The recent NBA Draft Lottery gave the Portland Trail Blazers the third overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, a powerful asset as they pursue their stated objective of building an immediate contender around franchise superstar Damian Lillard. Unlike the first overall pick—yielding generational center Victor Wembanyama—the third selection is not a “set it and forget it” prospect. Portland has a compass and some snacks now, but they’re not out of the woods as they would have been with a first-class lift from Wemby Air.
As soon as the draft order was known, questions like this one started flooding the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag:
I think the Blazers should keep No. 3. Curious if you agree but since they probably won’t, also curious what kind of player they could get for it. Who’s realistic? I’m curious about specific targets but at least what kind of player. Superstar? Star surely, right?
Oddly enough, Winnie, the entire internet is aflame with various fan bases lining up against Portland’s, trying to determine the value of that pick. It’s like crowdsourced episode of Pawn Stars.
Opposing Fans: This is a #3 pick. Authentic NBA. What do you want for it?
Blazers Fans: I was thinking your best player.
Opposing Fans: I’ve got to resell this, you know. I can give you Shecky Gruberman and a second-rounder.
Blazers Fans: But my dear old grandma brought this pick across the Oregon Trail and it’s been in my family for generations! Can’t you at least do a 3-and-D wing?
Opposing Fans: Nope. If it were the first pick, everybody would want it. But it’s the third. I’ve got six of those in the back room. I’ll give you Gruberman and two seconds for it.
I can’t even tell you all the names I’ve heard exchanged by media members, fellow writers, and fans. We’ll go over some of them in detail next week, I think. Suffice it to say that they range from outrageous to insulting and everything in between.
The funniest moments happen when both sides get upset.
Sixers Fan: Anfernee Simons and the third pick for Joel Embiid? What have you been smoking?!? He’s the MVP!
Blazers Fan: No WAY I’m trading Simons and #3 for Embiid! Have you seen his injury history and playoffs stats???
Facing this stormy environment, let’s cut through the breeze with this handy-dandy guide to the types of players the Blazers might pursue...
The Bona Fide Star
It’s all but guaranteed that the Blazers will try to get a certified, minted star with their pick. Third overall picks don’t come along often. A nice top-of-draft class makes this one valuable.
Trading that pick, Portland will be giving up the long game and speculative high ceilings. They won’t move it for more of the same in return. They’ll want proven performance instead.
Ideally, that would come from a player like Embiid, Jaylen Brown, or depending on your view, Pascal Siakam. Of that trio, Siakam is the only realistic target. I’m mentioning the others because they illustrate the key characteristic at this level: you KNOW what just happened the instant the trade is made. There aren’t any questions or doubts. The move justifies itself. Everyone in Portland will herald it with the same two words, the first one being “Holy” and the second unprintable.
Adjectives describing this level of player: huge stats, huge impact, veteran status, in or very near his prime.
Costs associated with acquiring this kind of player are blindingly high. The third pick alone won’t do it. At this level, expect to trade future picks, young players, and the kitchen sink to put a single guy by Dame.
The Bridge Player
The problem with those bona fide stars is that they’re hard to get, even in exchange for high draft picks.
If they can’t pull a franchise-changer outright, Portland may go for a “bridge” player. Bridge targets are younger, maybe not mega-stars yet (or ever) but still potential All-Stars with demonstrable skills.
Mikal Bridges is the archetypal example. Some people consider Tyrese Maxey of the Philadelphia 76ers this kind of player. (Though one probably not suitable in Portland.) DeAndre Ayton could also qualify, as does OG Anunoby.
The disadvantage is that these players might not make the Blazers automatic contenders. The advantage is that, even if that doesn’t happen, they still have utility.
If the current plan didn’t work and the Blazers had to rebuild, Bridges, Maxey, Ayton and their ilk would serve just as well for a young team as a veteran one. The Blazers sacrifice immediate, MVP-level impact for extra “outs”, gaining big talent without having to commit to a time-limited future.
This is not dissimilar to the way Portland has handled past free agent negotiations and trades. The level of impact and asset risk is far higher now, but the idea is the same: be smart, stay somewhere in the middle ground, keep your flexibility alive to make further improvements.
Adjectives describing this kind of player: young-ish, skilled, high-potential, but not necessarily tasked with carrying the team on his shoulders.
Costs for this kind of player vary. If he ever came available, Bridges would be almost as expensive as your first-line stars above. The Nets traded Kevin Durant for him, after all. He’s the upper crust here, though. Most bridge players should come at the cost of the pick, plus maybe another asset or two (young player? protected future pick?) without having to empty the cupboard entirely.
The Aging Veteran
The last category encompasses the guys who used to be superstars and bridge players, who yet have gas in the tank, but are rapidly aging out of their roles. Jimmy Butler is the most obvious example, followed by Draymond Green. You don’t have to ask who these players are or what they do. You just wonder how long they can keep it up.
This kind of veteran would give the team an instant boost at the cost of durability. The Blazers wouldn’t just be in “win or nothing” mode. It’d be “win RIGHT NOW or nothing”.
On the plus side, the grizzled veteran would combine the cost savings of the bridge player with the proven impact of the star.
If the market for the pick proves sparser than hoped, Portland might have to think about this kind of compromise. They’d have to make sure they got the best of the best aging veterans, though. With Butler leading Miami to the Eastern Conference Finals and Green being...well...Green, that might be harder than it looks.
The Secret Sauce Plan
If Portland can’t get a no-brainer superstar, one unlikely eventuality could cover multiple bases for them: obtain two from the other categories. If the Blazers could leverage a very, very good player with the pick plus salary ballast (a lower-level bona fide star or higher-level bridge player), then find a bridge player or grizzled veteran out of favor enough to be bought without the pick, the influx of talent and positional coverage might cover the cost. Players like Ayton, Green, or even Siakam who are on shaky contractual or interpersonal ground with their teams are likely candidates.
No doubt the Blazers would much rather get the Big Big Star with their needle-threading. But if the eye of that one isn’t open, this needle would be a reasonable fallback.
One Big Issue
The Blazers appear to have all the assets needed to pull off a big trade or two: young players, future picks (give or take a handshake with the Chicago Bulls, to whom they still owe a future first-rounder), and that prized #3 selection.
But NBA trades must still follow rules. The Blazers will be over the cap this summer, limited in how much salary they can take in over and above what they send out. The Blazers also lack available contracts to facilitate huge trades. Any deals they make have to travel down narrow bands.
Damian Lillard will earn $45.6 million next year. Since keeping him is the whole premise of this kind of trade, his salary doesn’t count for purposes of this discussion.
After Lillard come Portland’s most-often-mentioned trade candidates: Anfernee Simons at $24.1 million and Jusuf Nurkic at $16.9 million. Those are the salary weights the Blazers can to throw around when negotiating legal deals. Those are also two of their five starters.
At least one of the Simons-Nurkic duo will have to depart along with the third pick in any significant trade. That leaves the Blazers giving up a high level of overall talent (Simons and #3) or positional talent (their only true center and #3) for the incoming player. Their trade target has to be enormously gifted—or a center—to justify either decision.
After Simons and Nurkic, Portland’s contracts drop to the $6 million range for Shaedon Sharpe and Nassir Little. Little could certainly be contract ballast, but all of Blazers Nation would pale if Sharpe were included in a trade primarily for salary purposes.
Sign-and-trades are rarer in the NBA than they once were, but this is another reason getting Jerami Grant under contract matters to Portland. Even if they couldn’t move him immediately (or had no intentions to), six months down the road, his contract could provide critical leverage if they can’t get a deal done right now or need a second deal to complete their revamped roster. Grant’s presumed $30 million contract, his age, and his level of production all place him in the potentially-tradeable category, particularly if Portland’s trade partner has their eyes on the incredibly-inexpensive Sharpe instead of Simons. (Or, of course, if the Blazers prefer to trade Sharpe rather than Ant.) Including Grant might also save them other compensation. It’s not a likely alternative, but it’s something to watch.
We didn’t cover every player in this post, of course, but there’s a good chance if a player doesn’t fall into one of these three categories, Portland shouldn’t be dangling the third overall pick for them anyway.
Personally, I think the Blazers will have a hard time getting any superstar north of Siakam with the third pick and what they have to offer, unless Jaylen Brown goes into full-on rebellion mode in Boston. They can certainly shop among available bridge players, although my gut says Bridges himself is beyond their grasp.
A grizzled veteran or two will be there, but if Portland goes that way, they need to ask whether they can get that player without using the pick. They’d then leverage the lottery selection into a second move and come back with a whole new outlook on life.
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