The NBA Trade Deadline is now officially a week away, as you already know unless you’ve been camping out in a cave with earplugs on. The Portland Trail Blazers have been mentioned in all the requisite trade rumors. With seven days remaining, it’s just a matter of seeing whether they can pull off a deal or not.
As we get to traction time, the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is filling up with all kinds of suggestions. We’ll cover some of them in the coming week. For now, one reader just wants to know my opinion on who the Blazers should get. So let’s try.
Who do you hope we get when the deadline comes? You’ve talked about trades in the abstract but give us some names, bro! I gotta hear who’s on your hot sheet.
Before we even start, let’s rehearse the reasons why this is going to be difficult.
NBA teams generally offer three things as enticement to trade: talent, draft picks, or cap space.
Talent includes player ability and relative age. Young players are often valued over older, better players over worse (obviously).
Draft picks are self-explanatory.
Once upon a time expiring contracts mattered for cap space purposes. That’s much less true now, as the vast majority of teams are over the cap and will remain so even if some of their contracts expire at the end of the year. But teams can still “trade” cap space by absorbing more dollars than they send out, either in absolute terms this year or future contract years (taking on a three-year deal and sending out a two-year, for instance).
The Blazers are facing the 2023 Trade Deadline with only one of those three potential enticements to offer. They’re playing Roshambo with only a rock and half a scissor to throw.
Portland cannot trade first-round draft picks for the foreseeable future until they convey a protected pick they owe to the Chicago Bulls for the Larry Nance, Jr. trade a couple of summers ago. The protections run through 2028, effectively eliminating their ability to know whether any pick between now and then will be theirs to trade in a given year or not. Until they know, they can’t use those picks. They do have a few (much-less-valuable) second-round picks to swap if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are $67,000 under the luxury tax threshold and cannot absorb extra salary without exceeding it. The potential penalties for doing so in lost revenue and future cost will exceed all but the clearest “immediate improvement” deals.
That leaves talent as the main asset the Blazers have to offer. Even then, it’s a mixed bag.
Portland’s young players are either not worth much (Keon Johnson, Trendon Watford, Jabari Walker) or are talented enough that the Blazers would think thrice before including them in a trade (Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons). Those prized players could become available for a can’t-miss move, but that kind of deal is seldom made at the trade deadline.
The Blazers do have a few talented veterans available: Josh Hart, Jusuf Nurkic, Justise Winslow. Winslow carries an expiring contract, as does Hart, for all intents and purposes. Nurkic just signed a new deal but his future with the team may be in doubt.
But what can packages including Hart, Nurkic, and Winslow buy, without picks and without the willingness to take back extra salary? We’re not talking star players in return. Throwing in Simons, at minimum, would be necessary to reach that plateau. There’s no indication the Blazers would do that.
That means we’re probably looking at the kind of deal that will make Blazer-fan stomachs rumbly, but that also makes some sense in the long run: a trade that won’t patch the holes in the roster or make the team better right now, but will add assets that will help as time goes on.
This is particularly true if you look at Hart as the central trade figure. The Blazers aren’t going to replace his talent, skill, or all-around game. Nor, in all likelihood, can they get a great first-round pick for a player who could be gone at the end of the season. But the Blazers have to figure they’re going to lose him this summer anyway, unless they want to pay a fortune for the same exact starting five next year.
If the Blazers can’t package Hart in a super-deal, they will need to move him for whatever they can get. Their trade partner might get the better of the talent deal right now, but the Blazers would be ahead of where they’d have been had they kept Hart.
Understanding this, you can understand why players like Daniel Gafford of the Washington Wizards or Mo Bamba of the Orlando Magic could be attractive. Would the Blazers trade Hart for them straight up under normal circumstances? No. Under these circumstances, though? Getting a young center with defensive potential would make the Blazers bigger, ease requirements on later trades involving Jusuf Nurkic, and add to their core of youth.
Gafford is a 6’10, 24-year-old center in his fourth year. He’s a good shot-blocker, a decent rebounder, a mobile, energy player. His offense is limited to 10 feet and in, but he’s effective from short range. He’d bring some of the same spirit as Drew Eubanks, with a little more defensive potential.
Bamba is also 24, 7’0, playing in his fifth year with the Orlando Magic. He’s less of a shot-blocker than Gafford, but he’s decent. He’s also a fine rebounder and his range extends out to the three-point arc, where he takes almost half of his shots now.
Gafford makes just $1.9 million this season, but his contract heads to $12.4 million next year, then up through $14.4 million in 2025-26. Bamba makes $10.3 million this year and the same next year on a non-guaranteed contract.
Whether Washington or Orlando would want Hart straight up is debatable. The Blazers might have to look towards a contender—the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, or even the Utah Jazz—who would love to take on Hart and could be assured of attracting his loyalty.
If the Blazers could come up with a package that netted them a young, defensively-apt center, I think they’d be ahead in the long run. That’s where my minimum expectation level is set for now. If they exceed that bar, good. If they can’t, they might be better off making no move, hoping Hart sticks with his current deal, and either running it back next year or using his contract in trade this summer.
Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt is also a potential target to keep an eye on. A package with under-performing small forward Rudy Gay would work. Gay has a player option for next season that he’s likely to opt into. The combination of Gay and Vanderbilt would give Portland a young player at the cost of Hart and absorbing Gay’s salary...a fair deal.
We all wish that Pascal Siakam would come available for a deal that makes sense for Portland. That’s not going to happen over the next week...not with the Blazers’ current limitations, anyway.
If they can move Hart and Nurkic for something great—or add Simons and get someone superlative—they should do it! Realistically, star moves are out of their range right now. It’s 90% sure that lateral moves designed to get better now won’t have enough time to bear fruit. An incremental move that pays off in the future is probably the way to go. If they pull it off, fair enough. If not...let’s hope for more wins like they got in Memphis.
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