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Norman Powell Brings Promise, Unanswered Questions to Blazers

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Portland got an upgrade, but at what position and for how long?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

After the Portland Trail Blazers acquired guard Norman Powell for Gary Trent, Jr. and Rodney Hood, Blazers fans celebrated. Powell was one of the Toronto Raptors’ most beloved players, a scoring guard who had worked his way up the ranks to play a prominent role in an NBA Championship run. Averaging nearly 20 points per game on 50% shooting from the field, 44% from the three-point arc, Powell was having the best season of his career. Scooping him up for a young guard and a veteran on an expiring contract was a smart move, a coup to some.

After the initial celebration, though, some Blazers fans looked forward to the next step and found themselves scratching their heads to figure out what it could be. That includes Eric, who submitted this question to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

What’s next for Norm Powell and how does this bring us a championship? I don’t see how it moves us much closer. Is he going to stay past this year? I liked GTJ and I’m trying not to be bitter about losing him. I’m ready to like Powell too but how long do I get to do it and why? Show me how the move makes sense?

Eric

The Blazers have successfully delayed their issues. They haven’t fixed them. But Powell is a legit help on their way to the post-season. At minimum that’s what he’ll provide. After that, who knows?

Powell is a nice upgrade to Trent. He’s got more experience, he’s more of a creator on offense, and he shoots the three-pointer better than GTJ. He’s a souped-up version, the player Trent, Jr. will grow into someday. He’s a good fall-back option should something happen to one of Portland’s starting guards. He’s also more than capable in a three-guard lineup. At 27, he’s right in his prime, exactly where he needs to be to fit the Lillard-McCollum timeline. There’s nothing wrong with this get right now.

The trade became necessary because Trent, Jr. was in his final year before becoming eligible for restricted free agency. The Blazers were staring down the unpalatable option of matching a hefty contract offer from a third party this summer. They weren’t willing to invest, If they hadn’t traded him, they likely would have lost him for nothing.

Though Powell has another year remaining on his contract, it’s a player option. It would pay him $11.6 million. If the Blazers can keep him for that, they’ve gotten the steal of the century. If Powell opts out of the deal, he’s expected to earn twice that...more than Trent could command.

This would be a sticking point for the Blazers. Damian Lillard will make $39 million next year, CJ McCollum $31 million. If you add in Powell at $20 million, that’s $90 million in cap space for three guards. Jusuf Nurkic is due for a new deal soon as well. If they keep him, it’s not impossible to imagine the Blazers exceeding the salary cap paying just four players.

Put another way: we just filled up Portland’s entire salary cap without accounting for a single forward, let alone the rest of the bench beyond Powell.

You can do that if you have a well-rounded team and are competing for a championship. It’s a hard sell when the team is in the middle echelons of the playoffs bracket, has no track record of threatening the upper reaches, and isn’t forecast to get there with the current cast.

If the Blazers aren’t willing to do that—and at this point it doesn’t seem prudent—the choices are obvious. They either let Powell go this summer—just as they would have let Trent, Jr. go—or they trade McCollum.

Letting Powell depart would be the easier road. It doesn’t help the team but it doesn’t bankrupt them either. Fans would need to look at the long perspective. The Blazers developed Trent, Jr, into a good enough player to be traded for Powell. They were going to lose him anyway. Instead of doing that, they got an upgrade for their 2021 NBA Playoffs run. That’s not a bad exchange. In essence, they traded second-round picks in 2019 and 2021 to rent Norman Powell after some fine play from Trent. They could have done worse. Recall the disastrous 2015 trade that brought Arron Afflalo to the Blazers for Will Barton (who is STILL playing an important role for the Denver Nuggets) and a first-round pick. Afflalo left at the end of the season. That’s far more wince-worthy than Powell’s departure would be.

Re-signing Powell, who is more than capable of starting, would make McCollum more available than he’s been. CJ is a better offensive player, one of the best shot creators in the league. Powell can’t match that. But he’s well-rounded and provides the all-important three-point shooting the Blazers covet, with more defense than CJ usually brings.

Trading McCollum wouldn’t alleviate Portland’s financial obligations, but it would spread out the proceeds. A trade for a small forward would be particularly attractive. Lillard, Powell, Rovert Covington, and Nurkic could morph into a potent defensive lineup with the right three added to the mix.

The problem, as always, is where to find a 3-and-D forward available, since they’re among the most coveted players in the league. Either way, Portland has shown no signs of being willing to part with McCollum.

As with most Portland trades, this is a no-lose proposition if you count the cost and the short-term effects. It may even become a winning one if Powell stays and/or greatly influences the playoffs run this season. The likeliest outcome is that he signs for big money somewhere else and the Blazers move onward. That’s not going to advance their big-picture story arc, but a mid-season move for Gary Trent, Jr. and Rodney Hood isn’t supposed to.

Feel free to ask any questions you want at blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll see how many we can answer in the hectic second half of the season!