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Besides Damian Lillard, Who is the Blazers’ Most Important Future Piece?

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Damian Lillard is the Blazers’ franchise player, and will be crucial to their plans going forward. Outside of him, who is the player the Blazers should prioritize retaining this summer?

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Three Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Trail Blazers are heading into a summer where significant roster change seems likely. On a recent episode of the Lowe Post, both Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons predicted that Blazers’ second-leading scorer CJ McCollum would get traded this summer, and they aren’t alone in that line of thought. At the very least, some of the rotation players will almost certainly be swapped out for others who bring something different to the table—anything to shake the Blazers out of the stagnancy they’ve found themselves in. The only player who seems safe is Blazers’ franchise player Damian Lillard. But outside of Lillard, considering current production, fit with Dame, salary (or expected salary), and future potential, who is the Blazers’ most indispensable player?

Current Production:

The Blazers’ second-best player for the last three seasons has been McCollum. He’s a superior scorer, shooter, and shot-creator to anyone on the team except Lillard, and it’s not even close. He does have weaknesses, but as an overall player he’s clearly the second banana. Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers’ mercurial center, probably comes next. He was third on the team in scoring at 14.3 per game (and the only other player in double-figure scoring), and led the Blazers in rebounds with 9 a contest. After Nurkic, the rest of the Blazers’ role players follow in short order, led by Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis. The issue with the Blazers is that from Nurkic on down, the rotation after the top guards just weren’t consistent difference makers this season. Really, nobody but Dame or CJ provides production that is that hard to replace.

Fit (with Dame):

Damian Lillard is a small, score-first guard with unlimited range. Therefore, the best fits next to him on the wings are athletic, rangy defense-first players who can shoot from outside. Preferably, one of them could also create his own shot to relieve Lillard on an off night or against a bigger defender. Big men fits include floor-spacers, rim-runners, and rim-protectors who can cover up for Dame’s sometimes porous defense. Unfortunately, the Blazers’ roster is largely devoid of these types of players. Ed Davis is a solid defensive big man who can roll to the rim and gobble boards. Zach Collins showed flashes of being a stretch-center, an incredibly valuable archetype in the NBA, and a fantastic pairing with Dame’s shooting. He can also defend smaller players on the perimeter, which would be nice in a switch-heavy NBA. The closest fit on the wing is probably Aminu, a stout defender who can hit threes.

Unfortunately, neither of the Blazers’ next-most talented players are great pairings with Lillard. CJ’s skillset (and therefore, weaknesses) overlap too much with Dame: he’s a smaller guard who can’t switch on defense, likes to hold the ball, and isn’t a great playmaker for others. Jusuf Nurkic has also shown flashes of being a consistent pick and roll threat with Dame, which is good. On the other hand, he also likes to get shots up, and he’s just not an efficient scorer without someone feeding him the ball. Nurkic is fine defensively, but due to his size can’t really defend the perimeter or teams playing five-out basketball with the floor fully spread. Nurkic and McCollum can obviously play well with Dame, yet they don’t really accentuate his talents as much as some other players of equivalent talent might.

Salary/Control:

The Blazers have a lot of money tied up over the next two seasons. CJ McCollum is making the most of the non-Dame players, at almost $83 million over the next three years. Evan Turner trails with a contract in the high teens for two years, and then come Mo Harkless and Meyers Leonard with $10-11 million, also for two more seasons. All of these players are overpaid: Turner and Leonard by a lot, Harkless and McCollum by smaller amounts. Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan are both on cheap contracts that the Blazers can control for another three seasons, making them very cost-valuable. Al-Farouq Aminu is the only other rotation player under contract for the 2018-2019 season, and he’s probably somewhat underpaid at just under $7 million.

That just leaves the free agents, who the Blazers obviously need to find fair value for this summer. Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier should both be available for relatively inexpensive deals, with anything over a few million probably being an overpay. Nurkic probably wants a hefty payday this summer, but with just a handful of teams possessing cap space, his market might not be quite what he wants it to be. Davis has been underpaid for years, and with a non-flashy game heading into his late 20s and early 30s, it’s quite possible he could get less than he deserves as well. The player with the biggest possibility of an overpay is Nurkic, though there is a chance he accepts a qualifying offer for one season. This would make him relatively cheap, but would also bring unrestricted free agency next summer, which actually lessens the Blazers’ control over the situation.

Upside:

This is where things get a bit grimmer. The Blazers’ roster is mostly in their mid-late 20s: Not near stage of decline, but also probably unlikely to get substantially better. Nurkic will turn 24 this summer, yet nothing about his development thus far in the NBA suggests he’s going to make a break through to stardom. He made slow and steady improvements in his first three seasons before tailing off last year, and it’s tough to see from what direction a leap in production might come. McCollum turns 27 right before the start of the season, and he too hasn’t developed significantly in recent years, making much further improvement unlikely. The highest upside player on the Blazers is easily Zach Collins, who had a solid rookie season at age 20, and made improvements to his game as the year went along. If he can improve his outside shooting and get a bit stronger on the glass, he could be a very good player in just a couple of years. Caleb Swanigan is also young, but he barely played in his rookie season, and is a lower-upside player type (energy big man off the bench). It would be possible for players like Connaughton or Harkless to improve as well, as they are only 25—neither seems to possess much upside, though.

Overall:

While CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are the two most talented players on the roster outside of Damian Lillard, neither are the most indispensable considering other factors. Between their salary (likely salary, in Nurkic’s case), imperfect fits with Lillard, and lack of upside, neither should be regarded as untouchable, or close to it, going forward. Ed Davis’ fit, production, and likely low-ish contract makes him a critical piece for the Blazers to retain this summer, though his lack of upside or high-level play means he’s not truly indispensable. Al-Farouq Aminu is in that area as well, his own case being damaged by his upcoming free agency just a year away.

Instead, the youngster Zach Collins is probably the most important player on the Blazers that isn’t Lillard. He’s cheap, under control for several years (at the least), has a skillset that fits with Dame, and is already well on the road to becoming a good player. Most importantly, he has the potential to be a starting level player for years to come, a player who could be a cornerstone of the next playoff squad built around Lillard. The Blazers would be unwise to trade Collins for anything other than a true star who would be a complement to Dame, and that makes him the most indispensable player on the Blazers besides their franchise star himself.