Since taking over as Blazers GM this spring, Neil Olshey has preached a philosophy of asset gathering for the rebuilding team. At the end of this month, Olshey’s front office will be tasked with deciding on the futures of three of these assets. Portland hold options on the fourth years of the rookie deals for Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt, as well as the third year of Nolan Smith’s deal. It’s relatively uncommon for rookie-contract options not to be picked up—teams aren’t usually keen to pull the plug on players they drafted that quickly, because it’s difficult not to view that as an admission of doing an inferior job judging talent.
Olshey is working in a gray area here. None of these three players were drafted on his watch. When he makes the call on how long they’ll be Trail Blazers, he can act as something of an impartial outsider. It won’t reflect poorly on his staff’s drafting record. He hasn’t tipped his hand as to how he’s leaning, but the fact that the possibility of declining their options is even being talked about very much reinforces that this is a roster in flux, with almost nobody’s spot carved in stone.
The question Olshey will have to answer for each of these three players is simple: is the money they would be paid worth more in their hands than elsewhere on a team that, in all likelihood, won’t be back in the hunt for a playoff spot for another couple of years? As the 16th pick in the 2010 draft, Babbitt’s fourth-year team option is worth about $2.9 million. Williams, the 22nd pick in the same draft, is owed about $2.3 million. Smith, the 21st pick in the 2011 draft, would stand to make $1.4 million in 2013-14 if the Blazers picked up his option. Together, the three options are worth $6.6 million, a pretty significant chunk of the cap space Portland would be projected to have next summer.
Williams is the easiest call to make of the three. He missed his entire rookie year in 2010-11 after having surgery on both knees. Last year, he didn’t get on the floor much during the first part of the season, and although he played well in his limited minutes, they came almost exclusively during blowouts, making it hard to draw any real conclusions about his play. Minutes didn’t start to open up for Williams until after the trade deadline, when the Blazers traded away their veterans for picks and scrubs, essentially throwing in the towel on the season. Unfortunately, just as he seemed poised to take advantage of Kaleb Canales’ youth movement, a dislocated shoulder sidelined him for the rest of the season. Last month, during a pre-camp workout, he tore his left Achilles’ tendon, which will force him to miss the entirety of this season.
That makes a total of 24 games he’s appeared in over the course of his first three seasons in the NBA. That’s a lot of lost time for him to make up in one season to convince Blazer brass he’s worth keeping around long-term. It’s the kind of benefit of the doubt that makes sense to give someone whose ceiling is as high as Greg Oden’s once was. But even if fully healthy (and there’s no guarantee that will happen), Williams likely projects to be nothing more than a solid backup. It’s hard to see Olshey justify keeping someone with his health history and uncertain future value on in lieu of having that $2.3 million free to put towards a bigger signing or taking on salary in a trade with more tangible benefits. It’s pretty likely that he’s played his last game in Portland.
Babbitt, meanwhile, is good at exactly one thing: outside shooting. He did that damn well last year when he played, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 55.6. He appeared in 40 games last season, and even played some non-garbage minutes once the team went into tank mode. Given the superstar numbers he puts up in the D-League, I expected him to put on a clinic at Summer League, but he mostly looked lost. Through two preseason games last week, where he’s been given the chance to run with many combinations of starting and reserve players, his shot has been inconsistent and his defense fairly atrocious. He also has Adam Morrison breathing down his neck at camp and in exhibition, and if Stache Lion makes the team (a reasonable possibility), Babbitt won’t even have the “token white guy who shoots threes off the bench” role all to himself. He will likely see more time in Idaho this season, although it’s becoming a possibility that he’s simply trapped in a purgatory of being too good for the D-League but not good enough for the NBA. What he brings can be had far cheaper than the $2.9 million he’s owed next year (if Morrison makes the team, he’ll be paid the veteran’s minimum and likely wouldn’t cost much more than that to re-sign). As with Williams, though for different reasons, Babbitt simply hasn’t proven enough to justify keeping him past next year rather than taking advantage of the flexibility declining his option would create.
The most likely candidate to keep his roster spot beyond this season is Smith, if only because one season is far too small a sample size with which to make a decision about a rookie. Smith’s chances of ever landing a starting job in Portland more or less went out the window when the team drafted Damian Lillard in June. Not that he’d been helping his own case much—his rookie season was unspectacular by nearly any metric. He isn’t nearly the shooter Lillard is, posting an abysmal 43.4 TS% last year. As a floor general, he didn’t fare much better: his assist rate (18.2 percent) was nearly rivaled by his turnover rate (17.9 percent). He hasn’t done himself any favors in the Blazers’ first two preseason games, either, shooting a combined 4-for-15 from the field with six assists and three turnovers. Preseason games don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but they’re a low-stakes environment for young players to show improvement, and Smith still doesn’t look like he belongs in an NBA rotation.
But while his production leaves a ton to be desired, and the presence of Lillard makes the prospect of meaningful minutes unlikely, it still makes a certain amount of sense to give Smith another year to improve before making a decision on his future. He doesn’t have Williams’ injury track record, and his game isn’t nearly as one-dimensional as Babbitt’s. And at $1.4 million, his option for 2013-14 is barely more than the minimum, by some distance the smallest financial commitment out of the three. In 2014-15, however, the final year of his rookie contract will jump up considerably to $2.2 million. And if Olshey is still in asset-accumulation mode, Smith will have to have improved noticeably this upcoming season to avoid the same fate Babbitt and Williams are likely to meet by the end of October.