Mo Harkless, Portland has almost $123 million locked up next year. That likely means that the Blazers brass will have to choose between guaranteeing Festus Ezeli’s $7.7 million salary next season and resigning Mason Plumlee, or risk going over the luxury tax. On one hand, Plumlee’s playmaking and screen setting was as crucial as it was surprising to keeping the offense crisp last season. On the other, Plumlee’s ability to anchor their defense last year was only average, as evidenced by his block rate of 3.2, in the middle of the pack for a starting center.11 Given the defensive weaknesses of Lillard and McCollum, both of whom seem to be entrenched in the starting lineup, Portland may need a little more rim protection from its starter in the middle.12
As Kevin Pelton has been emphasizing in recent months, wings have far more value than bigs due to their relative scarcity. In that sense, sacrificing either Ezeli or Plumlee to nail down Crabbe seems a good move. While one may suggest that the Blazers would have done better to trust their player development staff, Montero and Connaughton are only a year younger than Crabbe. One could argue, with Crabbe’s age, that that is precisely what Portland’s front office is doing. Adding one dimension to his game, like the ability to get to the rim and the free throw line, would make this deal look considerably better. However, it is likely that he will always be the type of offensive player who relies on other players to create shots. Portland looks to have a duo of players that could compete to mature into that role. But with the relative age of the roster, Olshey has made it clear that they cannot afford to wait on that process.
Additionally, from the perspective of organizational culture, being the club that rewards the players who come through its pipeline seems to be a good stance. The previous Portland core played an outrageous number of minutes together since Lillard’s entry to the NBA, helping them build up a collective offensive mind under Terry Stotts. The current iteration clearly suffered from a lack of connectivity early this past campaign after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, and Wes Matthews. As the year progressed, however, the pieces fell more neatly into place. Carrying this over season after season has an uncertain but very significant value, into which Portland has heavily invested. Crabbe is a player for whom the Blazers’ style of play highlights strengths as well as it hides his weaknesses. Pairing him with a backcourt of Patrick Beverley and James Harden would probably render his offense less potent. For that reason, Portland has somewhat limited recourse should they want ‘Cool Breeze’ to blow through another town. While Crabbe’s value to the Blazers may hover around $17 or $18 million per season, another team would value him less sheerly based on tactical context. This is the exact opposite tact they took when deciding what to do with Wes Matthews, who albeit older and coming off injury, has similar contextual value. Conversely, this contract looks pretty good if Crabbe can nail down some improvement on either getting to the rim, drawing fouls, or playing defense. That development is an uncertain proposition, though Crabbe’s improvement to this point is an encouraging sign. All NBA role players are subject to this paradigm, just as Gary Neal. Discerning this represents one of the toughest challenges of team building.
Portland’s goal now is clearly contention with its current core. Had this decision come last summer, the result would have very likely been different. But after the roster’s unexpected cohesion and competitiveness last year, and its age and productivity, the tide has certainly turned. Coach Terry Stotts, who many picked for Coach of the Year, just received an extension through 2020. Olshey and Portland’s brain trust have decided that this roster will contend, or, at the very least, could contend with some expected growth. The thought here is that the signings of Turner and Ezeli can address the weaknesses of the roster in the ways that further improving existing players cannot. However, what Portland has done threatens their ability to retain some of those players and stay under the luxury tax.13 Owner Paul Allen may be able to afford the tab, but how much can he stomach if they fail to consistently get past the first or second round come playoff time?
After throwing their chips in, both Stotts and Olshey have far higher expectations, and quite possibly a shorter leash. From one perspective, Olshey has taken a shot with a young core that has shown promise in competing with the best teams in the league. However, there are plenty of examples of franchises floundering after investing in rosters with a season of unexpected success. Most recently, Phoenix doubled down on their roster after a surprisingly successful 48-win 2013-14 campaign. After some mistakes and some bad luck, that has not gone very well. Even Atlanta has taken a step back after their 60-win season, which many expected. Their success this year may well determine which direction that franchise takes, though they certainly don’t look to compete with Cleveland any time soon.14 For their part, the Blazers’ front office looks to have planned the bulk of their roster over the next three years.15 Now, it falls largely on the coaching and training staffs to jump this team into the Western Conference elite before they can contend for a title. Right now, that seems to be a tall task. However, betting against the Blazers hasn’t exactly paid off recently, and whether or not they get the most out of Allen Crabbe’s $75-$83.16 million dollars will have considerable impact on their success.
- The salary cap jumped from $70 million in 2015-16 to $94.1 million in 2016-17 and is estimated to increase again to around $102 million in 2017-18. ↩
- The true brilliance of which, I think, has been lost. Put together, the poison years of the Lin and Asik deals would make up $16.6 million, enough salary to trade for a max-level player, making the cap mechanics simple for Houston to acquire stars via trade. Houston was able to acquire those two players, later dumping Lin with a first rounder and trading Asik for a first rounder in order to pursue Chris Bosh. Ironically, while the Pelicans pick Houston received was higher than their own that they traded away, those players ended up being Sam Dekker and Larry Nance Jr., respectively. Especially ironic on top of the fact that the player they salary dumped ended up being more highly regarded than the one for whom they received a pick. ↩
- Remember that Johnson’s cap hit with the Nets would be a simple $12.5M per year) ↩
- Since these would only be cap remedies (a la the stretch and amnesty provisions), these are also pretty damn player-friendly. Gotta love guaranteed contracts. ↩
- Per NBASavant, Crabbe shot 47 percent after zero dribbles, 46 percent after one dribble, and 54 percent after two dribbles. After three to five dribbles, his shot percentage plummeted to 24 percent and after five to ten dribbles dropped it even further, to 17 percent. However, the latter two categories only accounted for 27 of his shots in NBASavant’s data. ↩
- Basketball Reference also lists his nickname as ‘Cool Breeze,’ which I personally have never heard before. If any Blazer or Cal fans can verify this, please, tweet us. The integrity of the entire Basketball Reference database is at stake. I’m questioning everything. ↩
- All individual defensive statistic caveats apply. ↩
- The Blazers perimeter players, ironically, are all fairly bad at defending the same type of offense that they run. So there’s plenty of opportunity for improvement! ↩
- These figures increased in the playoffs in matchups against the Clippers and Warriors, with Aminu playing 99 percent of his minutes at the 4 or 5. ↩
- Although Montero signed his NBA contract halfway through last season. ↩
- Although as Boston has proven over the last two years, good defensive scheming and fundamentals can reduce the importance of protecting the rim by walling it off. ↩
- Though either one of them could improve on defense. In the near term, my money’s on Lillard. ↩
- Again, a new CBA could change all of this drastically. ↩
- Injury caveats always apply. LeBron going down would reshape the East drastically. In the NBA, preparation and planning only put you in a position to win. Luck settles most of the rest. We can’t forget about the wet spot on Houston’s floor. ↩
- Though we may see Olshey maneuver carefully in order to duck the tax in upcoming seasons, a la Heat GM Andy Elisberg. ↩
- depending on incentives. ↩