One of the biggest reasons the Portland Trail Blazers are trudging through a disappointing year after a Western Conference Finals appearance is the lack of frontcourt depth. Hassan Whiteside is the only player taller than 6’8” on the current roster, and while everyone and their mother will forever remember the Anthony Tolliver game against the Charlotte Hornets this past Monday, the reality is that Portland needs to make up somehow for injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Skal Labissiere if they want to take a seed in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
That is where one former Blazer, also experiencing an unusually bad year, could come into play. Utah Jazz big man Ed Davis was once a fan favorite in Portland, a hard-working center with a nose for grabbing boards while operating as a solid roll man. When Neil Olshey helped usher him out of Portland during free agency in the summer of 2018, Damian Lillard expressed his displeasure in losing a valuable teammate. In Brooklyn he thrived as a backup center, leading the team in rebounds at 8.6 per game in just 17.9 minutes.
After signing his two-year $10 million deal with Utah this summer, Davis has struggled, finding himself with less and less playing time. He has gotten several DNPs due both to injury and coach’s decisions. All his numbers are down across the board. A player often hailed as a sneaky great signing wherever he’s gone now finds himself in limbo.
With the Blazers and Davis struggling, there may be a Blazer fan or two (Team Mom included) concocting a variety of trade machine scenarios to bring him back to Rip City. But is that really the right move? Do the Blazers need to do this or can they afford to either wait it out or look elsewhere? Let’s break it down.
Portland’s frontcourt is depleted. As surprisingly well as Anthony Tolliver has fared as of late, the fact he is still expected to play extended minutes as the backup center is not a recipe for success. Injuries to players like Collins and Labissiere have derailed things, obviously, and now Portland finds itself in a less than ideal situation.
Having an active player like Davis capable of grabbing boards, setting solid screens and defending the paint would be extremely valuable. He never averaged less than a block per game per 36 minutes during his time in Portland. He still knows how to grab boards, even though his total rebound percentage is the lowest it has been since the 2016-17 season. Thanks to Whiteside the Blazers rank still in the top 10 in rebounds per game. Getting Davis to shore things up in that department while also playing solid defense would be highly valuable, especially since he doesn’t chase blocks in the same manner as Whiteside.
This all goes without mentioning his past chemistry with Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as his familiarity with Portland’s system. Ben Dowsett’s article about Davis’s struggles on Forbes highlighted how part of the reason for his decline has been his iffy fit within Utah’s system. Getting back in a system that he experienced prior success in could rejuvenate the 30-year-old.
The obvious con in this potential swap is the cost of taking on Davis. As poorly as he’s played with the Jazz, he will still surely fetch a fairly high price. This isn’t as much about his play as it is his contract. The Blazers have only one contract that matches Ed Davis and that’s Zach Collins, who projects right now to be much better than Davis even with an injury. For a team that is already struggling to field enough talented guys every night, trading two for one to get a struggling Davis in return doesn’t make sense for the Blazers.
Any move they make comes at the cost of a valuable asset, as Dan Marang pointed out on the Blazer’s Edge podcast. Davis’s deal is in a weird place where only multiple younger players or some combination of Tolliver and Mario Hezonja with a younger guy can make the trade happen.
If the Blazers tried to ship off Tolliver and Hezonja, players on expiring contracts, they’re left with extra salary at the end of the year. They’re currently over luxury tax threshold. They’d also be adding a multi-year deal to the cap. diminishing their potential cap space this summer.
The only other salaries that can alleviate that pressure are players with late first-round rookie salaries (i.e. Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little or Labissiere). Simons is off limits, Little could blossom into a unique player and Labissiere put together solid minutes off the bench doing largely the same stuff as Davis but with better range and for less money, so I personally don’t see trading any of those players as a viable solution.
There is nothing worse in the NBA than the playoffs treadmill. Being good enough to sneak into the playoffs every year only to lose to superior teams isn’t a good thing. That’s at best what happens if the Blazers trade for Davis.
As much as it stings, this season just does not have the same magic as last year. The reality is that Portland may have to admit (to an extent) that this is a ‘lost’ season. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Jusuf Nurkic will be back soon. Collins will be back as well next year. Rodney Hood will most likely take that player option as he recovers from his achilles tear. We don’t know to what capacity Nurkic will be able to play at or how good Hood will be after suffering one of the most difficult injuries to return from, but there’s still hope they can be even partially what they were before. Labissiere played admirably as well while filling in on several occasions.
I apologize profusely to everyone’s favorite mom, but—outside of a multi-player or multi-team deal—I don’t see an easy way to bring Ed Davis back to Portland. At this point, the Blazers are best off riding this season out. If they get the eight seed, then awesome. If not, then that’s fine. The Blazers have better things coming in the future. Sacrificing those things for Davis isn’t the move this team needs right now.