The Portland Trail Blazers have designs on a deep NBA playoffs run in 2023. Franchise slogan and spirit point to a rallying comeback from their subpar 2021-22 campaign. But what happens if good intentions crumble in the face of NBA reality? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
What happens if the plan doesn’t work? We’re all hopeful about the year. If the new plan fails then what? Do we just start a rebuild? And what would that look like?
A Concerned Fan
I did a little research after receiving this question, and here’s what I found.
They’ve already started it.
I’ll say, standing up straight and using my orator’s voice, that acquiring Jerami Grant and re-signing Jusuf Nurkic definitely signal a willingness to win now. The Blazers are making a run at it. They’re not trying to lose. Let the trumpets blow and let that message be proclaimed.
But now that we’ve got that out of the way, what would a rebuild look like? The easiest way to answer that is to ask who would stay to begin it.
Let’s start with this year’s draftees. Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker are young. They play on the cheapest deals possible. Their real value comes 3-4 years down the road, minimum. They’re future assets, almost certain keepers through any rebuild.
Then we have a large group of young-ish (or at least untried) players: Keon Johnson, Greg Brown III, Trendon Watford, Nassir Little. Any of those guys the Blazers wanted to retain in a rebuild, they could. There would be no reason to drop them, as they’re not fully developed and don’t make significant money.
Up the age ladder we have Drew Eubanks and Justise Winslow. Neither one of them have contracts past next summer, so they’re a moot point for these purposes.
That’s 8 players out of a 14-man roster who either stay in case of a rebuild or won’t matter one way or the other (unless the Blazers want them to).
Now let’s move to the more talented, proven end of the roster.
The Blazers just signed Anfernee Simons to a four-year, $100 million contract extension. He’s 23 years old and has the potential to become a 20 ppg scorer. Age and talent would make him an easy “keep” in a rebuilding project. He’d probably be the next guard the Blazers would build around. But even if not, they wouldn’t be forced to trade him immediately. He has another 8-9 years of prime-level basketball remaining.
Josh Hart is 27, in his prime. He might not be the best candidate to retain in a rebuilding situation, as he’s older and more of a “glue” player than a star-anchor. But Hart’s contract expires next June, and the Blazers aren’t likely to keep him either way, barring some major roster reshuffling.
Jerami Grant is in the same boat. He’s 28, a clear starter at power forward, but not a generational star to rebuild around. His contract also expires after this year. The Blazers will probably look to re-sign him, but in this “didn’t work out” scenario, they’d be free to let him go as well.
Jusuf Nurkic is 28. He’s making $70 million over the next four years. That contract is the main difference between him, Grant, and Hart. But that’s not an exorbitant amount. The Blazers could probably find a suitor for Nurkic if they needed to dump him in trade.
We’ve now named 12 of Portland’s 14 active players. Nobody we’ve talked about so far is older than 28. Only Nurkic and Simons are owed significant money after this season. Simons would be retained in a rebuild; Nurkic could go either way.
You tell me. Does this look like a team that’s selling their souls in “win now or else” mode?
If you were to list these players abstractly, free of context, Nurkic is the only one of the bunch who might make you think the Blazers were targeting immediate success above all else, and that only because they just signed him to a new deal. If he had two years remaining on his contract, you’d swear this team was already angling towards a new start, or at least leaving the door wide open.
Two players remain unmentioned, both bucking the trend.
Gary Payton II is 29, almost 30. The Blazers just inked him to a three-year deal. The amount is modest, a little over $9 million per year. But that’s far more than a minimum salary. Payton is one of those players you’d never be sad to have on your team, rebuilding or not, but he’s definitely in a different category than his teammates above. If the Blazers were looking to start anew, they’d probably end up dealing him down the road.
Damian Lillard is the other obvious exception. He’s now 32. With this summer’s extension, he’s under contract through 2027 with an annual salary that’s going to top out near $64 million. This is not a short-term investment. The numbers speak for themselves.
Lillard stands as the one, incontrovertible argument that the Blazers are not rebuilding, but staying the course.
Still, it’s hard to escape the difference between the Blazers, say, the Los Angeles Clippers. Seven of LA’s top nine players are aged 30 or over. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers don’t boast quite as much experience across the roster, but their key players are predominantly 30+ and proven. The Phoenix Suns boast probably the most “mixed” lineup among Western Conference contenders, but their young players are Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, clearly in a class of their own.
By comparison, Portland looks odd, less a true contender and more a team looking to recycle, just not doing it yet out of deference to their generational-talent superstar.
That could change, but only if the Blazers actually succeed. If they don’t, you can read down this whole list again. Who is standing in the way of rebuilding, besides Lillard and maybe Nurkic?
In other words, give or take a Jerami Grant extension, you already know what a Blazers rebuild will look like. They’re halfway poised for it already.
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