The Portland Trail Blazers had a volatile, interesting year in 2021. After nearly a decade of stability, the Blazers experienced seismic shifts that redefined the terrain under their feet, changing the outlook heading into 2022 and beyond. On New Year’s Day we’re going to look back at the most significant events defining the franchise over the last 365 days. These are the stories that made their year.
The fifth most significant story of the year is actually two wrapped into one. After sacrificing a first-round pick and Trevor Ariza to gain Robert Covington in November of 2020, the Blazers went all-in during 2021, making two consolidation trades, culminating their “win now, forget later” trajectory.
On March 25th, Portland traded burgeoning-star guard Gary Trent, Jr. along with Rodney Hood to the Toronto Raptors for 27-year-old Norman Powell. Unlike the 22-year-old Trent, Jr., Powell had established himself with the Raptors, playing a key role on their championship squad in 2019. His veteran savvy and defense were supposed to galvanize the lineup.
The hitch in the process: Powell was a shooting guard. The Blazers retained CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard, and Anfernee Simons after the trade, leaving little room in the backcourt for a player of Powell’s caliber. Long-term—and make no mistake, the Blazers had to retain Powell long-term—their new wing would live at the small forward position.
Having to fight for touches and playing out of position on defense would make Powell’s transition rocky. His field goal percentage dropped from .498 to .443 joining Portland. His three-point percentage, a Blazers specialty, fell from .439 to .361. He, along with most of his teammates, got barbecued in the postseason versus the Denver Nuggets.
The Blazers inked Powell to a five-year deal in the Summer of 2021, confirming their commitment, also their increasing lack of options without him.
That was not Portland’s only significant summer move. They also moved dunk champion Derrick Jones, Jr. and their 2022 first-round pick to Chicago in a three-way deal that would net them 28-year-old forward Larry Nance, Jr., a Swiss Army Knife forward. Nance, Jr. was meant to bolster Portland’s flagging defense, also providing continuity and maybe a bit of speed on offense with his passing, athletic grace, and smarts.
Though Nance, Jr. has remained healthy and serviceable so far in the 2021-22 season, his presence alone has not changed Portland’s defensive trajectory. His offense remains passable, although his formerly-average three-point shot has deserted him. Portland’s paucity of wins and league-trailing defense do not testify to the move’s effectiveness.
The significance of these trades goes beyond the players involved. In both cases—including Covington, in all cases—the Blazers traded away youth and/or future assets for win-now veterans. Their focus was clear. The results are less so. At 13-22 the “winning” part of the equation is absent. Also absent: more room to make moves.
With the Powell and Nance, Jr. deals, the Blazers traded away pretty much their last expendable assets south of CJ McCollum, their last chance at cap room, and their immediate first-round draft choices. The Blazers now carry seven players on veteran deals, two near the end of rookie contracts, and seven more on minimum or two-way contracts.
With half the roster carrying little-to-no value, no picks last year or this (absent lottery protection), and no cap space even if they let all their expiring players go, Portland has reached the end of their current growth curve. Acquiring Powell and Nance, Jr. was their way of accelerating into it. Those moves became the most significant barometer of team direction in the past year, also of its probable end.