The Portland Trail Blazers have mastered the art of the limbo as of late, looking both the part of a team too competitive to tank, but lacking the requisite on-paper talent to legitimately contend. As a result, much of the NBA world is uneasy about what their recent four-game streak and renewed vigor means for their long-term future. On a recent edition of The Athletic NBA Show, Andrew Schlecht and Alex Speers took a deep dive into some of those implications, ranging from largely positive to cripplingly negative.
As they note, the Blazers have become an elite team since the trade deadline, albeit with small sample size. They’ve ranked ninth in offensive rating, tenth in defensive rating and seventh in net rating. Anfernee Simons — among the preeminent reasons why — has positioned himself for an extension this offseason. Though, the two were left to ponder what that means for Damian Lillard’s return, since there’s also a limited sample size of the Lillard-Simons backcourt and how effectively it works.
“The thing that I’m starting to wonder is, Dame had his surgery a little while ago. He said that he could come back, but it would depend on where the team was. I don’t know if that was just something he said. And maybe the plan all along was just to sit out the rest of the season. But, if they continue winning, is there a point where it not only makes sense for Dame, but also makes sense for Portland because they haven’t really seen, really, Dame and Anfernee Simons as the two lead guards for any extended period of time?
And going into this summer, where you’re going to be offering Anfernee Simons a huge contract, maybe Dame’s getting an extension, if you’re giving up on the tank idea, wouldn’t it be nice to see those two guys for these last 20 games or whatever it ends up being, play together and see how it works? Just so you know what you have instead of having to wait all the way until next season to then start experimenting with those guys as your lead guards?”
Lillard and Simons are essentially a guarantee to score buckets in abundance. Though, on the podcast, Schlecht and Speers also talked about how they feel more hopeful about the backcourt pairing, based on how the Blazers were able to find success defensively for a brief period under Lillard and McCollum. The key is in how they are surrounded, which the Blazers are now better equipped to do with gritty, versatile defenders like Josh Hart and Justise Winslow in tow.
Under that above scenario, though, the Blazers could be in danger of erasing some of Joe Cronin’s work at the trade deadline. Walking that tightrope between Draft picks and the protections they hold will be must-watch if the Blazers are planning to be competitive. They went into detail here on how the Pelicans’ pick is top-four protected and the Blazers’ own lottery pick could be gone if they make the postseason:
“Whenever they pulled all these levers at the trade deadline, you would have dreams of a top-four pick, maybe having the third or fourth pick, and potentially having the seventh, eighth, or ninth pick in the Draft. And then, being able to pick two guys or maybe like take both of those and trade for the first pick if they really like that guy. Or, take both of those picks and trade for somebody that’s on the open market. And Bradley Beal’s not like a great fit, but a player of that caliber comes on the market. Well, now you have ammunition to go get them and to make your team better.
I would just worry about the Blazers going into this thinking they could get somebody in free agency. Like, I think it’s going to be via trade. And to me, their own first-round pick probably should have been their most valuable asset. And while it’s great that Simons has taken off and Hart and Winslow and Nurkic are playing some of the best basketball of their careers, there’s got to be a little dissonance with the fanbase.”