After a flurry of rumors that Damian Lillard had requested a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers and a subsequent denial during press availability for Team USA prior to their departure for the Tokyo Olympics, one thing became clear as President of Basketball Operations traveled to Las Vegas to meet with the star point guard of the team alongside new head coach, Chauncey Billups. According to Jason Quick of the Athletic, one message became clear between their meeting and Lillard’s presser: the Trail Blazers must improve their roster if they are going to win now. That message, says Quick, has been issued before, yet it has never felt more urgent.
The franchise losing the best player — and person — who has ever donned the pinwheel logo is a fear within the halls of the Trail Blazers that has never been more real. Lillard wants to see meaningful improvement, which means the Blazers need to transition from being good to being great.
Quick outlines the limited options Neil Olshey has in order to meet Lillard’s request: the NBA draft, free agency, and trades. The Blazers do not currently have a pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, but it appears teams are willing to offer them one — for a price.
Teams are calling the Blazers and asking for CJ McCollum, and in return offering Portland a chance to get into the top part of the draft. But Portland is not entertaining those offers because they are in a win-now phase, and looking for veterans more than rookies to build around.
However, the Blazers are expected to try and buy their way into a second round pick to bolster a thin stable of youngsters that consists of Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and CJ Elleby. Historically under Olshey, the Blazers have flourished in the second round, drafting players such as Will Barton, Gary Trent Jr., Pat Connaughton, Allen Crabbe, and Jake Layman, all who became NBA starters.
As for free agency, Quick states that the Blazers need to resign Powell, and whether or not they do has implications for their payroll. They will also need to find a replacement big man for Zach Collins.
Although Olshey has never publicly admitted it, he knows he failed last season in not recognizing a bench centered around Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter was fatally flawed from a defensive standpoint. If he can secure Powell, it is believed Olshey will turn his free agent attention to deepening the bench with long, rangy players who can play multiple positions and easily switch which players they can guard on possessions. A wrench in the plan to reconstruct the bench is that Olshey will have to invest in a backup center now that Zach Collins has undergone his third ankle surgery in 10 months.
If Powell signs with Portland — which is far from guaranteed — the Blazers will have the tax-payer mid-level exception ($6 million). If Powell signs with another team, the Blazers will have the full mid-level ($9.3 million) to spend. During the same trip of the Lillard summit in Las Vegas, Billups met with Powell — who lives in Las Vegas — and communicated his vision to the wing. The hope is the hiring of Billups, who is a uniter and communicator, will inspire Powell to consider a deal in Portland, where Powell was part of the NBA’s best offense during his 28 games.
Quick acknowledges that perhaps the best way for the Blazers to get better fast is to engage in a trade. However, the Blazers are limited by what other teams might want for CJ McCollum.
The aim for Portland is to elevate its number two player, which currently is McCollum. In the NBA, teams are largely based around two star players. The Blazers feel like with Lillard, it’s a fair fight against nearly every other top player in the league. But while McCollum is a talented player, they have realized there’s a steep drop when pitting him against other team’s second-best players like Anthony Davis, Paul George, Klay Thompson and after his recent finals run, Khris Middleton.
So if Portland can’t improve its number two player, the focus shifts to upgrading the third, fourth and fifth best players in hopes that the sum of the Blazers’ parts can swing the pendulum in their favor.
However, Quick notes it is likely that the team will just stand pat.
There appears to be an inclination to run this group back again, with Billups holding the defensive reins more tightly than Terry Stotts, and seeing what a full season of Powell — should he return — could look like.
Running back the same starting lineup may not align with what Lillard was envisioning, but it’s easy to forget the Blazers (42-30) finished tied with the fifth best record in the West, and the eighth best record in the NBA, despite McCollum missing 25 games because of a broken foot and Nurkic missing 35 games with a broken wrist and strained calf.
Free agency starts August 2nd, so stay tuned.
You can read Quick’s entire article here (subscription required).