As the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline approaches and the Portland Trail Blazers continue to hover near .500—winning and losing games in suspect fashion—trade rumors are starting to fly. Fans are clamoring for change, refreshing Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania Twitter feeds hourly. Accompanying the impending storm is a corresponding rise in trade suggestions, questions, and complaints in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
In preparation for the February 9th deadline, now just two weeks away, we’re going to give you a Trail Blazers trade primer, running down everything you need to know as the temperature turns up and the trade speculation goes down.
What Do the Blazers Need?
Portland hasn’t earned their mediocre record without displaying flaws. Their defense is middling statistically, but they have issues at the rim. When they can set up, they manage fine, but they lose containment far too often, allowing opponents attempt after attempt inside. This leads to fouls against starting center Jusuf Nurkic and a relatively high field goal percentage for the opposition.
The Blazers lack shot blocking and mobility inside. They also lack the ability to cover the paint and recover to the three-point arc. Size and depth in the frontcourt are suspect once your get past Nurkic. These are the biggest gaps in their roster currently.
Portland has also lacked wing depth, but that has been a result of injuries to Justise Winslow, Nassir Little, and Gary Payton II more than roster construction.
A playmaker behind Damian Lillard to take some of the pressure off of Anfernee Simons wouldn’t be amiss.
What Do the Blazers Have to Offer?
As we’ve said repeatedly this winter, Josh Hart is the most likely Trail Blazer to be traded at the deadline. This isn’t because of talent or performance, but contract. Hart has a player option at the end of the season. If he opts out, the Blazers would have a hard time swallowing the salary he’d command, not just because of his dollars, but because they’re already on the hook for a Damian Lillard extension and a hefty tab for re-signing star forward Jerami Grant.
If Hart walks at the end of the year, the Blazers can’t replace him at the same price. Portland is over the cap and will remain so this summer with or without Hart. If he leaves, his salary slot goes with him. Without free cap dollars, Portland will not be able to use the $13 million they save to sign new free agents.
Hart playing out of position at small forward and acting like he’s allergic to three-point attempts won’t help his cause. He’s simply the “loosest” player attached to the roster right now.
Justise Winslow also has an expiring contract, though his $4 million impact is much smaller than Hart’s. If the Blazers don’t plan to re-sign him, he’s a no-brainer to throw into trades for salary purposes. if they’d like to keep him, though, the cost should be low.
Aside from Hart and Winslow, Portland’s potential trade zone goes as high as starters Nurkic and Anfernee Simons, down through Little and Payton. By all accounts so far, they are not likely to consider trades involving All-Star Damian Lillard, forward Jerami Grant, or rookie Shaedon Sharpe.
What Is Portland’s Contract Status?
In a word, not good.
The Blazers currently stand $67,000 underneath the luxury tax threshold. If they take on any salary, they will cross the line. This will have several negative effects. They’ll lose out on the multi-million dollar windfall that non-taxpaying teams receive from taxpayers at the end of the season. They’ll incur a minor tax penalty themselves on whatever amount they exceed the threshold by. They’ll also start the clock on their next battle against the Repeater Tax, an extra penalty levied against teams that exceed the threshold in 3 out of any 4 years. Portland is clear of that designation now, but they’re likely to pay tax in multiple years to come, making starting the count a risk. For these reasons, the Blazers will be unlikely to add any salary at the deadline.
Even if they do dare to go over the tax line, Portland will be limited in the amount. By virtue of acquiring Payton last summer, the Blazers are hard-capped at $157 million in salary this year. That’s only $7 million more than they’re paying now. They cannot add more than $7 million in salary to their current amount for any reason.
Trades that reduce Portland’s salary obligation are possible, of course, as are even deals. But another problem rears its head here. The only salaries Portland carries between Jerami Grant’s $21 million and Nassir Little’s $4.2 million are as follows:
- Jusuf Nurkic $15.6 million
- Josh Hart $13.0 million
- Gary Payton II $8.3 million
- Shaedon Sharpe $$6.0 million
In that group you have the team’s only starting-level center, a free agent they just signed, a rookie they prize greatly, and Hart. Three of the four are unlikely to move.
$20 million (Grant’s salary) is a fairly high level for a move, $4 million fairly low. Most incremental trades will fall somewhere in between. If the Blazers are looking to improve slightly without revamping the roster, they’re going to have some work to do making salaries match without going over. Portland probably has the pieces to make a big move, but a significant small one could be more difficult.
What About First-Round Picks?
The good news is that Portland has almost all their future first-round picks in hand. The bad news is, as of now, they can’t actually trade any of them.
As part of the deal that brought since-departed Larry Nance, Jr. to Portland in 2021, the Blazers traded a first-rounder to the Chicago Bulls. That pick is lottery protected until approximately the end of time. (Or, well, 2028 anyway.)
As long as the pick could be conveyed, the Blazers cannot trade it. In other words, they can’t trade a future first-rounder that might actually belong to Chicago.
Even if they could overcome that, Portland cannot trade a pick in a year adjacent to the pick they convey to the Bulls, lest they run afoul of the infamous Stepien Rule, which prevents teams from leaving themselves without first-round picks in consecutive years.
Until the Blazers know when Chicago gets the pick—which won’t happen until the end of this season, at the soonest—-they cannot know which future picks are available for trade. That means, functionally, they can’t move any picks between this year’s and 2029...the outer limit that picks can be traded.
One way around this would be to remove the lottery protection on the pick, meaning Chicago would get it this year, no matter where in the draft order it lies. The Bulls would love that. If proves to be a non-lottery pick, they would have gotten it anyway. If it fell into the lottery, that would become a huge bonus for Chi-Town.
The problem with that is playing in France right now. Victor Wembanyama is expected to be a generational talent. If Portland ended up lifting protection on a pick that ended up first overall, it would be a gaffe for the ages, rivaling selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan or Greg Oden over Kevin Durant.
With the team currently flirting with play-in position, only a bit away from decent lottery percentages, they dare not risk giving that pick to Chicago unfettered. That means for all practical purposes, the Blazers don’t have picks to dangle in trade at the deadline. If they do make the protection shift, the coming in would have to be a can’t-miss, instantaneous savior.
Though Portland has traded away all of their own second-round picks between now and 2026, they do have three incoming from other teams to use in deals, plus later second-rounders to employ.
Is Anfernee Simons Really Untouchable?
The Blazers are 22-25 and inches away from the luxury tax, staring down the latter stages of Damian Lillard’s career. Is anyone really untouchable?
The idea that Portland would protect Simons at any cost came from a radio interview by national analyst Chris B Haynes. It wasn’t an idle claim. The Blazers value the 23-year-old highly, having just signed him to a $25 million per year deal.
We need to parse terms, though. If the Milwaukee Bucks called up and offered Giannis Antetokounmpo for Simons, he’d be as touchable as a grocery store avocado. “Untouchable” in this, and almost every, case means, “Untouchable for any deal the Blazers can reasonably expect to execute right now.” Bear that in mind as you contemplate sweetheart deals in the days to come.
While DraftKings does list odds for 38 NBA players being moved at the deadline, Damian Lillard is the only Trail Blazers member among them. The odds of him being dealt are listed at +450. By comparison, Jae Crowder stands at -450, the most likely player to be dealt in the estimation of oddsmakers, Lillard stands even with Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro and Brooklyn Nets wing Ben Simmons.
The Blazers currently own the seventh-worst odds of winning the 2022-23 NBA Title at +12000, nestled between the Atlanta Hawks and the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’ll be interesting to see whether those rise or fall based on Portland’s moves over the next two weeks, which is another way of saying whether they are perceived ultimately as a buyer or a seller on the trade market.
The Blazers should be, and probably are, willing to make any number of possible deals to improve the roster. Actually pulling it off will be harder than wishing for it. Contract and tax restrictions, lack of available first-round picks, and a general lack of depth (all but requiring Portland to lose starters to make significant trades) all conspire against easy moves at the deadline.