If he keeps his job, Portland Trail Blazers Interim General Manager Joe Cronin has a busy few months ahead of him.
As he said in his Trade Deadline press conference, cutting costs and returning flexibility by trading away Norman Powell, Robert Covington, CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. was the easy part. And he was right. Having cap space is pretty useless, if you’re not using it shrewdly and with a bigger picture in mind.
The current Blazers roster is made up of injured bodies, a couple of fit veterans, rookie-scale talents, two-way contracts and fringe NBA players. Hardly the makings of a franchise ready to contend for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But one thing Cronin will have this summer is flexibility with only Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson, Nassir Little, Didi Louzada, Greg Brown, Trendon Watford and Brandon Williams (two-way contract) signed to roughly $93 million.
Who of the above is still representing this team in October?
Let’s cover the easy ones first.
Damian Lillard, PG
Not much more to be said. He’s here as long as he wants — I’m looking at all you trade-dame-istans.
Anfernee Simons, PG/SG
Yes, he’s a free agent. But the team has “cleared a runway” for Simons and he wants to be here. Whether it’s $20 million or $27 million a year, he is restricted and he will be brought back.
Nassir Little, SF
While the injury bug hit him again mid season, Little has already proven himself as a valuable NBA rotation player with potential to be a contributor on a really good team.
Jusuf Nurkic, C
The only way unrestricted free agent Nurkic would have agreed to sit over the next few weeks, is if Rich Paul and Cronin had tentatively agreed on a new deal somewhere in the realm of $10-to-$15 million a year. He's coming back.
Probably on the team
Unless something remarkable happens, they’re in Portland.
Justise Winslow, PF
Since arriving in the Los Angeles Clippers deal, Winslow has enjoyed a minor renaissance in Portland. He’s big, athletic and defensively minded. While he can’t really shoot, Winslow can still facilitate, able to take pressure off the guards in spurts. Can’t imagine his trade value is particularly high so you’d assume he’s more valuable in Portland.
Keon Johnson, SG
The first round pick yielded in the Clippers deal has shown teasing glimpses of stunning athleticism, engagement and defensive prowess, and at 20, he could still be anything.
Greg Brown, PF
Surely you keep “Bouncin” Brown for pure entertainment value. Still as raw as they come, Brown is brimming with potential and athleticism, slowly increasing his ability to stay on the court. He’s also got another two years on his deal.
Brandon Williams, PG
I wrote about Williams during his first go-round with the Blazers. He’s young-ish, fearless, skilful and capable of spelling the likes of Lillard and Simons for a few minutes a night. He’s also signed on as a two-way player next season.
That’s another four guys we can pencil in, taking our total to eight.
On the trade block
One of these guys is on the roster next season, the other three are moved in packages to land bigger fish. Let’s safely assume Bledsoe is one of those traded.
Eric Bledsoe, SG
The man on the unique contract who failed to miss a game before being dealt to Portland in February, is yet to play for the Blazers. And with the starting guards already spoken for — we all assume Simons comes back — it’s doubtful he returns. Whichever team holds Bledsoe's contract can waive him by July 10 with only $3.9 million of his total $19.3 million contract guaranteed. Bledsoe could very well be partnered with a first round pick to bring back a player of consequence.
Josh Hart, SF/SG
Before you start rioting and reminding me that both Cronin and Chauncey Billups waxed lyrical about Hart, don’t forget he too as an interesting deal. The Blazers have until June 25 — two days after the draft — to keep his $12.9 million contract, which has no guaranteed money next season. His deal and multi-faceted skillset would, no doubt, be of interest to a number of the other 29 teams. Packaging him with other assets, would surely bring back something of real value.
Trendon Watford, PF
A surprising one, I know. But he’s the very definition of two-way contract success. Offering size, versatility, basketball smarts and skill, Watford has proven to be a legitimate NBA rotation player. It’s been pure joy watching him develop. As reward for his efforts, his two-way deal was converted to a regular roster four-year contract, paying him less than $6 million, with the final two seasons non-guaranteed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him included in a deal if it meant bringing the Blazers a player they were desperately after.
Didi Louzada, SF
We haven’t seen anything from the injured Brazilian who has three remaining years on his deal. Cronin didn't even pronounce his name correctly during that post-deadline press conference. He’s likely dealt like he was from the New Orleans Pelicans as part of a bigger deal.
That takes it to nine.
The two genuine unknowns. Let’s hedge and say one of them re-signs to play at the Moda Center.
Joe Ingles, SF
As an Australian, I’d be overjoyed to see the lanky South Australian suit up for the Blazers. Unfortunately, he’s not playing basketball until, at least, next year. He’ll also be 35 by the start of the season with his abilities already arguably leaving him before that horrible knee injury. Cronin has spoken on valuing his bird rights, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he plays on this team. Stay tuned.
Ben McLemore, SG
Honestly, I thought he’d be gone by the deadline. And with Cronin still needing to make room for Drew Eubanks once his second 10-day contract runs it course, he could still be let go. McLemore is a savvy veteran with a beautiful jump shot, however he doesn’t fit with this tanktastic roster. I wouldn’t baulk at the thought of retaining the 29-year-old but I think he gets put on the backburner during free agency as shooting can always be found, relatively cheaply.
Not coming back
CJ Elleby, SF
I wrote about Elleby last week. Don’t think he fits on this team next season.
Keljin Blevins, SG
Maybe if nepotism wins out, but I hope not. As we’ve seen with Watford and Williams, two-way contracts can be valuable if used correctly.
Elijah Hughes, SF
I like Hughes and would be fine with him being brought back, but not sure he will be. I could be wrong.
Drew Eubanks, C
I mean, he’s been solid and I’m sure it’s been great for the Blazers to have a Portland local in the locker room, but there are plenty of third-string big man options out there.
Cronin brings back 10 players, including one two-way contract, giving him six regular roster spots open for trades, free agency and a couple of draftees.
You can safely bet on Lillard, Simons, Little and Nurkic being on this roster. You can probably assume they’ll be joined by Winslow, Johnson, Brown, maybe Ingles and two-way contract Williams. And of the four on the trade block, honestly, it’s either Hart or Watford.
Can’t say a roster of Lillard, Simons, Little, Nurkic, Winslow, Johnson, Brown, Hart/Watford and injured Ingles is likely to contend for a title but I suspect Cronin has a few ideas, cap space, flexibility and trade exceptions up his sleeve.