The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2021-21 season has ended. Despite tying up their first round series with the Denver Nuggets just last week, the Blazers dropped the final two games in an incredibly disappointing fashion. Wasting one of the best individual playoff performances ever from Damian Lillard and blowing a 14-point lead on your home court are not effective strategies for advancing in the postseason.
The Blazers are bound to do some retooling this offseason. Head coach Terry Stotts is gone, the fan base is torn on who they want to take over, and after nine years of stability, everything seems in flux. Changes will happen; we’re just not quite sure what those changes will look like.
One of the biggest questions the Blazers will have to answer this offseason is what to do with Norman Powell. The 28-year-old wing has a player option on the final year of his contract after being brought in via a trade with Toronto. That trade sent Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood away and seemed to signal that Powell was now going to be a part of their long term plan.
But is that actually the case? Will Norman Powell be wearing a Blazers uniform next year? And more importantly, should the Blazers even bring him back? To that last question, I would argue yes. Here’s why.
Norman Powell averaged 17 points a game on 57.6% true shooting during the regular season with the Blazers. Those numbers are below what they were in Toronto before the trade (19.6 per contest on 64.5% true shooting), but are still pretty solid.
Powell is a lot different than the wings that Portland has boasted during the Lillard Era. In past articles I’ve talked about how his offensive prowess separates him from forwards like Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, two solid defensive forwards but lackluster offensive players. Teams would dare them to score and they just couldn’t. And while Portland had Trent Jr. — a microwave shooter who got hot plenty of times for Portland — the third-year guard doesn’t have nearly as complete of an offensive repertoire as Powell.
Look at the playoffs from this season and you’ll see a prime example of how effective Powell can be when watching Game 4 against Denver. In that game, Powell had 29 points while shooting 11-for-15 from the field and 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. It was by far his best game of the playoffs. In a game where Lillard struggled, Powell took the reins and handled it with ease.
Here’s an and-one that Powell drew in the fourth quarter against Denver. Powell receives the handoff from Anthony, takes an escape dribble that forces Facundo Campazzo onto him, and then attacks the sub-six-foot guard immediately. Powell isn’t super quick, but he’s compact and strong when driving to the rim. He’s able to draw the foul and finish the floating bank shot. That’s not something we’re used to seeing from wings wearing Portland red and black.
The mid-range pull-up isn’t always the most efficient shot, but if you can do it with some consistency, then it’s a dangerous weapon. Powell is someone who can do just that. On shots from around 14 feet out, he shot about 48%. That puts him in the 82nd percentile per Cleaning the Glass. It’s as simple as the play above; give him the ball, let Jusuf Nurkic set a little screen for him to create some space, and points will follow.
Speaking of Nurkic, he and Powell seem to have a good bond growing. Nurk assisted on 26 of Powell’s made field goals, the most of any Blazer. It comes sometimes on plays like this — a simple dribble hand-off that leads to an open jumper — and other times it comes on plays like this:
This obviously isn’t from this year’s playoffs, but it is a classic Nurk dime and a common action he runs with Powell. Nurkic finds Powell cutting and slices the defense with a pinpoint bounce pass, leading to an easy two points for the wing. Powell’s off-ball movement opens up plenty of space for Nurkic (and of course Lillard and CJ McCollum) to get the ball to him.
Since we’re talking about off-ball ability, let’s end the offensive clips with a quick and easy corner three from Powell (assisted by Nurkic, because of course). Powell was a solid spot-up shooter for the Blazers in the corners. He made 52% of his corner threes in Portland, which puts him in the 90th percentile among wings.
That corner three ability is invaluable to a team like Portland that has looked for shooters in the corners since forever. Trent Jr. could provide that and even Aminu could occasionally do so, but both had their shortcomings in other areas of their game. Powell this year provided corner shooting while also displaying an impressive ability to create for himself with the ball in his hands. I would even argue that too often Powell was relegated to the corner when he should’ve been allowed to create. He’s just a solid all-around offensive player and needs to be utilized as such.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t all roses this postseason with Powell. The 29-point outing was a highlight in what was otherwise a somewhat pedestrian postseason. Powell twice shot under 36% from the floor and could disappear for long stretches of time. He wasn’t perfect by any means in this series, but he showed offensively that he can be a quality option for Portland.
The offensive prowess alone should be enough to convince Portland to retain Powell, But defensively, Powell wasn’t too shabby this postseason either. When he was on the floor, Powell was tasked with guarding Michael Porter Jr., one of the most talented young offensive players in the league. He did well to hold the 6-10 forward at bay in Games 2, 3, and 4, although Porter still arguably won the minutes against Powell in the series. Still, he held Porter Jr. to zero shots inside the arc in Game 4. That wasn’t just Porter disregarding going inside; that was Powell making life difficult for the young guy.
The first points of Game 4 came off a Powell steal on Porter. Powell does well to stay glued to Campazzo before Nikola Jokic sticks his hip out to stop Powell in his tracks. Powell was able to bother Porter just enough, however, to make it a somewhat hurried hand-off. Porter loses it and Powell takes it right back to the other end for a score.
Aaron Gordon is a horrifying opponent to have coming down the lane at you. His dunking ability alone is enough for players to make “business decisions” when he takes flight. Powell doesn’t care. He and Nurk tag team Gordon and Powell ends up with a swipe on the ball. Just another solid play for Powell.
Powell isn’t a particularly amazing defender. Technically, the Blazers gave up 6.6 points per 100 possessions less when Powell was on the floor. That’s influenced by Nurkic’s synchronized minutes with Powell more than anything. But Powell being even just a league-average defender while providing above average offensive output is huge for the Blazers.
With all the evidence above of what Powell is capable of, I think it is in the Blazers’ best interest to try and retain him. As noted earlier, Powell has a player option that he can exercise this offseason, but realistically he can make a lot more than the $11 million he would otherwise be paid for his services. He’s bound to test the market and should make around $20 million a year. That’s a steep price, but it’s worthwhile for a player of Powell’s caliber.
But the reality is that Powell is far from the only Blazer that Portland has to attend to. Zach Collins, Enes Kanter, and Carmelo Anthony all have expiring contracts this season. Kanter and Melo both played significant minutes while Collins figures to do so in the future. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard’s mammoth extensions also kick in next season. As much as the city loves its dynamic duo, it isn’t convenient to have two guards who will be demanding between $30 and $40 million each next year.
Trading McCollum would probably make keeping Powell easier. It’s long been talked about as the best route forward for Portland, and with Powell now in the picture it just might be time. But the problem is that the time to trade McCollum away wasn’t now; it was years ago when he didn’t have a big extension and was still putting up big numbers. McCollum just had a career year, but struggled mightily in the playoffs against Denver. Teams notice these things, and it doesn’t bode well if Portland wants to trade the guard.
We could talk about all the different moves Portland could try here, but that’s for another article. There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding this team right now, and emotions are still running high after an incredibly hectic weekend. All I have to say is that we’ve all seen great things out of Norman Powell during his time here. It would sure be a waste to not keep him around for a little longer.