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How the Trail Blazers Can Contend This Season

Portland’s not quite there yet, but are they close?

Portland Trail Blazers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Yesterday we talked about the Portland Trail Blazers still having flexibility in case their grand designs for the year didn’t work out. Today, we explore the inverse possibility. What if the Blazers experience rampant, unbridled success? Are they poised to do so? How might they get there? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hi Dave,

I really liked your most recent article about how the blazers positioned themselves better. My goal for the team is to win a Championship. I don’t believe the team they constructed this year is good enough, do you?

I guess I’m worried we’ll be no better then the 4/5 seed, get knocked out 2nd round for the next couple years and then be back to square one. Only Damian will be mid 30s and not worth as much. I respect Damian for his commitment but I think I’d rather take a chance on our young guys, a package Damian is traded for and our own lottery picks for the next few years(tanking!).

Can you give me a hypothetical path on how we can be title contenders with Damien? Like do u think there’s enough development in the young guys (ant/walker/nazz/sharp) to get them there or is it more likely coming through a trade with our young guys for an all-star caliber player?


I left your question mostly intact because it encapsulates the feelings of all the “other side of the coin” people in 200 words or less. Well done!

We don’t need to rehearse the divergent roads before Portland. One theory says the Blazers can’t replace Damian Lillard—an all-time franchise superstar—and they need to floor the gas pedal on their continued attempts to build a contender around him. The other theory, which you’ve presented here, says that wanting to do a thing and being able to are two different things, and Lillard’s transcendent talent mandates trading him for value rather than seeing him peter out slowly without a championship ring to show for it.

Our opinions on those theories are moot. We presented them before free agency. It’s clear which one the Blazers are going with, at least for now. They’re not willing to transition into a rebuild, even if they could get future assets to accelerate the process by trading Dame. They’re trying to build a contender now.

I don’t know if I can give you a clear path to a championship from here. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be printing it publicly. I’d be calling Trail Blazers GM Joe Cronin and trying to sell my services for a pretty half-dollar. (Used to be a penny. Inflation.)

The Blazers do have open roads with passing lanes to contention. Whether they’re able to take advantage depends on a few key questions. We’ll talk more about all of these in September/October, but here’s the sneak preview:

  1. Is Damian Lillard healthy and back to near-peak form? If not, forget it.
  2. Will Portland’s new backcourt of Lillard and Anfernee Simons gel, especially on the defensive end?
  3. Will Jusuf Nurkic and Jearmi Grant both remain healthy?
  4. Is Nassir Little able to assume a bigger-minute, if not starting, role at small forward?
  5. Are Portland’s frontcourt players able to hit three-pointers with regularity?

If those five things happen, the Blazers should be close to their optimum level. They have holes in the frontcourt still, but we’re going to pretend that with #3—Nurkic and Grant remaining whole—they won’t have to rely on the big-man reserves for huge minutes.

Even optimum production doesn’t bring the Blazers into actual contention, though. It probably puts them exactly where you described: somewhere in the middle tier of the playoffs race, ultimately falling short.

Here’s the part we haven’t spoken yet: the Blazers still have one move left in the bag.

Looking at Portland’s roster, it’s obvious they have too many players on the backcourt bench. Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Keon Johnson, and Shaedon Sharpe all occupy the same general space. Hart and Payton are proven players, Hart an NBA starter. The reserves will play behind Lillard and Simons, both huge-minute, huge-possession guards. There’s not that much space available to begin with, let alone for that quartet.

The immediate solution will be to push Hart and Payton out the edges towards small forward. That’s probably not the best look long-term.

Hart has the option to end his contract next summer, becoming an unrestricted free agent. He makes $13 million, an incredibly reasonable amount compared to his talent and production. For all those reasons, he’s a prime candidate for trade as the season goes along. If they keep their lineup intact, the Blazers probably won’t be able to keep Hart anyway.

There’s also a world—probably not realistic for management currently, but it’s there—in which Hart slides into the starting shooting guard position and Simons becomes available for trade. Hart would provide defense. Simons would bring more on the trade market.

Bonus Time: Sharpe could be packaged with either guard to form the backbone of a Super Offer.

The likely target of Portland’s trade machinations would be a small forward, filling the position now manned by Little. Not only would that provide more depth, it’d relieve one of the five major questions above. The Blazers wouldn’t need Little to excel. If he became an amazing reserve at the three spot, switching sometimes to power forward in a smaller lineup, he’d become an incredible asset. Little can do that much already.

That move—either getting a good small forward or creating a super-package to find a great one—would complete Portland’s lineup and give them a chance at contending.

The distance between suggestion and reality is vast. But don’t be surprised if discussion starts percolating, especially if the Blazers do reasonably well at the start of the season but are underutilizing their smaller bench players.

The caveat is that the other key factors still have to go right in order for the move to stick. No small forward is going to make up for the health and production of Lillard or the bigs. Portland’s always going to be one significant Nurkic or Grant injury away from, “Golly gee whillickers, it would have worked if only...” But you didn’t ask for a guarantee at a title, nor could one be expected given Portland’s position relative to their conference mates. If you want an avenue, though, this one isn’t impossible.

Thanks for the question! You all can send yours in to and we’ll try to answer!