The Portland Trail Blazers extended their runway by going the route of the rebuild this offseason. Portland General Manager Joe Cronin moved franchise superstar Damian Lillard to plunge headfirst into youth. With that, the urgency and pressure to put together a title team now got pushed back a few years.
Regardless of that longer timeline, by February’s NBA Trade Deadline, Cronin and company must navigate the next pressing decision in the never-ending project of roster-building: what to do with veterans Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon.
The organization must determine whether to move Grant and/or Brogdon, two of its best players, in the name of prioritizing development for younger players and further asset collection; or keep them for the readymade talent and mentorship they provide.
While, obviously, not as gargantuan as the Lillard deal in September, this upcoming decision still holds important implications for the trajectory of the new-era Trail Blazers.
Monday’s 114-110 win against the Indiana Pacers was a good example of the Trail Blazers’ dependency on their two oldest players. Brogdon, 30, and Grant, 29, combined for 58 points in the narrow win, over half of Portland’s total. Grant was especially spectacular, scoring 34 points on 12-of-18 from the field. When the Trail Blazers’ struggling offense went through one of its common cold streaks in the third quarter, Grant became the lifeline that kept Portland afloat in the fourth, going 7-of-8 for 17 points in a near-unconscious stretch of shooting.
Then when closing time arrived, Portland turned to the steady hand of Brogdon. With a 112-110 lead, Brogdon dribbled down the clock before taking on his man in isolation for the game-sealing floater with six seconds remaining.
After the game, Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton showered his point guard with praise.
“He’s just so poised, and he’s a super vet,” said Ayton, after reminding reporters Brogdon was Sixth Man of the Year just last season. “He’s been on great teams where he’s been in situations like that a thousand times.”
That game tells the larger story of Portland’s young season. The baby Blazers are building a scrappy new identity that fans adore with the hustle of underdogs like Toumani Camara and Jabari Walker. Sophomore Shaedon Sharpe is popping off the page with blinding flashes of star potential. Hyped rookie Scoot Henderson has struggled, but is beginning to come around. Yet, Grant and Brogdon are the cogs that make the entire machine go, at least right now.
The veteran tandem have been Portland’s most consistent and arguably best performers. They provide the otherwise-green roster with a healthy floor of competency. Remove them from the mix, and the already 6-13 Trail Blazers would crater to the dire depths of the NBA standings, accumulating blowout after blowout through an 82-game slog.
The team got a taste of that reality when Brogdon went down with a hamstring injury in November. Portland went 0-5 in his absence, losing by an average margin of 18.2 points. That number was enflamed by a dispirited 43-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 19, the most embarrassing loss of the season by far.
In contrast, the Trail Blazers are 6-8 with Brogdon and Grant in the lineup. In those games, the average margin of defeat has been a more competitive (and watchable) 11.6 points. After that season low point against OKC, Brogdon returned for the next game against the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 21, and Portland immediately returned to its usual standard of competitive play, despite a 120-107 loss.
Following the game, Trail Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups discussed Brogdon’s positive effect on the group with almost an air of relief.
“It was really good having Malcolm back, somebody that can just settle us down out there and make shots and get the ball where it’s supposed to be,” Billups said. “I think he’s so good for everybody. ... He calms everybody down.”
That positive, calming effect is why it’s so difficult to just trade Brogdon away. The same goes for Grant. Grant and Brogdon, respectively, are No. 1 and No. 2 on the roster in scoring, No. 2 and No. 4 in minutes, and No. 1 and No. 3 in 3-point shooting. Brogdon is also the team leader in assists. This hefty on-court production doesn’t even touch on the pair’s leadership, with Brogdon, especially, taking a well-chronicled mentorship role toward Henderson. That’s a lot of impact and influence to ship out, maybe too much at the moment for a young team that’s already third-to-last in 3-point shooting and dead-last in points.
However, one could take another perspective when viewing those high numbers from Grant and Brogdon: That large portion of shots, minutes and late-game touches should be going to Portland’s young prospects to accelerate their development, not two players who likely won’t be around when this new core peaks.
It’s a delicate tap dance trying to nail the rhythm of a rebuild. The front office must achieve the right balance of development, winning and culture-building to keep player and fan morale high, while losing enough games to still collect ping-pong balls and a high draft pick.
The decision-making is all the more difficult for Portland considering Henderson has come on slower than expected and Portland’s other high-profile guard Anfernee Simons has only played in one game due to injury. Perhaps, the front office envisioned trading Brogdon at the midpoint of the season, when Henderson seemed more ready to take the reigns — or that Simons’ presence would create a logjam in the back court that required moving Brogdon quickly. But Henderson hasn’t made the immediate splash many expected and could possibly benefit from more time with Brogdon. Regarding Simons, the team just doesn’t have a lot of data with him in the equation, though he should be back soon.
Hovering over the entire dilemma is the cautionary tale reflected by Robert Williams III’s injury. If Portland did plan to move the defensive-minded center this season for more future-driven assets, that high return value went away when Williams went down for the season due to knee surgery. Williams’ unfortunate situation shows the risk in holding onto these high-end veterans past the trade deadline if the end goal is to trade them.
Rebuilding a roster isn’t an exact science. Trading or keeping Brogdon and Grant comes with pros and cons on either side. The front office has another two months to collect data, but pressing decisions are coming fast.