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Why a Trail Blazers Rebuild Would Require Trading Lillard and McCollum

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A reader asks if Portland has a credible “blow it up” plan if things don’t work out. They have options, but they’re not pretty.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As we chronicled a couple of days ago, the Portland Trail Blazers are in the midst of an identity crisis. They’re a low- to mid-level playoff team. They need to get better, but lack a clear path and strong assets to do so. If ascending to elite status in the NBA’s Western Conference isn’t in the cards for Portland, what about a rebuild? What would retooling look like, if it’s to be effective? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hey Dave!

Thanks for sharing all that great info on the paths forward (or lack thereof) for the Blazers to improve this off season.

I was wondering if you could put together a follow up on what a total rebuild would look like. Shedding assets is a given, but what do we look for in return? What are our players with on the market? Who would be interested in them? What balance do we try to strike between building through the draft versus unloading salary to be able to sign free agents again? Etc...

Scott

Rebuilding would be pretty easy. You just wouldn’t like the implications. In fact, I don’t much like answering the question because a month or two down the road some Russian-bot wannabe Twitter egg with 42 followers is going to accuse me of having advocated for such. Considering all options is smart and I’m certainly willing to highlight the merits of an instant rebuild, but that doesn’t mean it’d guarantee improvement, nor that the Blazers would actually do it.

The Setup

The crux of the plan is simple: make offers other teams can’t refuse via deals that limit the lifespan of Portland’s current cap crisis while building assets for the future.

Naturally, that’s easier said than done. The non-rebuild version of this scheme, held up by starry-eyed dreamers, is convincing gullible franchises to take on Evan Turner or Meyers Leonard for nothing. The chances of teams absorbing $30 million of cap obligation are low. Even if they did, the resulting savings would only be enough to re-sign Jusuf Nurkic and add a middling veteran. Absent a miracle superstar acquisition scenario (foregoing Nurkic for a franchise-changer), the Blazers would get no extra assets by dumping their bad contracts. They’d avoid the luxury tax, but they’d still be capped out.

Only two players carry enough trade attractiveness and cap savings to make this scenario work: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. If you’re asking the Blazers to rebuild, they’ll need to trade them both.

It probably wouldn’t be that hard. Portland would need to find trade partners who meet the following criteria:

  • Desire a star guard
  • Have cap space to absorb a large contract
  • Hold a current lottery pick and/or a future pick that’s likely to become one
  • Any players the Blazers take back must play under cheap rookie deals or contracts that expire by 2020

The Candidates

Let’s exclude the Phoenix Suns and their #1 overall pick from this discussion. I don’t believe they’d consider Lillard adequate compensation for it. Nor do I think Sacramento will bail on D’eAaron Fox, having just drafting him last year. After Phoenix and Sacramento, the possibilities get more credible and interesting.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks, holders of the #3 overall pick, are feuding with point guard Dennis Schroder. Lillard would provide a huge shot in the arm for them. Even if all of their contracts renewed, they’d be able to absorb his salary with just a little wiggling. (Think Mike Muscala and change.) The Hawks also hold Cleveland’s Top-10 protected pick next season and their own, but they’d be loathe to part with more than the 3rd pick for Lillard.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies would likely have little interest in Lillard with Mike Conley on board. They might consider McCollum better—and a better fit with their timeline—than whomever they’d draft at #4. They don’t have the cap space to absorb CJ’s contract outright, but they do have Chandler Parsons sitting there soaking up $24 million of cap space that he’s not exactly earning. Parsons’ contract ends in 2020. McCollum’s is congruent with Conley’s. The move makes sense that way. Portland might also be interested in the inexpensive Wayne Selden.

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks would need to lose Doug McDermott to absorb Lillard. The Blazers could take him in trade, but his 2019 free agency could muck up the rebuild. If Portland loved him and could re-sign him cheaply, #5 and McDermott would be a decent take.

Orlando Magic

With the 6th pick, we begin straying out of Lillard territory and shading towards McCollum deals. The Magic could make use of CJ as a point guard. They’re a Shelvin Mack away from fitting in his contract.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls could easily absorb McCollum’s contract and could offer the 7th pick in exchange. They might not be ready for a player with that kind of paycheck in their own rebuilding process, but talent is talent.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers would love to welcome McCollum back to Cleveland. They’d have to send salary back in return. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson would be the most likely veterans. If they could sign and trade Rodney Hood at the exact amount to pair with one of those vets, the Blazers might accept that as well. In that scenario they’d be planning on Hood sticking, angling to let the other contracts expire.

Going much below the 8th pick doesn’t make much sense for Lillard or McCollum. The Los Angeles Clippers’ picks at 12 and 13 could provide the only exception if Portland was convinced the draft went that deep. L.A. would probably have to trade Danilo Gallinari to the Blazers to make that deal work.

All the above trade scenarios assume that the original team executes its draft pick for the Blazers in the June draft, with actual trades executed after free agency rolls over in July.

The Plan

Losing Lillard and McCollum would mark a complete reset for Portland. The only two major players hanging through the entire rebuild would be Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, whom the Blazers could comfortably afford with the starting guards gone.

Portland would add two lottery picks this year, acquired through the Lillard/McCollum trades. They’d also use the 24th selection to pick up a third rookie.

Carrying that much youth, the Blazers would almost certainly make the lottery each of the next two seasons, which would comprise their rebuild window. They’d hope to be sucky or lucky, climbing as high as possible in the draft order in the 2019 and 2020 NBA Drafts.

Portland might take on ancillary players in the Lillard/McCollum swaps. High-salary players would exist only as trade ballast. They’d be jettisoned when their contracts expired (by 2020 in all cases). Young players would be on trial runs. Their contracts wouldn’t be onerous even if they extended past 2020.

Two Years to Rebuild

In the Summer of 2020, the Blazers would hold only the contracts of Nurkic, Collins, Caleb Swanigan, and those young, ancillary players (if any). Together all those contracts would total $25-35 million.

In addition, the Blazers would be carrying five first-round draftees from the 2018-2020 drafts. Four of them would have been lottery selections. All would remain on rookie-scale contracts.

The rebuilt team in the Summer of 2020 would look like this:

  • The 5 first-rounders (4 from the lottery)
  • Nurkic, Collins, Swanigan
  • Any young players picked up in the 2018 Lillard/McCollum deals
  • The franchise would have $50-ish million in cap space with which to recruit free agents that summer

By comparison, the non-rebuilt Blazers in 2020 will feature:

  • Lillard and McCollum on the final year of their contracts
  • 3 first-rounders (0 from the lottery, presumably)
  • Collins and Swanigan
  • Either $20-ish million (give or take) in cap space without Nurkic or $8-ish million if Nurk is pulling $12 million a year

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; you’re free to debate which outcome is better. If the Blazers make significant strides in the playoffs between now and 2020, a rebuild would be ridiculous. If mediocrity is the outcome and Portland risks losing Lillard and McCollum in 2021 because of it, a rebuild might seem more attractive. Rebuilding success depends on the depth of the 2018 Draft and the bouncing of ping-pong balls in subsequent years, though...hardly a sure thing.

Portland trading Lillard and McCollum is about as likely as Entwives showing up at your local Home Depot. All of this is theoretical. But if the Blazers do decide to rebuild, they’re not going to be able to do it halfway. Those guard contracts are too big, the rest of the deals around them too close in timing and too hard to barter, to allow half measures. If the Blazers can’t depend on internal development and incremental moves to take them over the top, the changes they make will have to be drastic.

Thanks for the question, Scott! Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or on Twitter @DaveDeckard

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com