Most Portland Trail Blazers fans, and many pundits, are bullish on the Blazers’ improvements heading into the 2022-23 NBA season. Portland has traded for Jerami Grant, signed Gary Payton II, retained Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic. People are looking at this as a fresh start after the relatively-placid proceedings of the last seven years.
But not everybody is convinced that the new experiment will work. What happens if it just...doesn’t? That’s the topic for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
What happens next season if this team doesn’t perform? Trade a bunch of pieces and retool around Dame again? Is it likely that Hart, Grant and little are all brought back next season? I just what you think the future looks like.
First, we have to define “perform”. The Blazers are adapting to a new lineup and will presumably continue with transitional moves through the season and/or next summer. They’re not in final form yet. That buys them some leeway. The bar will be lowered, if not reset, for them this year.
Had they continued on with the same path, with a mostly-unchanged lineup—CJ McCollum alongside Lillard, a couple of rent-a-forwards filling in the three and four spots—another first-round exit would have been emotionally draining. Without evolution, no end to the grind could be forecast. Everyone would throw up their hands and say, “This will never change.”
By making big moves, the Blazers have changed the narrative. Because the roster has evolved, the results don’t have to quite as dramatically. If they make the playoffs but bow out in the first round this year, they can say that they are getting used to each other or just need to make another move or two.
The Blazers likely have two playoffs cycles—2023 and 2024—to move forward past the first round before despair sets in again. For now, making the playoffs in any form remains their bar for “success”. If they do that, they’re not going to tear it down.
That leaves our working definition of “failure” as not making the playoffs this season. Unless it happened because of a spate of weird injuries, missing the postseason would call the construction of the team into question. I believe it would prompt change.
The Final Try
If the Blazers fall apart this year, the first place they’d look is coaching. I’m not saying this because of any particular assessment about Chauncey Billups. It’s the easiest, most common fix in such situations: the, “Did you try turning it off and back on?” of the NBA. Coach Billups’ contract would still have a long tail, but the team would probably be willing to eat that in order to avoid a complete rebuild.
But let’s say they didn’t go that route, or weren’t satisfied that a coaching change was enough. If disaster strikes again this season, I don’t believe this roster comes back from it. If Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, and Jusuf Nurkic can’t make the playoffs in Year One, there’s no reason to think they’re going to contend for a title in Year Three.
This is a different order of magnitude than we’ve seen in the years since 2015, when LaMarcus Aldridge left, but the Blazers are following a similar pattern. Building a team around Damian Lillard by drafting, trading for, and signing quality players is the stated mission of the front office, and really the only thing they can do. They moved their best assets—former veterans McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington—to give themselves the picks and cap space in order to take the best swing they could. This is it, the Final Try.
Unless something weird happens, there’s no trading up from players like Grant, Payton, and Simons. They’re the best possible examples of their positions/archetypes that the Blazers can get, reasonably. Joe Cronin has thrown the process into overdrive, one more time, to see if it’ll work.
If it doesn’t this time, the Blazers and the world are going to have to conclude that it won’t. That’s not going to be pretty, but there it is.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
But hold on, Dominic. Not all is lost, even if it doesn’t work out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the Blazers have done a pretty good job of reframing their roster while retaining future flexibility so far.
Let’s take a look at Portland’s roster by player age and whether that player could reasonably be expected to continue past the kind of course correction a short-term failure would mandate.
Players Who Could Continue Through a Rebuild
Greg Brown III, Age 20
Elijah Hughes, Age 24
Keon Johnson, Age 20
Nassir Little, Age 22
Didi Louzada, Age 23
Shaedon Sharpe, Age 19
Anfernee Simons, Age 23
Jabari Walker, Age 20
Trendon Watford, Age 21
That lineup isn’t going to win any awards, but notice that nine Trail Blazers players are young enough that they’re really tomorrow’s team, not just today’s. Not all of them would stay with the team if a restart was in the offing, but any of them could.
Players Who Would Not Continue Through a Rebuild
We’re going to separate the players who would likely be off-loaded in a rebuild into color categories based on the ease of trading or releasing them. Contract status is the major factor, with talent and age also playing a part.
GREEN STATUS—EASILY MOVEABLE
Damian Lillard, Age 31, Owed $259 million through 2027
Josh Hart, Age 27, Owed $13 million through 2023 with player option in 2024
Justise Winslow, Age 26, Owed $4 million through 2023
YELLOW STATUS—MIGHT NEED INCENTIVE
Jusuf Nurkic, Age 27, Owed $70 million through 2026
RED STATUS—PROBLEMATIC CONTRACTS
Jerami Grant, Age 28, Owed $21 million through 2023*
Assuming the failure condition happens in a year, the Trail Blazers still aren’t overly burdened by their veteran talent.
Some might quibble with including Damian Lillard in the “green” contract status with so much owed to him in the future, but assuming he’s injury-free, he’s still an NBA superstar. Multiple teams will want him. If the Blazers have trouble moving his contract, it’ll be down the line, when he’s properly in his mid-30’s and making 50% of the salary cap on his own.
Josh Hart will either be done with his contract or pick up a reasonably-priced option, making his talent-to-cost ration attractive around the league. Justise Winslow’s contract ends after the season.
That just leaves Jusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant.
At $17.5 million per year, Nurkic is making a reasonable salary given his value to the Blazers (starting center, ONLY center, fits in the system and the culture). He’s also at a decent level compared to other centers, about to be the 14th-best-paid pivot in the league. His contract won’t become an albatross.
Nurkic’s “yellow alert” status comes because of his injury history and because teams just aren’t investing in non-elite centers nowadays. The Blazers might have to take back unequal return in order to move him. Or they might just keep him on the team. If they were really motivated to trade him, though, they certainly could, barring devastating injury.
Right now, Jerami Grant is as easily-moveable as the green-light players. Technically, his contract expires at the end of next season. His red-light status assumes that the Blazers are going to extend him. If they don’t, they’d simply let him walk and chalk up the loss of a 2025 first-rounder as a small price for the experiment.
Provided the Blazers do extend Grant, he’s going to be expensive. Also, he’s the main reason the Blazers hope to improve this season. If they don’t improve, it’d mean—almost by default—that he didn’t help. Increasing salary and the perception of decreasing utility combine for dubious trade prospects.
If the Blazers don’t pay Grant a bundle, though, they have no problematic contracts on the books, or at least none that will be problematic next season.
Rebuild Sad, But Not Tragic
This is the hidden “smarts” behind the Blazers’ operations in the last year. They took a bath dumping veteran contracts mid-season last year. As they’ve moved forward, they’ve taken their shots, but preserved “outs” in case those shots don’t work.
I don’t believe that rebuilding is anywhere in Portland’s short-term plans. If they do have to, though, they’re actually in decent position to do it without having to spend further assets getting to a decent jump-off space.
Portland might be running out of assets to get better, but they still have the means to get out.
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