The Portland Trail Blazers have reached the NBA All-Star Break with a 28-30 record, dangling just below the Play-In Tournament positions in the Western Conference. With 58 games and the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline in the rear-view mirror—give or take a hangover from the trade of Gary Payton II to the Golden State Warriors—it’s time to start looking ahead to the close of the season and the summer ahead.
Yesterday we asked whether the Blazers could, or should, finish the season strong enough to make the 2023 NBA Playoffs. Today we look past that, to the Summer of 2023, examining Portland’s goals and prospects in the off-season.
What Are They Aiming At?
The Blazers are trying to build a contender around all-time franchise superhero Damian Lillard. Technically they’ve been attempting this since 2015, after former star LaMarcus Aldridge left for silver-and-gray-er pastures. Aside from a brief trip to—and subsequent sweep from—the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers have not found success.
Lillard is 32, heading for 33 before the 2023-24 season starts. He’s putting up the best numbers of his career in scoring, per-minute scoring, overall field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage, Yet his team is mired in mediocrity. The Blazers want to change that.
They tried at the just-passed NBA Trade Deadline. Within a two-week span Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, D’Angelo Russell, and Jakob Poeltl all changed hands, not to mention Saddiq Bey, James Wiseman, and Spencer Dinwiddie. It was the biggest trade deadline in league history. The Blazers didn’t have interest in all of those players, but they wanted into that market for sure.
Portland did execute trades, but they ended up with a collection of young prospects: Cam Reddish, Mattise Thybulle, Kevin Knox. Thybulle is the veteran of the group at 25. Reddish and Knox are 23. For this, they traded away starting small forward Josh Hart and proven defender Gary Payton II.
Measuring current talent, Portland went backwards. They furthered the age division on the roster between Lillard and, now, almost everyone else, a gap between 32 and 26 that only Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic currently occupy. Not only do the Blazers lack veterans, they have almost no players in their prime.
Still, General Manager Joe Cronin states that building a contender remains the priority. That puts enormous pressure on this summer’s moves. The incremental February step didn’t happen. The offseason moves need to be that much bigger as a result.
What’s the Plan?
Reading tea leaves, the franchise has to be hoping to make a big splash over the summer. They were rumored to be interested in Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby at the deadline. That pinnacle move ten days ago will be only one of the moves they’d need in July-August to complete their plan. Anunoby alone won’t push the team over the top.
The Blazers will require a player better than they originally targeted or they need multiple deals at the “very good” level to reframe this roster. They’re going to have to go for the home run swing.
The only way out of that requirement would be missing the playoffs and getting lucky—probably all the way lucky—with their 2023 NBA Draft pick. Drafting a generational talent would set them on a new course automatically, with or without Lillard.
Having established that, red flags should be raising. What team is not looking for superstar deals? What team would turn down Victor Wembanyama?
If you dig way back into Simpsons lore, you will remember the episode where Bart discovered a planet-threatening comet with Principal Skinner’s telescope. With the comet looming on the horizon, the Simpson family sat on lawn chairs on the roof, the better to observe the results of the official countermeasure: shooting a missile to disintegrate the threat.
The question arose, “What do we do if this doesn’t work?” Homer, ever calculating, responded, “Don’t worry. I have a plan. While everyone else in town is twiddling their thumbs going, ‘Doo-dee doo-dee doo-doo-doo, doo-dee doo-dee doo,’ we’ll hop in the car and take the only bridge out of town.”
When you have the same plan as everyone else, and when access to success is more limited than the number of people who want to achieve it, you do not have a plan. You have a hope, just like all the other dreamers. Fair enough. But other General Managers are not going to twiddle their thumbs going, “Doo-dee doo-dee doo” while the Blazers get Pascal Siakam for Nurkic and a first-round pick.
This begs the question: What can Portland offer to ensure that they get the inside track to the ultra-rare superstar deal they covet?
And here’s where the nastiness begins.
As we chronicled during the deadline, three currencies buy players in the NBA: dollars/cap space, talent, and draft picks.
Money can purchase players via free agency or trade. The latter happens when a team takes on more contractual obligation than it sends out, usually when operating under the cap.
We won’t detail the minutiae of Portland’s cap situation in this post. There will be plenty of time for that. Suffice it to say that, calculating current salaries and a couple hold-overs from past stretched deals, the Blazers are currently obligated to $113 million in salary this summer. The cap is projected to land around $134 million, which appears to give them $21 million in usable space.
That number only accounts for nine players, however. It does not include Cam Reddish or Mattise Thybulle, two of the three players they just picked up in trade. Even more critically, it does not include Jerami Grant. The Blazers are expected to re-sign Grant immediately when free agency commences. If they don’t, it’s hard to see how they can move forward at all, with no veteran forwards on the roster to speak of. Even a blockbuster trade would only compensate for that loss, not propel Portland past it.
Grant’s price tag is going to land around $30 million per year. That signing alone will put Portland over the cap line. If they plan to retain Reddish and Thybulle as well, they’re going to be at the tax threshold.
Not only do the Blazers not have money to spend this summer, they’re actually going to have to lose salary, or at least limit its aggregation, unless they get a deal so overwhelming they dare not pass it up. They will not be able to sign free agents of their own outside of the usual cap exceptions that every team wields. They will not be able to take on incremental players who increase their cap total without guaranteeing contention. They simply don’t have this card to play.
We can talk about the players the Blazers have to offer in trade: Jusuf Nurkic certainly, either Shaedon Sharpe or Anfernee Simons for the right deal, a rag-tag clutch of youngsters and bench prospects.
Whatever you think of the particulars, this remains true: the Blazers will want to take in more established talent than they send out. The whole purpose of trading is to make the team better, right now, for Lillard.
No matter how you move around the factors, Portland’s incoming X needs to be greater than their outgoing Y. That means, pretty much by default, the opposing team isn’t going to be swayed by the players Portland offers alone. Other factors—in this case probably overwhelming potential combined with youth—will have to tip the scales.
In this category, Portland has something to offer. The Blazers might have their own 2023 lottery pick if they finish low in the standings. If they make the playoffs, that first-rounder will convey to the Chicago Bulls as a legacy of the trade that brought Larry Nance, Jr. to Portland. If that happens, though, the Blazers will have a range of future first-rounders to offer instead.
And now we see how Portland’s plan is narrowed down. The only way to get from Point A to Point B—absent some kind of unforeseen miracle swap that every team hopes for—is to liquidate the future of the franchise via its talented young players and upcoming draft picks in order to get that “win now” star. If that player is available, this is how the Blazers will have to do it. It’s probably going to be an all-or-nothing gamble, with serious depression ensuing if success doesn’t follow. The Blazers will be paying the tab for their summer for years.
What Will Happen?
Prospects aren’t good.
The Blazers have to hope that a star player comes available. They also have to hope that they can make the most attractive offer for that player, understanding that their talent pool is limited and they don’t have money to spend. That’s going to require assets that will impact the team for years to come. And that’s under the best of circumstances.
In reality, superstars don’t go on the trade market. They’re the rarest commodity in the league, far fewer in number than the 30 teams who desire them.
The Blazers haven’t shown themselves apt at making such deals. If they overcome that inertia, the cost is likely to make observers gasp.
Nobody can foretell the future, but putting this all in perspective, it doesn’t feel like Portland’s plan is going to work. They’re riding a horse towards a high fence in an equestrian event. That horse is likely to balk. Either the right player won’t be there, they can’t make the most competitive bid on him, or they look at the totality of chasing a title over the next 2-3 years will Lillard and decide that the long-term impact isn’t counterbalanced by the probability of success. That’s particularly true on a roster that’s already slanted heavily towards youth and the next generation.
What will happen when that horse balks? Speculation has surrounded Lillard for years. At every juncture, he’s stayed with the franchise. At this point, speculating anything different would be foolish, until the moment he states otherwise. Trading Lillard would be the all-in move that sends Portland towards their next iteration—a far more natural move than trying to bolster the current one. But nature and will are often at odds. If they don’t want to move Lillard and he doesn’t want to go, the door will remain closed.
This is exactly the kind of situation in which people lose jobs. Speculating on that sort of thing is icky, but I don’t think it’s out of line to say that if the Blazers don’t win this season and cannot make a move in the trade/free agency market, questions will arise.
Those queries will not stop with management. The overall priorities of the franchise are likely to come under question. When you lift a goal, then do not achieve it, but simultaneously do nothing about it, people will wonder if your stated aim is the true one.
This could well be an ugly, contentious summer for the Blazers. The only evasions are the two they started with: win the lottery or find a rare, superstar deal. Hope their mount clears the obstacle. It’s a thin thread, but for now, that’s what they’ve got.
We know Plan A. We also know the odds stacked against it and some of the potential consequences should it not come to fruition. Whatever is said between now and July—whatever the team’s noble intentions—those things won’t change. Portland is free to dream of a superstar addition, but their immediate future probably rests on how good their Plan B is.