With the arrival of today’s holiday, the Trail Blazers close the book on a successful and steady 10 years of basketball. The past decade started with the conclusion of Brandon Roy’s memorable tenure in Portland, was bridged by LaMarcus Aldridge’s rise to stardom and was capped off by Damian Lillard’s ascension to legend status.
Following Eric Griffith’s look back at the last decade of players, Steve Dewald focuses on the future and the players that could shape the next 10 years of Blazers basketball.
Like LaMarcus Aldridge at the turn of the last decade, Damian Lillard takes his bonafide star status into the next era of Blazers basketball. The Oakland native is under contract through the 2024-25 season (player option in the final season), a deal that puts him in Portland until he turns 34 years old. Buoyed by a crafty multi-faceted skillset, Lillard has all the tools to age gracefully into his post-prime years, a trait that cements his place at the top of this list.
If Lillard continues to follow through with his consistent message of commitment, there is little doubt that his name will hold a prominent position at the top of every Blazers-related list. A successful title run in this decade would place him in a class of his own.
All eyes will be fixed on Jusuf Nurkic starting at this year’s All-Star break. Returning to his promising pre-injury form is a crucial ingredient to Portland’s chances of cracking the NBA’s elite. Prior to his exit in 2018-19, the 25-year-old center was in the middle of a massive leap in production and efficiency. Coupled with Lillard in the pick-and-roll, Nurkic’s fluid decision making unlocked the Blazers’ high-octane offense. Defensively, his spacial awareness mitigates the defensive lapses of his offense-first teammates. Once he gets his rhythm back, the sky is the limit for Nurkic on both ends of the court.
Nurkic’s team-friendly contract runs through the 2021-22 season (only $4 million is guaranteed in the final year). The Blazers have his Bird rights, allowing them to go over the cap to retain his services. Barring considerable setbacks, it is tough to imagine Portland passing on his services.
Nurkic’s transition in representation to Rich Paul and Klutch Sports could add a new wrinkle to the discussion. With that in mind, it would not be a complete shock to see Nurkic explore the market as an unrestricted free agent for the first time. Either way, Portland’s future is very much tied to the Bosnian Beast.
The Player Selected in 2022 NBA Draft
The NBA has repeatedly flirted with abandoning the one-and-done era under commissioner Adam Silver, a move that would allow prospects to skip college and make the leap to the NBA. The league has informed teams that a move of that nature could come as early as the 2022 NBA Draft. In theory, that draft could hold two classes worth of first-round talent (double draft), giving non-lottery teams a chance to secure a top prospect.
A full 10 years after selecting Lillard, the Blazers should have another opportunity to land a franchise-altering talent.
Selected at pick No. 24 in the 2018 NBA Draft, Anfernee Simons’ standing inside the Blazers’ organization has rocketed to the top. Touted as the most talented player drafted by President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, Simons was given the keys to the second unit at just 20 years old. There have been obvious growing pains, but it is clear that Lillard and Portland’s front office are bullish on Simons’ ceiling-busting potential.
Simons’ continued progression is key to lessening Lillard’s longterm workload. On top of his potential to ease Lillard’s late-career burden, Simons could be the catalyst behind a theoretical CJ McCollum trade.
Due to an unfortunate shoulder injury, Zach Collins’ chance to secure the frontcourt spotlight was nixed. Regardless of his injury-shortened season, the 22-year-old big man is still crucial to Portland’s longterm interior presence. Given his size and mobility, Collins’ pairing alongside Nurkic could allow the Blazers to exploit the league’s move to a perimeter-centric style.
Once Collins’ rookie deal concludes, the Blazers are guaranteed to have a say in his future via restricted free agency. If Nurkic’s future plays out in a less-than-ideal fashion, Collins would become the clear option to occupy the pivot spot.
- CJ McCollum - Currently 28 years old, McCollum is under contract through the 2023-24 season. His placement inside the honorable mentions portion should not detract from his crucial supplementary role next to Lillard. Looking forward, you don’t need a crystal ball to see how McCollum’s salary presents a challenge when navigating the potential cap commitments of three out of the five players mentioned above.
- Player X - The Blazers have an opportunity at the trade deadline to transform expiring salary into a legitimate contributor. If Portland lands a contending-caliber starter, it could reshape Lillard’s prime years in a positive way.