The Portland Trail Blazers finished a spectacular run to the Western Conference Finals in less-than-spectacular fashion this week, getting swept by the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have now eliminated Portland in three of the last four seasons, in every playoffs round possible. Portland’s post-season record against them during that span is 1-12.
Though the Blazers feel rosy about their season, and have every right to, it’s clear that something has to change if 2018-19 isn’t going to become their pinnacle of achievement. Cap considerations limit their options in free agency. Their position in the 2019 NBA Draft isn’t great. If they’re going to improve enough to build on this year’s success, they need to pull off a trade.
Make no mistake, Portland’s talent-to-salary ratio is still skewed. They don’t have many attractive chips to offer. They won’t be able to strike the traditional talent-based deal without giving up their best players and risking a lateral move.
One particular kind of swap is opening up to them, though. It’s valid this year, and this year alone. If they’re serious about trying to contend, they need to consider it.
Why a Move is Necessary
Faithful readers will recall me saying in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag that the only proper approach in the midst of the post-season is “concentration on the next game and optimism about the possibility of winning it”. That held the Blazers in good stead through all three series.
The games are over now, Portland’s possibilities closed. This necessitates a perspective shift. The optimism that gives a team the courage to face a 0-2 deficit with confidence will betray them if carried into the off-season. June and July are not times for Instagram-filtered shots of the franchise. Honesty matters.
This is no different than being employed on a job that later ends. As long as you’re working, you have to believe that you can succeed, trying your best to achieve the goal at hand. After the fact, it’s time for realistic assessments and trustworthy feedback. That’s the only way you improve.
Realistically, the Blazers were not “one step away from the NBA Finals” this year. Playoffs difficulty doesn’t increase linearly, but exponentially. Taking Round 2 is harder than Round 1. Beating an opponent in the Conference Finals dwarfs both.
Portland reached the halfway mark of the 2019 post-season by victory count, but the distance between them and defeating Golden State was huge...equal to the entire distance they’d traveled since the playoffs opened. And that was just to reach the NBA Finals. Winning the title in the final series is the toughest journey of all.
Golden State sweeping adds to the claim. The Denver series being so tight, to the point that either team could win if the series—or just the final game—were replayed, provides more evidence.
We don’t know for sure whether Portland would make it to Round 3 if they had to play this post-season all over again. We do know what would await them if they managed it.
Distance to Goal
If the Blazers are serious about being great, they can’t just make the Conference Finals once and hang their hats on that. The Grizzlies, Hawks, and Thunder have all done the same in the past six years and none of them are particularly distinguished. Portland needs to repeat the feat. They can’t just rely on bracket draw, random injuries, or the whims of referees. They have to make advancing predictable and assured, no matter what opponent they face. Then they have to do even more, actually winning the Conference Finals. After that, they have to face a great opponent in the NBA Finals and emerge victorious as well.
The Blazers are a long, long way from that point. If they can make a move, they dare not stand pat and hope.
Why a Trade?
Radical improvement will rely on a trade because the other options aren’t sufficient.
The Blazers are capped out and near the luxury tax line even if they forsake all of their impending free agents. At most they’ll have a mid-level exception to offer players who hit the market. That list not only includes free agents from other teams, but Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood, and Seth Curry. The Blazers don’t have Bird Rights on any of those three players.
Portland cannot add significant free-agent talent. They can’t even retain all the players they have. From a talent/depth standpoint, standing pat will actually be going backwards. The only question is whether it’ll be a little or a lot.
The Blazers do hold the 25th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. First-round picks usually improve their teams. Even if they select a potential starter, how long will that player take to develop, and how many potential seasons of Damian Lillard’s and CJ McCollum’s primes will be lost in the meantime?
The Blazers might improve incrementally with the right draft pick. They’ll bank on Jusuf Nurkic returning to health and improvement from Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, and Gary Trent Jr. to make them better. All of that together won’t bridge the gap they need to cross.
If they’re going to get better soon, trading for a proven, high-level player is their big hope.
The Blazers may not have equal talent available to trade for a star (assuming they want to keep CJ McCollum) but they do have three expiring contracts in Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, and Meyers Leonard. Together, that trio will earn $41.4 million in 2019-20.
This is not 2004. Expiring contracts will not be coveted for their own sake. Nor are they particularly rare. Everybody who signed a four-year deal in 2016 is holding one. But the Blazers may be able to squeeze value out of their expiring contracts that other teams can’t.
- The Blazers have the leverage of several expiring contracts combined. They’re able to offer an enormous salary-relief package.
- They’re at the stage where one incoming player could make an enormous difference. Not every team would be willing to consider making this kind of move.
- The Blazers have low-salary young players to offer alongside cap relief. They might be willing to part with draft picks as well.
If, in addition to all these things, they are willing to swallow a large luxury tax bill, they may be able to take a once-in-a-lifetime swing for the fences. Their target would be a star-level player with an overpaid contract, playing on a team that has discovered that they’re going nowhere even with him on board.
Nobody will be charitable to the Blazers. They’re not going to get a franchise cornerstone. The player they take back will have multiple years left on his deal and they will be ugly. He’ll probably be old by the time the contract expires.
The right move may not be available in the summer. Portland may have to wait until December or January for potential trade partners to figure out they need to part ways with their former Super-Expensive Signing.
Even with all those caveats, That Guy is probably going to be there.
Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons is Exhibit 1A. The Pistons are going to own him $110 million over the next three seasons. He just turned 30. His numbers are as high as ever, but Detroit doesn’t have anyone else around him outside of similarly-overpaid Andre Drummond. Together they went 41-41 last year, getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Detroit may balk at trading Griffin after he’s coming off an All-NBA-level season. If they did consider it, they’d want franchise players in return. If nobody offers those, and if the Pistons are stalling as New Year’s approaches, getting out of the enormous obligation might look attractive.
Mileage will vary on other candidates:
- The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a huge hole with Kevin Love ($29-31 million per year between 2019 and 2023).
- Aaron Gordon makes far less for the Orlando Magic ($19.8-$16.4 million) and is only 23, which makes him a pipe dream in this scenario.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves gave Andrew Wiggins the worst non—John-Wall contract in basketball ($27.5-$33.6 million for the next four years). Obi Wan Kenobi would probably confirm that he’s not the small forward the Blazers are looking for.
- Bradley Beal of the Wizards and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Spurs have only two years remaining on their contracts, meaning the receiving teams wouldn’t save as much money.
The Blazers can’t take on a player just because he’s expensive. A bad addition would not only disrupt the lineup, it’d destroy their balance books for no reason. The bar isn’t prohibitively high, though. If they found a big-time starter to put alongside Lillard, McCollum, or Nurkic, they’d be better off than they will be with the Turner-Harkless-Leonard trio, let alone the mid-level (or min-level) free agents the Blazers will need to replace them with in 2020.
What are the Odds?
Any deal of this nature is a severe longshot. Still, the Blazers won’t have those expiring contracts past February. It’s now or never to take a run at it.
At the very least, Portland should be probing everywhere from Minnesota to Orlando, ascertaining the possibility of a big move coming true. If they could pull it off, they’d end up battling the Oklahoma City Thunder for highest roster salary (and luxury tax penalty) ever, but they might also end up battling the Warriors more credibly over the next three years.
A move like this made no sense when they were battling for lower seeds, but if they’re legitimate deep-run contenders (which they, themselves are now claiming they are), perspective changes.
If they get the chance, they have to consider it, don’t you think?