The Portland Trail Blazers are in “hurry up and wait” mode as the NBA Summer of 2023 approaches. The Blazers will enter June and July with a fancy draft pick, a young roster, and a talented-but-impatient superstar in tow. Working out their assets and needs will be a puzzle. The next few months are not going to be dull.
In the meantime, it’s no fun sitting in the waiting room, not knowing what the prognosis is going to be. That’s the situation many Blazers fans find themselves in right now, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Dave, I am feeling an overwhelming amount of existential dread regarding the team. What a conundrum Dame has put us in. Does any team have incentive to trade for 3, knowing that if we pick it, they have a chance at getting Dame? Is there a way we can keep 3 and Dame, without losing Sharpe? Seems like the 3rd pick is either regarded as too good to give up for gettable players and not good enough for needle movers. I can’t make head or tails of this. I feel like many players in the lottery are exception talents. Are teams going to play hard ball as these various sports rosters seem to speculate? I can’t be the only fan that feels this way! Please help us make sense of it!
Easy now. Like any problem of large scale, this looks impossible until you break it down into manageable chunks. Then it starts to sort itself out.
The dread you feel is not because the Blazers lack options and assets. That’s the real thing to fear. Go back to 2003 or 2004 when Portland was capped out, bereft of (or squandering) draft picks, and fielding a team with the chemistry of oil and antimatter. That was terrible. These Blazers have several sane paths forward without having to tear it down too far and rebuild like the 2003 team eventually had to do.
Instead, your uneasiness is festering in the gap between two seemingly diametrically-opposed goals: rebuilding around Damian Lillard and taking advantage of youth. Those goals will require different steps. Since none of them have been taken yet, we’re all spinning around in “wait and see” mode. Anxiety grows faster there than anywhere else.
This hasn’t been helped by all parties being PR-cagey and reserved in their declarations about these matters. The Blazers say they’d like to put a contending lineup around Lillard but don’t sound 100% confident that they can do so. Lillard has said his preference is to stay in Portland but hasn’t absolutely committed to it, salting in reminders that he also wants to play with a mature, winning team. He’s told the world that Portland’s front office has promised him they’ll do that, while the front office smiles with figurative strain and goes, “Yeah. That’s right.”
It’s worth noting that, contrary to the assertion in your question, Lillard hasn’t put the Blazers in this semi-awkward position. They could have made different moves: not chasing mid-level forwards, not trading draft picks they needed for later swaps, not divesting their veterans for less expensive young players and creating a roster age gap that Lillard is on the wrong side of. If they had wanted to go nuclear, they could have avoided it by not extending Lillard to the maximum ends of his contract. That would have turned down the volume on the current issues, but created a raft of new ones.
Having said that, there’s little to no guarantee that, had Portland shuffled the cards differently, they would have come up with a championship hand. The Blazers could have made a completely different suite of decisions only to have Lillard say that getting eliminated in the first round three out of every four years isn’t good enough. It’d be the same issue, just no lottery picks.
In the end, we don’t know how things would have turned out. We just know how they are turning out. Things aren’t quite working. The team and its star need a course adjustment. Whether that’s possible is the first question, whether they will be mutually satisfied with the solution is the second.
Keep in mind that, unless they’re negligent, both Lillard and the front office have been in communication about these things. They are likely aware of each other’s stances and needs.
One of the things adding to the public angst is that, in front of cameras and microphones, all parties are invested in being nice. That’s the brand around here. Damian Lillard is an affable, kindly superstar, among the most relatable in the NBA. The Blazers are a benign, community-oriented franchise sprung out of the soil of Blazermania. Neither party will grab your collar like a Brooklyn cabby saying the Nets need to change because they suck concrete. Both sides will keep the friendly facade going until it either works out and they go on together or it becomes apparent they can’t. And even then, they’ll part with hugs and thanks.
Your tension is getting amped up, in part, because all of this carefully-couched “niceness” sounds like half measures and maybes, keeping us all here in the middle, extending the problem without doing anything meaningful.
If the Blazers try that this summer, you and I will certainly chat about it. But for now, it’s safer to assume that the nondescript “middle-grounding” is a product of PR-savvy and no significant events (NBA Draft, free agency and trade season) having happened yet.
It’s likely that Joe Cronin is sitting in his office laughing at 70% of the proposed deals we’ve heard so far, ready to jump in case the upper 10% become available, and mulling over the 20% in the middle. In that way, the resolution you’re seeking has already started. The variables therein are a smaller subset than are publicly discussed. Occasions for worry and decisions are more limited than you think.
The theoretical gap between Portland’s two aims is huge. The practical gap—defined by what they can actually do as opposed to what everyone wishes they could—is much smaller. Portland’s summer isn’t going to be spent spinning in circles. The river is going to narrow down a couple specific channels, which they’ll then need to negotiate as the raft starts moving faster. Don’t worry...tempo and white water will both pick up soon. At that point, there won’t be room for dread, just paddling.
Based on what we know publicly, here are the steps the Blazers will need to to through in this process. We’re going to assume that their stated goal of keeping Damian Lillard (and keeping him happy) will be their first priority.
What to Do with the Draft Pick?
The first question at hand is whether other teams will value the third pick (and/or the 23rd, if it comes into play) highly enough to offer Portland veteran players for it. If the Blazers determine that those players will help them move towards contention over the next 2-3 years, they’re likely to accept that kind of offer. If they don’t, they won’t.
Lillard’s preferences will factor into the assessment here, but likely not more than 10% or so. If the Blazers are on the fence about a move, retaining Dame will probably push them over it. But Lillard’s wishes won’t turn a not-helpful player into a helpful one. The Blazers won’t trade away the third pick for no—or temporary—help. At least one would hope not. That’s the kind of mistake that can get you fired, maybe even keep you from working in a lead position again.
If no help is forthcoming by trading away (or trading down), I fully expect the Blazers to keep the pick, then deal with the relatively-decent problem of what to do with Lillard AND Shaedon Sharpe AND their new franchise-boosting rookie. That’s a lot more entertaining puzzle to solve than not having any of the above.
Re-Sign Jerami Grant?
Portland has one major free agent issue this summer: re-signing unrestricted free agent Jerami Grant. As we’ve chronicled, losing Grant would not create cap space for Portland. They have to retain him, not just for talent, but to preserve a trade asset and salary slot. This isn’t really a decision on Portland’s part, but Grant’s. He has all the power. Getting him back into the fold will be pretty much the first item of business in free agency.
Negotiate with Chicago?
As we’ve detailed before, the Blazers still owe the Chicago Bulls a first-round pick as a legacy of the Larry Nance, Jr. deal back in 2021. If they can get Chicago to take compensation now (perhaps the 23rd pick that the Blazers got from the Knicks when trading Josh Hart at the deadline) they’ll free up more future first-rounders as potential assets in trades.
What Trades are Available?
Assuming the Blazers haven’t made a draft-night trade, they’ll head into July with Grant, Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, Shaedon Sharpe, and Nassir Little as potential trade chips. They’ll also have whomever they selected in this year’s draft, plus future first-rounders as modified by the Chicago deal above.
That’s not exactly a murderer’s row of trade candidates, but it’s not insignificant. Portland could trade Simons (young player) and future picks to try and obtain a veteran star. Or they could try a consolidation deal. All options are open, including the one mentioned in the question. Yes, they could end up keeping Lillard, Sharpe, and the third pick. Phoenix accepting Simons, Nurkic, and future firsts for Deandre Ayton would be just one of the ways that could happen. I don’t think the Suns would do it, but there are worse things than a Lillard-Sharpe-Miller-Grant-Ayton starting lineup.
Just keep in mind that any assets that the Blazers could have moved in June can still be moved in July and beyond. Remember that Lillard is still under a multi-year deal. Portland is under no systemic pressure to move now. If nothing comes up, they could push off to the start of the season, or next year’s trade deadline. The only factor swaying that would be Lillard’s patience. Asking Dame to wait a bit longer when he’s already under a long-term deal is easier than manufacturing trades that don’t exist.
MLE and Tax
The Blazers will also be capable of signing new free agents using the Mid-Level Exception this summer. The critical question is whether they’ll be willing to go over the luxury tax threshold. Using a substantial portion of the MLE will almost certainly push them there.
Odds are they won’t be willing, given the recent performance of the team. But results aren’t tallied until the end of the season (May of 2024) so they have room to go over now and trade back later if it doesn’t work. But their willingness to risk using the MLE—or at least the full amount—will be tempered by he tax limit. The two issues go hand in hand.
Now What Happens with Dame?
As you can see, we’ve gone through several decisions, most with multiple permutations, before we’ve even gotten to the point of worrying about Lillard yet. Before the “Trade Dame” talk begins in earnest, the Blazers would have found no suitable partners for a draft pick trade, found no other likely trades available, and decided against signing an MLE player or exceeding the tax. And even then, any of those decisions could be reversed if a new opportunity presented itself in September or November or February.
If, and when, all those options prove fruitless, the Lillard talk begins. Until then, it doesn’t have to.
Good news, though. If Portland has stewarded their resources responsibly in all the prior steps, even trading Lillard wouldn’t be the end of the world from the big-picture franchise outlook. They’d still have Miller or Scoot Henderson, Simons, Sharpe, Grant, Nurkic, and whatever future picks they retained. They’d then add whatever new assets they got from the Lillard move to go forward with. It’d be a huge, and sad, change, but not the Footsteps of Doom come to end it all.
As we said, the annoying thing about these decision points is that they can’t all happen at once, right now. We’re still left in the realm of the unknown. That’s where it’ll sit until each choice gets made in its proper time.
Some decisions might tip the hand on Portland’s future. If they make a draft night deal for veteran help, there you go. You’d know they’re going all-in on winning now. If they don’t re-sign Jerami Grant, it could indicate the opposite...or at least that their intentions aren’t going to work. If they trade down in the draft for a veteran and a lower pick, then decide against signing a full MLE player, you know they’re postponing the issue to a later date. Any way it goes, you’re probably not going to have to ask. We’ll see what they’re doing and it’ll speak pretty clearly.
These decision points exist, even though they’re not here yet. The only distance between that ambiguous, existential dread and resolution towards a forward course is time.
Sometimes when we go to the doctor—if you can get in anymore—they’ll say to take some pain relievers and call back if the symptoms last more than 48 hours. That’s the way it is with the Blazers and this fear/dread that the fan base is feeling. Get through the next couple months. Don’t start to worry seriously unless the ambiguity stretches out into fall and beyond. This is going to work itself out. We just need to wait a bit to see how.
Thanks for the question! You all can send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get to as many as we can!