General Manager Joe Cronin used last February’s trade deadline to shift course for the Portland Trail Blazers. The then-interim executive made three moves in the lead up to the February 10 buzzer, two of which jettisoned four key rotation pieces, earning in the realm of $70 million annually, to the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans.
In return, the Blazers shed a truckload of salary, generating a $20 million trade exception. The deals also yielded a couple of interesting pre-prime players, an unwanted veteran guard, a rookie with potential, an extra first round pick and a bunch of names unlikely to be NBA players beyond their existing contracts.
Many a Portland fan decried the moves, particularly the deal with the Clippers, which sent Norman Powell and the expiring Robert Covington to Southern California. For their troubles, the Blazers received a second round pick, the greenest of green prospects in Keon Johnson, veteran guard Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow — a former highly touted talent, who has succumbed to injury and difficult situations.
The given reason for the trade was to get the Blazers under the tax in order to allow them to execute other deals. And while some might have thought Powell’s five year, $90 million wasn’t awful, it was argued by many inside and outside the organization that the length of the deal was particularly prohibitive.
The subsequent Pelicans trade saw CJ McCollum relocate to Louisiana after seven years as Damian Lillard’s second-in-charge. Joining him was versatile big Larry Nance Jr. and underwhelming wing Tony Snell as a conditional first round pick, said trade exception, Josh Hart, Didi Louzada, Tomas Satoransky and Nickeil Alexander-Walker traveled the other way. Satoransky and Alexander-Walker were moved again the next day, this time in a three-team deal involving the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs, with the Blazers receiving the expiring contract of injured Australian veteran Joe Ingles, Elijah Hughes and a second round pick.
If it wasn’t clear to onlookers that the Blazers were tanking, the team then announced that pending free agents Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, and later Hart, would sit, as a cavalcade of unknowns saw the season out.
While the Pelicans initially thwarted the Blazers’ chances at a second lottery pick by making the playoffs, the consolation 2025 Milwaukee Bucks selection still proved enough to land what appeared to be the team’s long-term target Jerami Grant the day before the draft.
Come draft night, rumors were a flurry suggesting the Blazers were focused on dealing their own seventh pick for the likes of OG Anunoby and John Collins. Instead, Cronin chose and kept Shaedon Sharpe, a young Canadian who failed to appear for Kentucky, despite being touted as a potential franchise-changing contributor.
I repeat, for many entrenched in Blazers fandom, the moves were lambasted and Cronin was called to be fired, even before he was made ongoing General Manager.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now compare where the team currently stands with where it could have been if Cronin had stood pat at the deadline.
Where they are now?
Portland sits ever-so-slightly under the luxury tax now, thanks to the waiving and stretching of Didi Louzada. They also boast a list of valuable assets that could arguably be moved with relative ease. The Blazers have versatility. They have expiring contracts that are likely of value to other teams in Hart, Winslow, Nassir Little and Grant (although he’s probably extended).
Portland owes their 2023 first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls. Its lottery-protected status, conveying to future seasons if Portland misses the playoffs, gums up their ability to deal subsequent first-rounders. But if the Blazers were desperate to include future picks in a trade, they could probably just remove the protections, giving the pick to the Bulls regardless of how they finished this coming season.
Johnson (for all intents and purposes the first round pick in the Clippers deal), Sharpe and Jabari Walker could be good, and in Sharpe’s case, great —particularly if the franchise opts to part ways with Lillard in favor of a youth movement in coming years. While not necessarily contending this year, the Blazers hold assets and young talent to improve over the long haul.
The team, as it stands, looks something like the below with Brandon Williams on a two-way contract.
- Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic
- Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Shaedon Sharpe, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford
- Keon Johnson, Jabari Walker, Greg Brown III, Drew Eubanks.
Where could they have been?
This is where we come to the purpose of this piece. If Cronin had sat on his hands in the lead up to the deadline, what kind of headaches would the franchise currently be facing?
Let’s start with how the team would have finished the 2021-22 season. On February 10, the Blazers held a 22-34 record and the 11th spot in the Western Conference. While Damian Lillard was out, the team still had McCollum, Nurkic, Powell and Covington. Nance Jr. wouldn’t be ready to go until April as he convalesced from knee surgery.
The team finished with a 27-55 record, going full tank after the All Star break. But if the above names were still on the roster and playing, the franchise would have likely still fallen below 500, let’s say 35-47, perhaps snaring the 10th and final Play-In spot from the Spurs.
You never know, they may have beaten the Pelicans and Clippers and made the Playoffs from 10th. But there’s no doubt they would have been ousted by the Phoenix Suns in the first round, even if Lillard returned for a postseason run.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, a Portland team in the tax ousted in the first round of the playoffs? And it wasn’t getting any better.
Financially, this team would have been stuck in 2022-23 paying Lillard ($42.5 million), McCollum ($33.3 million), Powell ($16.7 million) and Larry Nance Jr. ($10 million). Let’s assume they bring back Simons ($22.3 million) and Nurkic ($15.6 million) on the same deals they actually signed. Robert Covington was a pending unrestricted free agent and from all reports had no intention of returning.
This is a team, at best, that maybe sneaks into the playoffs while costing the franchise $140 million for only six players. The cap for this season sits at $123 million and the tax at $150 million. Yeesh.
The rest of the roster is filled out by Nassir Little ($4.1 million) Greg Brown III ($1.5 million), Trendon Watford ($1.5 million), with either the 14th or no first round pick and whatever veteran minimum contracts they could lure. If the Blazers were still keen on Jabari Walker they may have been able to make that happen, but who knows.
Forget about trading for Jerami Grant or having anything close to the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to snag Gary Payton II.
As a result, the team looks something like this:
- Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr., Jusuf Nurkic
- Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jabari Walker, Greg Brown, Trendon Watford
Don’t get me wrong, this roster probably makes it to the lower end of the Play-In but there is barely any defense, little size and bloated overpriced contracts with few attractive assets other teams would look twice at.
We’ve all seen this movie before. This team would continue to be mired in mediocrity for the duration of McCollum’s deal, which was scheduled to expire in 2024.
While the Blazers, as currently constructed, may also be fighting to avoid the Play-In this season, they have room to move, room to improve and a talented young prospect in Sharpe who has the potential to seriously raise the ceiling of this team for years to come.
And while the young Canadian might not be as good as billed, there are other options. Hart is an incredibly valuable trade asset, Winslow may yield something, the Celtics reportedly have interest. Young players like Johnson could be attractive to teams building up again. The roster is balanced, not just by height, but also by contract and there are few, if any, negative value deals to move forward with.
By no stretch am I scheduling a championship parade for June next year, but this team now has options, something the former incarnation could only have dreamed of. If both rosters were to play in parallel dimensions this season, they’d probably end up in similar positions. But the future beyond 2023 looks a lot brighter in this dimension.