Your favorite Portland Trail Blazers podcast is back on the air... is what we’d usually say at this moment on a Thursday afternoon. This week, though, both myself and Dia Miller were ill on the day we record the podcast, seriously enough that sitting and staring at each other across our respective desks was too much to contemplate. One must keep up energy and appearances, after all. So the Dave and Dia show is taking a one-week break from the audio version.
But fret not! We already had topics at hand for the show. In place of the standard podcast, I’m going to give you a rundown of the ways I probably would have responded to the issues of the week. You’ll miss Dia’s indispensable voice, but we hope she gets better soon and we’re confident that both of us will be ready for next week’s episode, as usual.
Here’s what we would have talked about in this episode.
Damian Lillard’s Press Conference
The biggest story of the week was Damian Lillard appearing before media following successful surgery for his abdomen injury. The best, and most important, news was that Lillard is positive about his recovery and eventual return to action. That’s what we all needed to hear from a human perspective. It’s obviously good for basketball as well.
I’d also have shared that, in my opinion, getting 100% from the players around Lillard in his absence is better than getting 70% of Lillard and them playing in his shadow. Not that Lillard impedes his teammates, but that the pace and style of the game are better defined with a depleted lineup than with a lineup asking questions about how productive Lillard will be. Wins aside, players have been able to step up and show what they’ve got. Ball movement and shot distribution seem more organic as well.
The catch, of course, is that the Blazers don’t always get 100% from everyone, and even when they do, better teams are still housing them. Lillard is a safety valve, a magic pill. Nobody else can fill his shoes. But Portland needs a healthy Lillard to make as complete of a difference as possible, not a half-strength Lillard bringing them a few more wins against teams on the margin.
The far more controversial part of the story came when Lillard said he might return later this season, but it would depend on the status and aims of the team. In particular, he indicated that he wouldn’t return if the franchise was “playing for a lottery pick” because that just wasn’t his style.
These comments led to the invocation of the dreaded “T” word—“tanking”—in Blazers conversations. This was probably a leap too far.
Lillard was probably indicating that putting his body on the line for relatively little gain—as would happen if Portland was out of the playoffs race—was a no-go. This is not an unusual decision among star athletes and their teams when injuries are involved. It’s not to anyone’s advantage to bring a franchise player back, particularly from a chronic ailment, with no clear goal in sight.
Lillard was also indicating that there’s no way he could play for anything but victories. That’s congruent with his personality, position on the team, talent, and career stage. No surprise there.
That doesn’t mean that the Blazers would intentionally tank the season in Lillard’s absence. They probably don’t have to; they’re not likely to be great long-term. Hopefully nobody else on the roster would intentionally play to lose either.
Lillard’s wording erected a bridge between lack of success to purposeful intent. They’re not necessarily connected. Without their superstar, the Blazers might lose 48 games without trying. We should be careful about assuming other motives, even if the outcome of losing is ultimately beneficial.
Lillard’s statements do have direct bearing in a couple of ways:
- What he thinks of the team matters. He’s in a position to call his own shots. If the Blazers fall to the lottery unintentionally, but he perceives it’s at least partially because they can’t or won’t win, his perception will affect their relationship. His opinion may be more important than anyone else’s, in fact.
- The NBA Trade Deadline is just two weeks away. Lillard’s comments may indicate how he’d prefer the team approach the event. “Playing for the lottery” doesn’t just mean losing. It could also mean putting yourself in a position to lose, even if that’s a side-effect of your actual aims. Portland’s trade deadline moves could indicate the direction the rest of the season will take, as well as the immediate priorities of the franchise.
In the end, Lillard’s comments are probably simple: a declaration that his health is important and he values it enough to spend it on what matters most, not just playing, but winning. Fair enough.
It’s important to note that Lillard said he is coming back. It’s just a matter of when. And when he comes back, as far as we know, he’ll still be with the Blazers.
Robert Covington took center stage this week as national commentators speculated that several teams could be interested in trading for him. Even before that, though, rumors were heating up.
As we pointed out before the season started, the Blazers are over the luxury tax threshold and will enter Repeater Tax territory next year if they don’t duck under the line. During preseason, we said the team needed to get off to a good start, or a salary-cutting trade at mid-season was a strong possibility.
Not only have the Blazers failed to get off to a hot start, compared to expectations it’s been a wretched one. Nearly everything that could go wrong, has. We’re now pointing to Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little as bright spots of hope amid the gloom. As wonderful as those stories are, those young players were pretty far down the depth chart at the beginning of the year. Portland has had to deal with plenty of heartache and disappointment to unearth them.
At this point, I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Covington got traded. His play has blossomed lately, but he’s on the final year of his contract and there’s no chance he returns. The Blazers could try for younger assets or enough of a salary dump to get them close to the tax line. Nobody’s going to blink if that happens.
The more interesting case is Jusuf Nurkic. He’s been playing out of his mind over the last four weeks, averaging 17.5 points 13.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, shooting 49% from the field in 13 contests. You could make a strong argument that he’s been the hidden MVP, eclipsed only by Simons’ torrid January.
That would certainly be an argument to keep Nurkic, except he, too, is on the final year of his contract. Also this is one month amid six years of ups and downs with the organization.
If the Blazers do not intend to re-sign Nurkic, dare they keep him through the end of the season? The optics would be better, but the results ultimately fruitless. Conversely, could his stellar performances play up his trade value enough to make a deal practical, both in talent return and presumed cap savings?
While keeping Nurkic may be tempting, the Blazers also have to consider Simons’ impending restricted free agency. At this point, they can’t let Ant walk away for nothing. Even if you forecast them moving an expensive guard this summer—presumably CJ McCollum or Norman Powell—they have to take back salary in return, at least for a year. That’s going to keep them in tax land even without Nurkic. Retaining Nurk with a shiny, new salary would be a huge financial burden with no track record of success preceding it. It doesn’t seem likely.
Ultimately, the Blazers will probably be forced to choose between Nurkic and Simons. If Simons is the answer, then they’ll need to consider taking the painful step of trading Nurkic now, even if his current performance makes that a gray-area move.
Powell is another player to watch at the deadline, by the way. He’s being underused and he’s going to draw interest league-wide. Even though he’s the longest-contracted player on the roster, if Simons and Lillard return, Powell will be stuck playing either small forward or a reserve role. That’s not going to work for long. Don’t discount the possibility that someone will make the Blazers an offer good enough to jump on at the deadline.
Wins and Losses
Dave and Dia would have been reasonably happy with the record this week. By Tuesday night the Blazers had won two games and lost two. They staged a thrilling comeback against the Boston Celtics and tromped the Toronto Raptors. The Miami Heat handled Portland fairly easily, but the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves came down to a few plays and a two-point defeat.
I’m fairly sure Dia would have pointed out that Boston and Toronto, while not elite, are not exactly pushovers. The Blazers survived decent nights from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, due in large part to Nurkic’s sterling play down the stretch. This game featured one of the few, large fourth-quarter rallies we’ve seen this year. Dave would have pointed out that Boston is another high-expectation team that’s struggling right now, and mused subtly on the trade possibilities.
Dia would have likely chalked up the Minnesota loss to an amazing game by Anthony Edwards, which is fair. When an opposing star scores 40 and you’re missing your own best player, it just hits different. Dave would have pointed out that Karl-Anthoiny Towns took only 7 shots in that game, praising Portland’s frontcourt. He also would have tabbed Nassir Little’s continuing production. Little scored 20 in that game with 8 rebounds, hitting 7-11 overall, 4-6 from the arc.
In the end, it was another 2-2 week, measuring in Tuesday-to-Tuesday Podcast Time. At the beginning of the season, that would have been something of a disappointment. Mid-year, it’s a relief. The Blazers continue to show well against weaker teams, questionably against good ones, but that’s better than nothing.
We also would have bantered about more Blazers topics and maybe some real life stuff as well, but you’ll have to tune in to actual podcasts to get that.
You can subscribe to the Dave and Dia Podcast here while you’re waiting for next week’s episode. By then Wednesday’s miserable loss to the Mavericks will be a distance memory. We’ll certainly talk about Nassir Little more. Hopefully we’ll also be able to focus on brighter things!