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Kawhi Lessons: Time for the Blazers to Chase Stars?

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Kawhi Leonard’s success with Raptors presents an intriguing and risky avenue for the Trail Blazers.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It was only 324 days ago that the San Antonio Spurs agreed to trade Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (plus $5 million in cash to cover the trade kicker) to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected (1-20) 2019 1st round pick.

Here we sit with the Raptors up 3-1 over the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors and everything feels like all is right with the world. The Raptors made a no brainer move and have seized the opportunity (so far) that has been placed in front of them. While it’s easy with hindsight to say the trade was the right move (there are still some detractors out there), there were plenty who questioned breaking up DeRozan and Kyle Lowry with LeBron James moving West.

With the big bad out of the way, Toronto could surely advance and make it to the Finals, no? Masai Ujiri, President of Basketball Operations for Toronto, clearly believed otherwise. He sent the face of their franchise, an All-Star, the team’s heart and soul to San Antonio, then fired their head coach and swung for the fences. All without the guarantee—in fact, probably a near certainty—that Leonard would not re-sign in Toronto, that instead he would move on to Los Angeles to either the Clippers or the Lakers.

Yet still, the trigger was pulled and here we sit.

I’m rehashing this all to frame a discussion I’ve been having about the Blazers the last few weeks. If Portland was in that position, would they be willing to do it? Should they be willing to take that swing? It’s not a secret that I feel like the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt has hit its ceiling. As phenomenal as they are individually, I don’t believe they truly maximize each others potential. They’re potent and lethal, but not enough to conquer the best of the best. That’s nothing to slouch at.

So let’s take a step back here. The Blazers, fresh off running into the big bad that is the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals (a team that has eliminated them 3 out of the last 4 postseasons) are at a crossroads with their personnel. They’re limited by the CBA with what they can do and are tight on available funds due to the summer of 2016, so how could they get THAT much better? An act of God, by drafting the next Giannis with a late pick, Anfernee Simons turning into Anfernee Hardaway, or a trade.

Now we’ve all heard the familiar drum of “Is it time to trade CJ?” It’s a chorus we all know too well. I’m not advocating it here, nor do I think it’s entirely possible at this point. However, I think the circumstances are quite similar to Toronto’s less than a year ago. While Portland is feeling good and riding high off their Conference Finals run, a lot of questions need to be answered about next season. That’s the only big difference I see between the teams—expectations. But, let’s say Portland was presented an opportunity that mirrored the Raptors.

Portland must give up a face of their franchise, a beloved guard, a young big man prospect and a 1st round pick. In exchange, they would receive a disgruntled superstar with 1-year remaining on his deal and a rotation player. Knowing everything, that this superstar could and will most likely leave you after the season—are you willing to risk that much capital to make the move?

This is less about the actual players involved and more about the practice of the theory. However, ff you want to insert the names, say it with me now; the Portland Trail Blazers trade CJ McCollum, Zach Collins, and this year’s 2019 1st round pick (25th) to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis and E’Twuan Moore.

I’m not saying this is likely, I’m not saying this is a deal—I’m using the parameters of the Leonard-DeRozan trade to essentially frame the same situation that Portland is facing. If you want to say DeRozan is better or more valuable and add another piece or pick, go ahead. The theory is still there. Are you willing to mortgage it all for something that could potentially fail in a spectacular way?

I don’t think it says anything about you as a person good or bad, it’s just a reflection of the risk in today’s high stakes NBA. Do you value the continuity and consistency, or is there a point where the talent and the risk/rewards outweigh that framework, no matter how good it may be?