The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2018-19 NBA regular season on the cusp of several possibilities. They could repeat last year’s run to the 3rd seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They could also repeat the accompanying first-round ouster. Their young guys might flourish, but it also might come too late for franchise superstars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum...either or both of whom could stay or go. The Blazers might even end up in the NBA Draft Lottery, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on perspective. Making sense of the way forward amid so many unknowns is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Warriors Super Team. Lillard might leave or not. Playoffs aren’t going well but tanking doesnt seem to be an option really. What do the Blazers do from here? I know the luxury tax and all that, so you dont need to worry about explaining it. Seriously. How do they go ahead in a good way and get where they need to be?
OK, so look. I really want to take my kids to Disneyland next summer. The years in which they’ll think that’s the coolest thing ever are quickly passing. They’d be thrilled and surprised, which would make me feel like an awesome dad. It’s just, you know, something that should happen, right?
It doesn’t take long researching trips to Disneyland, though, before the sticker-price horror sinks in. Even staying way off-site and cutting corners, it costs a fortune. You quickly realize that the real problem isn’t taking the kids to Disneyland, it’s taking the kids to Disneyland affordably.
That problem should have a solution. The world, and our lives, would be better if it did. If there is a solution, though, I have yet to discover it. Yes, there are compromises (like “spend a fortune” or “just don’t go”) but there’s no way this is going to happen in the way it needs to...at least not completely. You can’t get there from here.
That’s exactly where the Trail Blazers are with this whole “talent vs. salary ratio” thing. There are compromises (like “trade Dame and CJ!” or “spend even more of a fortune on mid-level players!”) but there’s no magic out. They need the team to be accomplished and on enough of an upward trajectory to make re-signing Lillard and McCollum a no-brainer. They also need to find a window in which challenging the Golden State Warriors for a title becomes a live possibility. In order to do those things, not only must the current roster play at max level, Portland will need to acquire significant talent while trimming payroll. It’s a hell of a dream, but, short of a miracle, you can’t get there from here.
This was not always the case. Once the Blazers had operating room and cap space. All around the NBA, significant players have moved franchises at historical rates. Portland did not have the money, sales pitch, or talent pool to take advantage. The window is closing now, their wiggle room disappearing. 2020 and 2021 are looming large, accompanied by critical franchise decision points. Pretending like this isn’t so—saying the status quo is good enough and waiting for a miracle to save them—doesn’t help anyone, least of all them.
The new reality brings about a new set of rules. The field isn’t wide open anymore. The future is becoming more predictable by the half-season, if not the month. The Blazers can’t afford to ignore the terrain ahead. They have to start planning and taking advantage of it.
In this new environment, the following factors are becoming increasingly important.
- It’s too early for them to give up. Lillard and McCollum are franchise-defining talents. The Blazers cannot simply dump them in favor of a nebulous rebuild unless it becomes apparent that there’s no choice because they’re leaving anyway. That’ll be clearer as 2020 approaches. Until then, the Blazers have to keep trying to build around Dame and CJ.
- Two opportunities could override that assertion. If the Blazers found a deal for McCollum that fundamentally changed the balance of the starting lineup without sacrificing talent, they’d need to consider it. (Think star big man or All-Star guard.) Alternately, if a team offered a wheelbarrow full of picks—including lottery selections—for either guard, Portland would at least have to listen. The bar would be higher for Lillard than McCollum, obviously, but they’d have to figure that trading CJ for future picks would all but ensure Lillard would depart at the end of his contract anyway, as his career would be nearing a close before those picks hit their prime.
- If there’s ANY way to transfer open cap space from 2020 to 2019, the Blazers have to consider it seriously. The problem with space in 2020 has less to do with amount (though there won’t be as much as people think) than timing. With only a single year left on the Lillard-McCollum contracts and not enough space to offer a max deal to a free agent, moves in 2020 will probably be too little, too late. The Blazers need to give their guards and themselves two seasons to evaluate how their last-ditch efforts to sustain the era will pan out. If that’s to happen, they’ll have to unload their albatross contracts. That will require losing draft selections. If the front office really, really believes that Lillard and McCollum are their long-term future, they can’t shy away from the cost and accompanying risk. (Keep in mind, though, that the guards are free to walk away anyway. If they opt to do that, losing those draft picks would really hurt...like losing Will Barton and a pick for Arron Afflalo, but worse.)
- If none of those options pan out, the template is clear. Any player acquired must be...
- Young enough to hold promise beyond 2021 (the type of player they wouldn’t mind rebuilding with no matter what). OR...
- Cheap enough to make their contract a non-factor. OR...
- Holding a contract that expires roughly congruently with Lillard and McCollum. OR...
- A player of such obvious talent that bringing him on will materially change the course of the franchise.
The mushy middle ground between these poles should be off-limits. The Blazers cannot afford to stay in the luxury tax for little or no improvement. Doing so would shove them irrevocably into repeater tax status should they retain their starting guards in 2021, making further improvement all but impossible. If they don’t retain Lillard and McCollum, acquiring such players would make no sense anyway. They’d just become burdens after the guards departed.
The Blazers have not operated under these strictures heretofore, which is part of why they’re in trouble now. The rules are not sacrosanct; under different circumstances they wouldn’t apply at all. But it’s clear that Portland has misread the environment and their own roster. Following these rules will stop the bleeding and set them up to take a new, and ultimately saner, course whether or not Lillard and McCollum stay.
There’s no right answer to the dilemma in which the Blazers find themselves, but there are ways to make sure that playing cards and power go into their hands from this point forward instead of getting surrendered to players and other franchises. That’s the first step to resolving the question you asked, no matter what ultimately happens to the roster they’ve built so far.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to email@example.com or on Twitter @DaveDeckard!