The Portland Trail Blazers had a fairly successful 2019-20 campaign, all things considered. Between injuries and new players, the year was a challenge. Excelling in the bubble, making the 2020 NBA Playoffs, and watching Damian Lillard light up the universe helped mitigate the sting of a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, the question remains...is it enough?
The Blazers have plenty of potential flexibility this summer, but salary cap and roster construction are likely to force them down one of two divergent roads: either keep the team mostly intact or change it fairly radically. Keeping it together will use so much cap space that there won’t be room for major additions, barring a big trade. Tearing it down would yield so little cap space that it doesn’t really make sense unless a team-changing trade is in the offing. Which of those roads is most open, let alone right, remains to be seen.
Dave Deckard (@DaveDeckard): Dia Miller and I are going to go back and forth on this today. Dia, we know we’re in a rom-com situation here. We just don’t know which of the two archetypes to root for. Do we hope the protagonists stay together or do we feel this relationship isn’t what’s meant to be and somebody needs to make a serious move (perhaps on the nerd in glasses down the street)?
Dia (@diandraann): Well, you know me. I am emotionally invested in these guys. When we lost Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazemore halfway through the season, even though I knew It was the right decision, I cried. But even if I attempt to take my emotion out of the picture, I think keeping the team essentially how It is with some possible small changes seems like a better option than blowing It up. The team as It stands has major talent, especially when healthy. They also have chemistry and seem to really mesh well. I just don’t know if pulling that apart ends well for us.
Dave: That’s a good point. Nowhere...NOWHERE is the chemistry thing more evident than with Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside. Both of those players had checkered pasts. The come to Portland and all of a sudden...BOOM. The Blazers get the best Whiteside we’ve ever seen and Carmelo is better than anyone expected. Rodney Hood has a similar story. The Blazers are the vanilla ice cream of the NBA. You can put any kind of topping on them—even wacky ones—and it’s going to taste good.
Might that not also be an argument for being able to absorb other players, though? If the Blazers make everybody look good, some veterans out there might be more targeted to their needs than Anthony and Whiteside.
This brings up an interesting question. What, or who, do you think is at the heart of the great chemistry? Which players (or other personnel) do you think can’t be taken away without fundamentally changing the heart of the team?
Dia: It’s a solid point. That’s one of the things that has been so fun to watch, this kind of Cinderella story. I find great satisfaction in seeing guys come to the team that have struggled other places, and watching them find their home in Portland. The common denominator, to me, is Damian Lillard. He has a way of bringing out the best in the people around him. I think he’s done that in Portland. Obviously, even if they decided to make big moves, Dame isn't going anywhere. I think Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum are also crucial to the chemistry. The truth is, when I go down the roster, there are very few changes that I feel like could be made without disrupting what they have going on.
Dave: I’m more open to it, especially this year. It seems like every year we say the same thing. “They did good! Except they didn’t quite make it. Next year they’ll have to show more!” Except when you look back, they haven’t really shown that much more? I get the Conference Finals run last season. Full marks for that. But even then, they weren’t anywhere close to Golden State. They don’t hit a ceiling each year; they get shoved off a cliff, right out of the playoffs. It’s just a matter of what round and/or how much excitement they can generate in the process.
At some point, they need to decide to risk it for the biscuit, even if that means making a daring move. I don’t think there’s any chance Lillard or Nurkic are going anywhere. After that, the whole roster should be negotiable.
Unless they’re brain-dead, I don’t see them making a move that makes them measurably worse. They can fight for a low playoffs seed with Dame, Nurk, and most any reasonable supporting cast. Why not swing for the fences if they get the chance?
I’m curious, though...confession time. What player on the roster besides Lillard and Nurkic would you hate to see them trade, either for basketball reasons or personal? Who’s that guy for you? (Bonus points if it’s someone besides CJ.)
Dia: I agree in some ways. But there’s the argument too that after going to the Western Conference finals, maybe they shouldn’t have broken up that team. There were some big moves made there and It shook things up. That’s a tough adjustment. I’m a big fan of CJ. I struggle hard with the idea of trading him (for both basketball and personal reasons), but if I’m being honest, aside from Nurk and Dame, I think Gary Trent Jr needs to stay. He’s a major major talent who really pulled his weight this season and he’s still so young. I can see him being a huge talent on this team going forward. Plus, who doesn’t love watching his passionate play? I’d absolutely miss his outfits and airplane bathroom photo shoots too. He’s one of those guys that I love for the team as a player, but also that I just love personally. For me, Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and Gary Trent Jr are absolutely not trade-able.
Dave: Not to be boring, but same here! And I’ll tell you why. Trent Jr. gives the Blazers shooting and defense at shooting guard. McCollum is one of the best scorers in the league...maybe THE best mid-range guy. I can’t even tell you how much in awe I am of his offensive ability. But he’s not a pure, off-ball shooter and there are just too many defensive issues with him and Lillard. That’s not on them...it just is. Slide Trent Jr. into that starting lineup and the Blazers have defense next to Dame. I assume they still love Zach Collins, so there’s good defense at the big positions with him and Nurkic. If Portland could just get a small forward who can score and defend—Paul Pierce and Khris Middleton being the archetypes, but presumably they’d have to settle for less—think of that! With Trent and a defensive small forward on board, every position above point guard defends at a good/great level and Lillard can certainly defend well enough to keep up the system. Meanwhile everybody but Collins can score...and if that small forward can also score big, watch out! Trent’s skill set is the key to that.
If the Blazers could line up a trade for such a player, but it cost them McCollum, what would your gut say?
Dia: My heart says heck no. I’m a huge CJ McCollum fan. I just love him. Like I said earlier, I am emotionally invested in the players on this team. It’s hard for me to make a rational, play based decision. I think he has been incredible for us, especially at times where Lillard has been injured and unable to play. I can’t imagine seeing McCollum in another team’s jersey. Just the thought of that makes me emotional. However, my heart and my head don’t agree in this situation. I can see how McCollum comes out and plays on the ball when Lillard is out, and I think in some ways, the two of them together are holding each other back. I truly can’t make a call here. I can see the advantage to trading him, both for the Trail Blazers and for McCollum. But at the end of the day, the chemistry on this team is undeniable, and making big moves like trading away McCollum might not be the right thing to do at this point. If It were my call, I think I would make small adjustments for this upcoming year instead of trading our main guys. With Rodney Hood and Zach Collins healthy, and Trevor Ariza back with the team, could we let go of Hassan Whiteside and his huge contract in favor of a small forward like you mentioned? Maybe Danilo Gallinari or even Marcus Morris. I’d like to see an attempt to bring someone in like that who could fill out our roster without costing us big moves.
Dave: I think you’re in luck, because I think that’s what the Blazers will try. It’ll start with Ariza, I think. If they can’t get someone great, they might as well at least keep the defense. But Ariza being mostly a non-scorer will bolster the argument that CJ’s scoring is needed. Plus there’s the history and chemistry you mentioned. They’ll bring Trent off the bench to keep that. With Ariza on board, there’s no cap space available. They’ll figure they’re set with Collins and Nurkic, but I doubt they’ll want to pay Whiteside at the level he’ll want. Nor do I think he’ll want to come back in order to come off the bench. That leaves them a mid-level exception to try and bolster the forward position. An offensive small forward, like Gallinari, Morris, or Carmelo Anthony, would be the likely solution. This is pretty standard for the Blazers. If you can’t get offense and defense in one, star-level package, split the attributes between two players and rotate them in. It’s a solution. I don’t know that it’s the solution.
I’d also suggest that the attribute that makes Nurkic and Trent no-brainer keepers, like you have identified, is that they are two-way players, and thus more valuable than their stats or comparative talent indicate.
OK, last question: How surprised would you be if the Blazers made a major move and why?
Dia: I would truly be shocked. I think Neil Olshey has a history of making smaller moves and not shaking things up when they’re going decently. I also think Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are solid, to break that up right now wouldn’t be the right call in my opinion. If you aren’t going to trade any of them, that keeps money tied up and limits what can be done. If we are talking big moves... one of them really has to go, and I just don’t see that happening. I think the core of this team is championship caliber. We need some ancillary players to finish it out, but it just doesn’t make sense to blow this team up when we are this close at the core. Thank goodness because my heart can’t handle that.
Dave: I agree that it’s not likely. One can keep hoping that the sweetest of sweetheart moves is out there though!
What about all of you?
Where do you stand on the “Don’t Touch It/Make a Move” spectrum? Are you more of a Dia or Dave? Take your stance in the comment section and let us know why!