The Portland Trail Blazers entered the trade deadline looking like they could use an injection of two-way play at the off-guard spot and a veteran to shore up their second unit on the wing as they try to stake a claim to the No. 2 spot in the Western hierarchy, or perhaps even chop into the Golden State Warriors’ seven-game lead atop the conference. They found a player who seems tailor-made to check off all those boxes ahead of Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, agreeing to terms with the Denver Nuggets on a deal that imports veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo, as well as backup swingman Alonzo Gee, from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for reserve forwards Thomas Robinson and Victor Claver and live-wire guard Will Barton.
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Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the deal. Denver will also receive a lottery-protected 2016 first-round draft pick from the Blazers; it’s not conveyed that year, it will become a lottery-protected 2017 first-rounder; if it still doesn’t change hands that year, the Nuggets will get two future Portland second-round choices, per Woj.
Portland’s had one of the best starting fives in the NBA for the past two seasons, led by All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, flanked by do-it-all wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, and backstopped by steady-as-she-goes center Robin Lopez. Problems have started, however, when Terry Stotts has had to turn to his bench. While this year’s second unit looked to be sturdier than last year’s model after the summertime acquisitions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, the Blazers’ bench still produces fewer points per game than all but two teams.
The frontcourt mix might not be ideal — Kaman, in particular, has tailed off after a hot start — but it looks to be strong enough, with Aldridge showing no ill effects from the torn thumb ligament in his non-shooting hand, Lopez back after missing a month and a half with a hand injury, third-year big Meyers Leonard taking a step forward on the offensive end, and long-injured reserve Joel Freeland likely back in the mix soon. The big concern, though, has been on the wing, where none of the Blazers’ wing options — Barton, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe or Dorell Wright — have looked particularly capable of picking up the slack off the ball behind Lillard, Matthews and Batum. Now, they’ve got a more bankable commodity on which to rely down the stretch.
Afflalo didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during his second stint with the Nuggets, after the Orlando Magic shipped him back to Denver this summer. He averaged 14.5 points per game on just 42.8 percent shooting from the field (his worst mark since his rookie season with the Detroit Pistons) and a sub-par 33.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc while generating nearly two fewer free-throw attempts per game than he did last season in Central Florida.
But the 29-year-old wing is a career 38.4 percent shooter from long distance, just one season removed from scorching the nets to the tune of 42.7 percent from deep in Orlando, and he should see an awful lot more open, in-rhythm looks playing in Stotts’ free-flowing offensive scheme than he did in the systems run by the since-deposed Jacque Vaughn and the still-scuffling Brian Shaw. The 6-foot-5 Afflalo also has a sharp post game that Portland could deploy against smaller or weaker opposing guards, something we knew Stotts likes to do with Matthews as a change-of-pace option in favorable matchups.
Afflalo’s a smart, heady player who doesn’t make a great many mistakes and does little things well, and while he’s not exactly a decorated playoff vet, he does have some postseason experience from his days with the Nuggets. He also has a $7.5 million player option for next season, though, meaning he’s got the freedom to opt out of his contract this summer and enter unrestricted free agency. And even if Afflalo would want to stick in the Pacific Northwest, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey also has to deal with extensions for Aldridge, Lopez and Matthews, all of which would figure to take precedence over a recent short-term acquisition.
That in mind, a future first-rounder — even a lottery-protected one that transmogrifies into two second-rounders in two years’ time — and three players seems like a steep price for what could be a two- to four-month rental. Then again, none of the outgoing players figured prominently in Stotts’ rotation; Robinson’s set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer; and both Claver and Barton have qualifying offers for next summer. They don’t offer immediate help and they’re not long-term building blocks, and the Blazers, right now, are just four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot out West.
This is a team that made it to the second round last year, has made a dramatic defensive improvement (16th in points allowed per possession last season, fourth this year) and believes it has a legitimate chance to compete for a championship right now. These chances don’t come around very often; when they do, you pay your money and take your chances. Arron Afflalo might not make the Blazers the favorite to topple the Warriors and represent the West in the NBA Finals, but he represents a marked improvement in an area of need, and he makes an already hard-nosed and talented Portland squad an even a tougher out in a seven-game series. (Gee, for what it’s worth, is a well-traveled vet with springs who’s more a spot-minutes place-holder than a player likely to make a significant impact on Portland’s rotation).
From Denver’s perspective, the trade’s all about recouping some semblance of value for a summertime deal gone sour.
General manager Tim Connelly gave up young wing Evan Fournier and a a 2014 second-rounder for Afflalo back in June with the expectation that the veteran would help propel the Nuggets back into the playoffs. That, um, hasn’t worked out, as Denver has slid to 20-33, the fifth-worst record in the West. Afflalo was unlikely to re-up in Denver this summer, and picking up a protected future first-rounder from the Blazers helps replace the protected future first-rounder they used to pay JaVale McGee’s freight to Philly.
Barton’s a fun player whose quickness, wiry frame and explosiveness might remind some Nuggets fans of Corey Brewer’s time in the Mile High City, albeit without much of his defensive acumen, and Robinson’s a former top-five pick who has at time shown flashes of being an energetic rebounder capable of scoring on put-backs and broken plays around the rim. Denver gets a chance to take a two-month look-see at whether they might be worth keeping around for the future while bringing back a pick. It’s not what Nuggets fans might have hoped for heading into this season, but as damage control with things already having gone way down south, Connelly and company could’ve done worse.
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