Although the Portland Trail Blazers were a 49 win team last season, past games don’t win future championships. The franchise, and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, must have an eye on the future. It’s time for him, and all of us, to come to terms with the fact that it’s time to revamp the roster.
Pop quiz: See if you can figure out whether the following scenario describes the Blazers in 2017 or 2018:
Despite being swept out of the playoffs in April - so thoroughly dominated that it was clear the roster needed significant upgrades in order to compete - the Blazers drafted a project instead of player likely to make a more immediate impact.
Obviously it’s a trick question. 2017 draftee Zach Collins becomes 2018 rookie Anfernee Simons. I’m good with both picks. Those players have high upside, and could very well be cornerstones for the franchise in 2021. That’s at least at least 3 years and 246 games from now. Until then, Portland has a roster good enough to make the playoffs, but not do any damage there. That’s the worst place to be if you’re an NBA franchise.
Actually, that’s not true. It’s worse to be a middling team that’s also over the salary cap, because then you have a tough time selling the only thing fans buy nearly as much as winning: hope. Unfortunately for Olshey, that’s right where the franchise is right now, peddling hope without much of a chance to deliver.
If you can’t sell winning, and you’re running out of ways to spin hope, and you’re sliding into luxury tax territory, it’s probably time to change course. The organization needs to admit that this iteration of the team hasn’t worked and make some serious roster changes.
Yes, Olshey has the Allen Crabbe traded player exception to work with. Though he didn’t like any potential deals for the exception along with the 24th pick that ultimately became Simons, there’s a chance that a player could become available once teams start angling to clear out max cap space for a star free agent. But can they really get a difference-maker for the TPE? Besides, every move since the summer of 2016 has been aimed at avoiding the tax; I’m not sure that taking on additional salary is high on ownership’s priority list.
Barring a miracle, a championship is out of the question for this roster. Simply making a deep run would satisfy me as a fan. But if the move isn’t there, it’s time to shake things up and look toward the future.
As much as I resisted the idea over the last 18 months, those changes probably begin with CJ McCollum. No player on the roster outside of Damian Lillard can potentially bring back as much return as CJ. If Olshey decides that he can’t upgrade the roster once free agency hits on July 1st (and the NBA’s trade season kicks into high gear), he should look to get younger talent or future draft picks that better align with Collins’, Simons’, and possibly Nurkic’s (if he is retained) timelines.
That kind of move would leave Lillard as the elephant in the room. I don’t think the Blazers will consider trading him unless he directly requests it. He’s the face of the franchise and means too much to the team on and off the court. But the man needs help and he’s not getting it. If another year passes and this team isn’t any better, Lillard will be entering the final year of his contract, approaching the back end of his prime. What will he have to show for it?
If Lillard’s prime is wasted, it will be one of the great tragedies in Trail Blazers lore. Ultimately, I think they’ve got a better shot getting Lillard to buy in on being a veteran star on a team of young, high-upside guys than making minor tweaks and convincing him that things are hunky-dory with the same core roster in 2020.
A roster overhaul doesn’t have to mean a tank job. The modern NBA includes plenty of movement between franchises. The Blazers don’t need to bridge between good now and great now. If they believe in their young core, they can bridge between good now and great later. That’s a more promising route than trying to wiggle through a tiny crack with a bloated roster.
This team needs to grow, and it cannot wait to begin doing so. They say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.