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Can the Trail Blazers Hold Onto Josh Hart?

We spent the preseason talking about Josh Hart trades, but is he more valuable with the Blazers?

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

To date, avenues for the Portland Trail Blazers to improve their roster have revolved around the trade value and pending Player Option of veteran Josh Hart. The talented wing, yielded in the famed CJ McCollum trade with the New Orleans Pelicans in February, owns a versatile skillset which would no doubt be attractive to all 30 NBA teams.

Through the Blazers’ first six games, Hart has been a key contributor, pulling countless rebounds, passing, pushing pace and defending multiple positions. And from all reports, he’s also a great locker-room presence, possibly the team’s competitive spirit animal, loved by all his teammates, well at the very least Damian Lillard:

I love Josh Hart, I love Josh Hart. When we first got together as a team we were playing pickup and doing things like that and he was super emotional. It was like we were in the playoffs, how much he cared about the pickup games, he kicked the ball and get mad and kick a chair over and stuff like that. And I’d be looking at him like, man, this dude kinda crazy.

Just being on the floor with him through the preseason and through these first couple games, he’s a winning teammate, the way he plays the game, he plays hard, he’s physical, he does everything that you ask him to do. He’s got his teammate’s best interests.

He communicates and just being on the floor with him, I love playing with him. Even though it’s early in the season, I love being his teammate and being on the floor with him, just with what he brings to our team and the way he plays. It makes it fun being on the floor with him.

Hart won the starting small forward spot from Justise Winslow and Nassir Little in training camp. He’s averaging 10.8 points on 50 per cent three point shooting, an astonishing 9.4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.6 steals in 36.4 minutes, with the Blazers currently holding a Western Conference-best 5-1 record.

Still, the 27-year-old’s contract situation probably still places him as the team’s best trade chip. An above-average player who's expendable, given the duplication at the position he plays.

The 6’5 wing approaches the 2023 offseason holding a $12.9 million Player Option for the following season. If he continues to contribute like he has, I have very little doubt that Hart opts out to negotiate with suitors willing to pony up for a more lucrative, multi-year deal.

So what do the Blazers do? Obviously in any trade you need to give something of value to bring back something that improves the team.

And outside Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant, Shaedon Sharpe, maybe Gary Payton II, who aren’t being dealt, I’m not sure the Blazers have a more valuable asset. Meaning that if you want to keep those aforementioned players while still improving the roster, Hart and his skillset need to be playing in different colors.

We’ve already speculated on the type of players Hart might yield in a deal but there could also be multiple disgruntled names that we won’t know about until closer to the deadline.

Unbalanced

The roster is currently over-populated by guards and small wings. With Lillard, Simons, Hart, Keon Johnson, Nassir Little, Justise Winslow, and Gary Payton II once fit, there are a litter of guys fighting for 144 minutes at the one, two and three positions each night.

I’m also going to go out on a limb and suggest a fit Payton II could replace a large portion of Hart’s output. Payton II probably isn’t the ballhandler and facilitator Hart is but he’s an improvement on defense and just as good a rebounder.

Thus, allowing Portland to move Hart for a player at the small forward and/or center positions, helping Jusuf Nurkic, who outside the two two-way contracts, is the only Blazer taller than 6’9.

Finances

As I said, in a perfect world, the Blazers would love to keep Hart. The problem is the team is already on the books for more than $115 million for 10 players in 2023-24 — not including Hart. They also have Jerami Grant expiring this season and from all reports is likely to be extended in the $20-to-$27 million annual salary range.

For argument’s sake, if the Hart market is at around the $18-to-$20 million-a-year mark, combining that number with Grant’s $25 million, this team is paying around $150 million for 12 players still not getting you into the contention conversation. Oh, and we haven’t even touched on Justise Winslow’s pending free agency.

I repeat, I have no doubt the Blazers would love to keep Hart but General Manager Joe Cronin has been adamant that this team is not complete and improvement is required as soon as possible.

Re-signing Hart and tying up the team’s finances long term drastically shuts the door on the flexibility that Cronin worked so hard to create at February’s trade deadline in deals with the Los Angeles Clippers, Pelicans, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.

As far as getting something in return for Hart, options are aplenty. His current $12.9 million, plus filler, could yield the Blazers a decent enough player earning at around the $15-$17 million mark, “cough, cough” OG Anunoby.

And if their sights are set a little higher, the deal gets you almost half way to matching a $30 million-plus deal connected to a player worthy of said salary. In the example I’m thinking of, you’d probably have to throw in Jusuf Nurkic, but Deandre Ayton, who can't be dealt until mid January, leaps to mind, especially if his dissatisfaction with the Phoenix Suns continues.

The Blazers would bring in a young, potential All Star at center, contracted for multiple years and solidifying a core of Lillard, Simons and Grant. There’s obviously still a hole at small forward, which could resolve itself internally with Nassir Little or Justise Winslow. Of course, I’m not even mentioning the mercurial talent that is Shaedon Sharpe who might develop into the franchise’s next star small forward over the coming 24 months if he grows an inch or two. I know, I know, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Suns get another starting-level center in Nurkic, who would probably be less disgruntled than the incumbent. And, of course, Hart, who can share the facilitating load with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cam Payne, while upping the defensive intensity on the other end.

Conclusion

Josh Hart has been great since arriving in February. And so far this season, has played the perfect complementary role alongside his four co-starters. He’s also proven to be effective on both sides of the ball with the bench unit.

Unfortunately, he’s just not the needle mover the team needs to get into contender status — a touch small for his position and likely too expensive to hold onto long term.

Yes, he’s been praised by the franchise leader and on multiple occasions by his coach, but the Blazers still need get better in order to avoid the mediocrity it nuzzled into over the past decade. As much as I hate to say it and even after the hot start, Hart needs to be moved before February’s deadline because this is still the easiest way for the Blazers to get better.