With a 25-35 record and 22 games remaining in their season, the Portland Trail Blazers are starting to look past 2021-22, casting their eyes on the NBA Draft, free agency, and a new start next year. Injuries and a flurry of mid-season moves have all but ensured that their year will not turn around. At best, they’re destined for the final spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament. With luck, they won’t even make it that far.
With championship aspirations off the table, Blazers fans are starting to look at this roster and ask, “Now what?” That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I feel like my head is spinning with all the moves we made. I barely recognize the team but I don’t know if unspinning my head is worth it yet. How many of these players do you think will be with us next year? Are the changes over or are they just beginning? Should I bother learning names and uniform numbers?
In order to understand this fully, we have to contrast the Blazers’ situation before the 2022 NBA Trade Deadline and after. Their situation and aims have changed radically over the past few weeks.
A month ago, the Blazers were over the luxury tax threshold and losing big-time. That’s the equivalent of a cargo plane, losing altitude, with engines flaming out.
At that time, Portland had seven meaningful assets on the roster, a small number compared to most NBA teams. Worse, almost all of those assets—their cargo—were “heavy”. For these purposes, that means hard to move around or extract value out of in any other way but on the court (which, as we said, was not working). Contract size, talent, production, age, injuries, history. and a hundred other things can contribute to a player’s “weight”. Let’s just say the Blazers looked back in the hold and found the equivalent of cement blocks.
Under those circumstances, with the ground fast approaching, their response was simple: jettison weight. They found value appropriate to their situation by trading away their heavier cargo for “lighter” assets. Their goal was simple: stabilize the aircraft for long enough to workshop the problem. In order to do that, they reversed the usual paradigm of trading talent for equal or greater talent, instead trading talent for breathing room.
The Blazers still aren’t winning, and they’re not likely to. But fixing the cap situation—off-boarding that weight—has allowed them to cruise at a low altitude with one engine still operational, giving them hope of firing up the rest again at some point and resuming their trip.
Under these new circumstances, tossing away cargo weight no longer gives advantage. They’re not going to part with more talent to achieve that aim. Instead, they’re asking what they can salvage going forward. Instead of losing heavy assets, they’re looking to accumulate light ones. Three weeks ago, the Blazers were tossing away players like crazy. Now they’re likely to hold on tightly, trying to maximize every bit of value they can find in their remaining payload.
If Portland keeps off-loading, the cargo bay will be empty. They’re much more likely to keep assets because they are assets, representing future deals, not just current production and fit. Some of the same players who threatened to rob them of flexibility when they were gridlocked and over-capped now represent the only flexibility the franchise has left.
Free agents Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic stand at the fulcrum of this shift. Six weeks ago, we said that if the roster didn’t change, there’s no way the Blazers could keep either of them. Only All-NBA-level performances could change that, and then only maybe, as the cost would outweigh the benefit. Simons’ streak this year may have caused the Blazers to think twice, but Nurkic probably wasn’t good enough of a fit or talent to cause them to re-sign him in the face of huge luxury tax penalties.
Under the new circumstances, matching a restricted free agency offer for Simons is a no-brainer. Re-signing Nurkic isn’t quite as automatic, but pursuing him is a strong possibility. Even if the Blazers didn’t plan on him being their starting center for the next few years, what advantage would they find in letting him go? They’d generate extra free-agent dollars, but could they actually sign a center of his caliber with that money? Keeping him on the roster gives a benefit on the court, now, but it also provides them another contract and talent to trade later...an asset that won’t be replaced fully if they let him walk for nothing.
If Nurkic’s dollar demand gets huge, making his future contract “weighty”, the Blazers will have to reconsider. His injury history makes him a bad bet for a big investment. But as long as the contract stays in the wide part of the NBA bell curve, there’s zero reason to let him go if they can help it.
Given the way Josh Hart is playing, he’ll probably fall in that same category. He’ll be owed $13 million next season, but the contract is not guaranteed. Could the Blazers sign a more talented forward than Hart with that $13 million, given their current situation? Probably not. He’s producing. He’s a team guy. He has a great reputation. Those things not only benefit the team now, they make him trade-able over the final two years of his deal. If the Blazers can’t buy better talent to use on the floor or as trade bait, why not keep the talent they have?
Players on rookie-scale contracts also fit the bill, of course. Will $4 million buy or trade the Blazers a player better than Nassir Little? Then there’s zero reason to forecast them parting ways, absent greater stimulus. Same for Trendon Watford, Greg Brown III, or any low-dollar player they like.
The caveat here is that any of these players could be used in future trades. Just keeping them through the summer is no guarantee that the Blazers will actually build around them, or even like them that much. There’s just no reason to release or trade them away if there’s even a smidgen of attraction.
This leaves us with minimum-contract players and a couple of exceptions.
The minimum-salary players don’t matter at this point. The Blazers could keep or dump them freely. Those players could re-sign with Portland or go anywhere they wish. None of them will prove the difference between success and failure next season, or likely anytime in the future. The proper response to retaining them is a shrug and, “We’ll see if it makes sense.”
Justise Winslow is one of the exceptions. He’s due to make $4.1 million next season, the final year of his current contract. That’s not going to be significant on Portland’s cap ledger. I’d anticipate them keeping him happily, absent a trade to contraindicate.
Joe Ingles is an unrestricted free agent. He won’t have played for the Blazers—or at least not much—before his contract expires. He’s making $13 million this year. He’s a starter and can hit three-pointers. He’s also turning 35 at the start of next season. Whether the Blazers will make a run at retaining him depends on his future trade value based on the contract he receives. My best guess is that he won’t fit Portland’s timeline, that Hart will already be taking that roster spot and those dollars, and that Ingles and Portland will part ways. That could change if they get him on a really good contract because, again, that’s a potential trade asset.
That brings us to the last player, Damian Lillard. We’ll tackle that issue in a separate post, coming up a little later today.