The Portland Trail Blazers enter the Summer of 2023 with a healthy measure of unrest and uncertainty. Their roster is bifurcated between a couple key veterans and a raft of youngsters. They’re butting up against the luxury tax on the heels of a 33-win season. They need to make changes, but the path forward remains murky.
In that atmosphere, we address one of the simpler, but most encompassing, questions in the off-season Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Do you really think Damian Lillard will stay? And who else will remain with us into next year? It seems like we need to trade a lot of people. I need to know who to set my heart on. Leave the trade talk for a minute and let me know who is sticking around.
Any response is going to be a mix of educated guess, personal bias, and reading tea leaves. This is doubly true because, at any time, a trade can change the makeup and needs of the roster. With those caveats firmly in place, I’ll try for you, based on what the roster looks like now..
Building around Lillard is still Portland’s publicly-stated priority. Wanting to win in Portland is Lillard’s. Until either party says otherwise, the assumption is that Dame and the Blazers are a “go” for another year. The caveat here: one word from Lillard can change this status from “must keep” to “urgent trade”.
As we stated earlier this week, every sign points to Grant re-signing in Portland if at all possible. He scores 20 points and defends. The Blazers can offer him more dollars than anybody else. They have no good alternate options at power forward and they won’t generate a dime of cap space by letting him go. Even if he weren’t in their long-term plans, the Blazers would likely keep Grant just to preserve a salary slot and trade chip.
Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons
Portland boasts a pair of young, talented scoring guards. Portland also needs to make a significant move to bolster their lineup if they want Lillard to stay. One of the duo of Sharpe and Simons will likely become a casualty of those aspirations while the other moves up to the “certain keep” designation. Who stays and who goes will depend in part on the assessment of talent and fitness, with a dash of salary-balancing thrown in. Only in a true superstar deal would you see both moved. It’s also possible that neither is, if no stars are available at all.
The Trail Blazers were the first team to see the potential in Trendon Watford. He didn’t play much in the early season, but once they engaged tank mode, they once again saw the value in Watford’s heart, motor, and preparation. Even so, Watford would be an asterisk on the roster except for his $1.8 million salary. Though it’s non-guaranteed, the Blazers will have to pay someone. For that kind of minimum-level salary, they’re going to value Watford as much as anybody.
The same will likely hold true of Jabari Walker, who copied Watford’s learning curve, utility, and salary. Though either Watford or Walker could end up in a trade easily, their paltry salaries make them more likely lower-bench prospects.
Of all the players Portland picked up at the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline, Matisse Thybulle had the best combination of fit and consistency. The shooting guard averaged 38.8% from the arc in 22 games as a Blazer, adding 1.7 steals while becoming Portland’s best defender the instant he stepped onto the court. Thybulle is a restricted free agent, but his pre-Portland performance won’t generate huge offers across the league. A relatively-modest $6.3 million qualifying offer plus the likelihood of re-signing him on the cheap make Thybulle a fairly safe bet to return.
Eubanks is a perfectly fine reserve center with minimal cost. The Blazers might get one big man in trade, but they’re unlikely to get two. That will probably leave room for a minimum-level signing for their now-experienced pivot.
Jusuf Nurkic has been Portland’s starting center since midway through the 2016-17 season. Between injuries, fluctuating conditioning, and not being given a clear role, Nurk hasn’t put in a truly consistent season for the last four years. When he’s on, he can still be brilliant. It just doesn’t happen enough to raise him above mostly-average. Portland re-signed him to a $17 million-ish annual contract last year. His salary, along with Simons, sit right in the sweet spot for salary-matching in a star deal. The Blazers will still need a center if they move Nurk, but his purchase on the roster is more tenuous now than it’s ever been.
Cam Reddish got the most initial play among all trade-deadline acquisitions this season. His natural ability was evident, but his three-point shooting never came around and his defensive utility is sporadic. The Blazers can’t keep everybody from last year’s team, in part because they won 33 games, in part because of cost. Reddish is a restricted free agent, He probably won’t receive big offers, but his singe-year qualifying offer is $7.7 million. Unless he’s willing to forego that and sign for near-minimum like Watford and Walker, Portland may not be willing to add salary towards the luxury tax for him. It’s possible that their priority list inverts Reddish’s position with Knox’s, but they’re likely to choose one or the other.
Kevin Knox II
Like Watford and Walker, Kevin Knox II saw his fortunes rise as his team’s declined, getting the chance to strut his stuff in a race for the lottery. Knox was not as consistent as Thybulle, but he had enough flashes to keep the pot on a simmer. He’s owed $3 million next year on a non-guaranteed contract. Whether he’s there for a test drive or as a little bit of extra trade ballast, that number makes retaining him likely unless the Blazers crowd him out with a star forward. But chances are he’ll be thrown into some kind of trade maneuver rather than kept long-term.
Nassir Little was tabbed for a potential breakout year in 2022-23. Injuries and inconsistency kept him on the shy end of Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ rotation. The Blazers show no indication of a coaching change. That’s strike one for Lilttle. Strike two is a salary averaging between $6-8 million over the next four years. If they’re not going to play him, Portland will likely try to move that contract either to salary match or to keep them hairs below the luxury tax threshold, If Little is simply another one of their prospects, the Blazers have cheaper options.
The Blazers picked up Keon Johnson in 2022 as part of a veteran-divestment trade. Johnson has athleticism to burn, but chances are they hoped he’d defend and shoot better than he has. They’re already overcrowded at shooting guard. Johnson’s $2.8 million salary is slightly more expensive than the minimum, barely less than Knox’s. It’s also non-guaranteed, which makes Johnson a potential afterthought in the summer merry-go-round.
Justise Winslow was impressive during his 29 appearances for Portland this season. That wasn’t enough run to establish him firmly, especially since he hasn’t hit 60 in the last four years. He’s an unrestricted free agent. Though his salary demands will be modest, it feels like the Blazers will move on in favor of younger prospects or more reliable veterans.
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