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Trail Blazers Walking a Tightrope Going Forward

Portland has options for improvement, but the path to success is narrow.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are having a rocky start to the 2021-22 NBA Season the same way Santa is having a busy December. It seems like developments are constant: injuries, slumps, systemic adjustment, executive turnover. All have plagued the roster over the last three months.

Amid the chaos, and a 13-18 record, people are beginning to question how—or whether—improvement will come. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Do you see any hope that we get better? Are there any moves that we can make to save this or are we doomed to alot of losing? I feel so sad watching Dame out there losing game after game. Can we turn it around? Just lay it out there.

Jules

Yes! This is the NBA. There are always options. Rest easy about that. One way or another, the Blazers will rise again.

The real question is time frame. The vision looks different depending on the focal length of the lens.

Immediate Improvement

This is the one everyone hopes for, of course. Somehow Joe Cronin will engineer a miracle trade that vaults the Blazers back into relevance...or at least winning consistently again.

The Blazers do have players to dangle. You already know their names and why they’re available. CJ McCollum doesn’t match with Damian Lillard defensively. His skills and talent could be valuable on the open market. Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington are on the final years of their contracts. The Blazers might not retain either player past the season anyway, making them prime candidates for swapping. Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little have shown bursts of talent and are still playing on rookie-scale contracts. Their value-to-cost ratio makes them attractive to other teams. Larry Nance, Jr. isn’t out of the question

Can the Blazers find the right team for these players, though? And can they get an instant difference-maker in return?

The single, obvious move that fits both categories is a Ben Simmons deal with the Philadelphia 76’ers. Simmons would slide into the small forward spot for Portland, shuffling Norman Powell to shooting guard, giving the Blazers a starting lineup of Lillard, Powell, Simmons, Power Forward, and Jusuf Nurkic. The four spot would be manned by whichever forward the Blazers didn’t send to Philadelphia.

This would immediately change Portland’s defense. You could also see Philadelphia going for it with the right inducement, though they’ve given no indication of doing that so far.

The other names discussed in possible Blazers exchanges—Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Jerami Grant—would certainly help (particularly Grant) but either aren’t enough or aren’t viable gets given what the Blazers have to offer.

Unless Cronin can pull the miracle deal that 27 other NBA franchises hope for every year (and almost never receive), Simmons is still the best hope for changing this team right now.

Short-Term Improvement with Lillard

Even if this season is a loss, the Blazers aren’t done entirely. They need to answer two questions:

  1. Will Damian Lillard remain with the franchise?
  2. Over the next couple seasons, will Lillard resemble the superstar we saw in the past instead of the muted version we’re seeing this year?

If the answer to both of those questions is affirmative, the window for improvement stretches out to a couple years instead of a couple months. That gives the Blazers more options. They can make trades over the summer or at next year’s trade deadline instead of being forced to take what’s left on the shelves right now.

They’re not entirely out of the woods, though. They’re still not bringing much to the table to barter with.

The players we mentioned above, plus Norman Powell, are the only on-court assets the Blazers can dangle. Everyone else besides Lillard is on a minimum deal and has essentially zero inherent trade value. Unless the Blazers want to ink them to new (and possibly expensive) deals, Nurkic and Covington are only available for trades between now and February. Otherwise they’ll come off the books this summer.

In short, it’s quite plausible that the Blazers will enter July, 2022 with McCollum, Nance, Jr., Powell, and Little as their only trade-able options. That’s a little thin.

Nor will the Blazers have cap space next summer. They’re already on the hook for almost $107 million in salary, and that’s for five active players. It does not include Anfernee Simons’ qualifying offer, let alone any offer he might get in restricted free agency. Nor does it include picking up Nassir Little’s option. The salary cap is projected at $119 million. The Blazers will be over it just retaining Lillard and the players in the paragraph just above. They will not be able to sign free agents beyond the cap exception level that all NBA teams have at their disposal.

More good news! The Blazers owe their 2022 first-round draft pick to the Chicago Bulls. It’s lottery-protected. Their best hope of improving via the draft may be falling out of the playoffs and using that pick. If not, they’ll have to wait until 2023 for a first-rounder. They also owe second-round picks from 2022-2026 to a variety of teams. (Atlanta owes them one in 2024, so they have that.) In short, Portland won’t be able to use draft picks as trade bait unless they project them into 2024 and beyond.

If the goal is improvement over the next two seasons, Joe Cronin’s first task will be to clean up this mess. Few players, no cap space, and limited draft picks makes a pretty poor base to build upon. If that elusive Insta-Deal isn’t available, Cronin will have to clear cap space, acquire picks, or do something to give the franchise more wiggle room, then turn that room into quick-hit results. That’s not impossible, but it’s a big ask.

Long-Term Improvement Without Lillard

Realistically, Portland’s best hope for improvement may come by forecasting past the Damian Lillard era. Lillard’s contract runs through 2024, with a player option for 2024-25. As of now, they can only depend on Dame being with them two more seasons after this one. After that, it’s guesswork.

If they’re not certain they can improve radically in two years, Portland should probably start preparing for a longer upswing. The answer here is simple: use all current assets to rectify the hand-tying mess they find themselves in now, then start anew. That would include trading Lillard and McCollum.

Trading Dame for current players should be off the table. We’ve already seen how the team performs without him. It’s not good. The Blazers can’t get immediate and equal value for Lillard. Even if they got good players in return, they’re not going to get to a championship without him.

They’d need to trade Lillard, McCollum, and whomever else for future draft picks and young prospects. The first-round pick they owe to Chicago is lottery-protected through 2028. They’d hope to ride the lottery as long as possible, picking up young stars and preserving cap space as whatever veteran salaries they got for CJ and Dame dropped off the books. Simons and Little likely would become the veterans on the team, perhaps joined by Powell, who could go either way (trade or retain).

It’s critical to understand that keeping Lillard and McCollum past their “best by” dates will reduce the effectiveness of this approach, as the returns from their eventual trades would be lower. Even though the Blazers would be aiming for slow, long-term improvement in this scenario, they’d need to make immediate moves (read: no later than this summer) to maximize the potential for success.

Starting anew would require a major mindset shift for the franchise, but it’s also the most likely road to eventual success. Immediate improvement is a longshot. It’s going to be really hard to find and execute that needle-moving trade this season. Short-term improvement should be easier, but the last lead executive spent all of the franchise’s assets trying to make that work. The long game is a crap shoot, but it’s always available.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!