The next fortnight will dictate the destiny of this current Portland Trail Blazers era as the front office works to deliver a roster that appeases superstar Damian Lillard. The hours leading into Thursday’s draft provided President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey a chance to kickstart said appeasement by dealing CJ McCollum in a bid to balance the Blazers roster.
The ability for teams to wheel and deal before and during the draft typically allows for the swift movement of picks as teams key in on their preferred young player(s). This was still the case for the Blazers despite the team owning zero picks.
But draft night came and went with the only additions being a raw Greg Brown out of the University of Texas and two-way player Trendon Watford from Louisiana State. Neither are likely to get many minutes next season.
Powell's free agency, outside of Lillard's own future, is the most important factor impacting this current iteration of the team. The capped out Blazers can't sign anyone for more than the taxpayer mid-level exception and have few valuable trade pieces in the quiver. If Olshey wants to improve this team, re-signing — or signing and trading — Powell is the franchise’s best bet.
Four months ago, the Blazers made a bold trade deadline move, sending Gary Trent Jr. —and Rodney Hood — to the Toronto Raptors for Powell. During his 33-game Portland tenure, Powell provided defense, down-hill scoring and three-point shooting, recording averages of 17 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals.
It’s a pretty impressive line considering he was predominantly playing out of position while giving up touches to Lillard and McCollum. As expected, the 28-year-old declined his $11.6 million player option for next season, entering unrestricted free agency. This option wouldn’t have been declined if he didn’t think there were other attractive offers — including a return to Portland — coming his way.
The issue comes to a head on Monday when free agency opens and a likely list of suitors start ponying up cash for the in-demand wing. If he decides to jump ship, Portland has not only lost cap flexibility and a strong young prospect in Trent Jr. but the player they traded for and allegedly prioritized.
What also stings is that the Blazers would have been able to retain Trent Jr. via restricted free agency. Powell, on the other hand, is unrestricted and free to determine his own future.
So, putting your Portland fandom aside, if you were in Powell’s shoes how would you feel about returning to the Blazers? Below are six reasons he should stay and six reasons he should go.
Reasons to stay
(1) Thanks to that wonderful Bird Rights clause, the Blazers can go into the luxury tax to re-sign Powell, matching or even beating other offers tendered. If the Blazers are serious about Powell as their top priority then they will open the checkbook to keep him in Oregon with its less advantageous tax situation.
(2) We know how important family is to Powell: just look at the way he decked out his niece in Blazers gear below. His loved ones are back in southern California and while Portland is not San Diego, it’s a lot closer than some of the teams vying for his services on the east coast.
(3) He appears to be very much wanted by the franchise. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported that the Blazers are making Powell’s retention a top priority. And for good reason, as mentioned above, Powell and his next contract allows the Blazers to improve the roster. These words aren’t lip service.
A further note. If a sign and trade takes place he technically won’t be staying in Portland, but he will be helping Portland regain assets while helping himself get to the team of his choosing. As discussed above, Powell is family-focused and from San Diego, playing college ball at UCLA. There are two teams in Los Angeles and while the Lakers’ current roster won’t allow for another medium-to-high level contract, the Clippers might, opening up a chance for a sign and trade.
(4) The opportunity to play alongside Lillard, even with McCollum still in the frame, could be appealing to Powell. Lillard could very well remain a Blazer next season and if so, Powell might honestly believe this team, with the “letter O” behind the wheel, has an opportunity to turn some heads.
(5) There’s Chauncey Billups. According to an interview Powell did with The Athletic’s Jason Quick just after he arrived in Portland, the free agent said his uncle Raymond had given him the nickname “Big Shot Powell” after the new Blazers coach. Perhaps the idea of playing for the championship guard is enough to keep him in Portland.
(6) Finally, maybe he actually likes living in Portland. As a foreigner, I can honestly say that Portland was one of the nicest and most welcoming cities I’ve visited. Oregon is filled with numerous natural beauties, a genuine pro for those drawn to the great outdoors. He might also have loved the Blazers’ rabid fanbase. After being given a small taste due to COVID-restricted capacities, he might want some more.
Reasons to go
(1) This, and I hate to say it, might be the biggest factor in Powell’s decision. The 6’3 wing is the quintessential shooting guard. And as already discussed, there is another shooting guard still on the Blazers roster. I find it difficult to believe that Powell wants to sign a multi-year contract knowing he’ll be lining up against the Michael Porter Jr.’s and LeBron James’ of the NBA world at small forward.
Powell fits perfectly next to Damian Lillard as a two, offering length, defense, and the ability to get to the rim. Again, he is not big enough to play small forward full time. He now has to make a decision not knowing if McCollum is on the roster next season, meaning that a return to Portland could mean a permanent starting small forward role.
There’s the uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard. Nobody, not even Lillard, knows what the future holds. What happens if Powell signs with the Blazers and Lillard is gone in six-to-12 months? The Blazers won’t want to keep the then 29-year-old on the roster during a rebuild. Consequently, he gets traded to a less-ideal situation, perhaps stuck in NBA mediocrity. Signing with the team of his choice next week gives him the best opportunity to get to the situation and location that’s going to help further his career during his prime.
(3) The Lillard turmoil will also surely be emphasizing doubts in his own mind that Olshey might not be the person to deliver a contending team, especially with the financial constraints and lack of assets. Powell has been fortunate enough to win a championship. He, above most on the roster, might be the best judge on the team’s ceiling. This perceived doubt might be enough to see Powell pack his bags.
(4) If he’s not happy playing small forward, he’s really not going to like losing touches to McCollum. While Billups’ system might see the ball shared more than the previous regime, there’s absolutely no doubt that Lillard and McCollum will continue to duopolize a lot of the ball, perhaps hindering Powell’s chance to shine.
(5) On the flip side, Powell now has the opportunity to choose his own destiny. He could choose to sign with the New York Knicks or San Antonio Spurs, as examples, where he may be featured more in the offense. He could also accept less money and go to a real contender in the hopes of attaining that second ring.
(6) He might not like living in Portland. Growing up in southern California, not far from Los Angeles, Powell might actually be longing for a larger market and a more cosmopolitan scene, as great as Portland is.
Olshey’s best opportunity to move McCollum might have been Thursday night. Not necessarily because it would have yielded the best possible return — it might not have. More importantly, moving McCollum before free agency would have been a clear signal to Powell that the starting shooting guard spot is his.
If McCollum is dealt before the start of the season, great, but there are too many “ifs” in that proposition, especially given Olshey’s love for the former Lehigh standout who he drafted with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft.
Unfortunately, if I’m Powell, I see what else is on offer. If nothing strikes his fancy, the Blazers can always be “the devil you know.”