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Trail Blazers Trade for Bledsoe, Winslow was Pedestrian, but Important

Portland didn’t get a big haul, but they ticked off a couple boxes.

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have traded forwards Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers for guard Eric Bledsoe, forward Justise Winslow, and guard Keon Johnson. The Blazers will also receive a second-round pick and a trade exception in the deal.

The latter tells you all you need to know about the primary motivation behind this trade. The Blazers are sending out $28.5 million in salary and taking in $24.6 million. As long as they don’t make further moves to increase their salary burden, that savings will put them under the luxury tax threshold for the season. It will convert them from a taxpaying team to a tax-receiving team this year. That will break the chain that would have put them into the Repeater Tax penalty for chronic tax offenders next season.

Portland also frees up future dollars with this deal. Covington is in the last year of his contract, but Powell inked a deal last summer for five seasons, starting at $15.5 million this year and culminating at $20.5 million in 2025-26. Bledsoe is making $18.1 million this season, but next year is not guaranteed. If they don’t retain Bledsoe, the Blazers will relieve themselves of almost $75 million owed to Powell between 2022-2026.

The contracts of Winslow and Johnson will eat into that number slightly, but the two together are only owed $6.6 million after this season guaranteed. Johnson is a rookie, on a scale contract, while Winslow will earn $4.1 million next year, the final year of his current contract.

Portland is trading away two veteran, mid-rotation players to a team hoping for a sustained playoffs run, eager for help to make it happen. Though Bledsoe is technically the Clippers’ point guard, he’s more scorer than distributor. Paul George (and eventually Kawhi Leonard) will fill the facilitator role. Covington will give them another defensive-minded forward, slotted in to help his teammates rather than anchor the defense as he was often asked to do in Portland. Powell will also help on the defensive end, plus he’s the kind of efficient scorer the Clippers will covet with stars already populating their roster. His championship history with the Toronto Raptors won’t hurt either.

Bledsoe was once a big name with the Phoenix Suns, scoring 20+ points in 2015-16 and 2016-17. He’s played with the Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and the Clippers since, with minutes and production steadily declining each year. The 32-year-old averaged 9.9 points on 42.1% shooting from the field, 31,3% from the arc in 54 appearances with the Clippers this season. He is more salary-cap balance than roster booster for the Blazers, especially since they retain guards CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons after the move.

Winslow was selected 10th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat. He played five seasons there, topping out at 12.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 2018-19. He appeared in 26 games for the Memphis Grizzlies two seasons ago, 37 for the Clippers this year. He’s started in 107 of his 304 NBA appearances over seven seasons, but almost half of those starts came in that same 2018-19 season.

The 6’6 combo forward averaged 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 37 games with the Clippers this year, shooting 44.7% from the field and 17.2% from the three-point arc.

Johnson, a rookie, was selected 21st overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, traded by the New York Knicks to the Clippers the day following. The 6’5 shooting guard has appeared in 15 games so far, averaging 9.0 minutes, shooting 33.3% from the field, 27.3% from distance. He averages 3.5 points per appearance.

The haul for Portland is pedestrian. Johnson is the best bet to make an impact long-term, but it’s not expected.

For the Clippers, this is a chance to rise above their current 27-27 record and climb into the real playoffs race. The Blazers save cash and duck future obligation. Powell was an odd fit starting at small forward and wasn’t likely to be happy in that role long-term. Covington was in the last year of his deal and wouldn’t have re-signed with Portland. Getting under the tax threshold this year allows the Blazers to exceed it next season without extra penalties, opening the door for them to retain center Jusuf Nurkic along with Simons, a restricted free agent should they desire to do so.

The wincing comes when you consider what the Blazers paid to get Covington and Powell originally. Portland traded away Gary Trent, Jr. and a first-round pick (along with Rodney Hood, Trevor Ariza, and 2020 first-round selection Isaiah Stewart) to pick up the pair. Trent, Jr. and the equivalent of two first-round picks doesn’t balance out a return of Bledsoe, Winslow, Johnson, and a second-rounder, even if you consider service rendered by Covington and Powell in the interim.

Still, this deal cleans up a couple impending issues for the Blazers at the cost of players that they weren’t going to use anyway. In that sense it’s a fair move. You’d have to stop short of calling it a good one.

The move doesn’t mean the Blazers are done trading at the deadline. It simply means they could be. The baseline goals for mid-year deals have now been met.

Draft expert Steve Dewald has more analysis on Keon Johnson. Why did the Clippers value him initially and what might he grow into?