The Portland Trail Blazers are rumored to be active on the 2023 NBA trade market, dangling the third overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft, shooting guard Anfernee Simons, and other assets to try and land a big fish to swim next to seven-time All-Star Damian Lillard. The Blazer’s Edge Mailbag has been overwhelmed with questions about the possibility, and suitability, of Portland’s supposed targets in this year’s swap circus. Even those inquiries couldn’t cover the scope of players the Blazers have been linked to.
As we reset before tomorrow’s draft—with its potential for early news of trade plans—we’re going to rank the major players whirling around Portland in the media circus. Some of these have come from national sources, others local. A few have appeared more subtly, like the third percussionist in your favorite touring band suddenly taking a solo with his Peruvian shaker beads. Either way, here are our fairly-reasonable guesses about the potential for each player in Portland.
Yesterday we covered less-attractive trade rumors. Today we’ll delve into the deals that might have a ghost of a chance of working.
The Big Swing
New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson is the hot name on everybody’s lips at the moment. Years from now somebody will find this article archived and either go, “HA HA!” or, “DOH!” There is no middle ground with the 6’6, only-the-scale-knows-what-he-weighs-today big man. It’s the ultimate boom-or-bust move.
The “boom” comes from 26 points per game on 61% shooting from the field, and he doesn’t even have to try that hard to get it. Williamson has a supernatural combination of strength, bulk, and athleticism, making him impossible to handle for anyone south of prime-years Shaq. Zion was the Victor Wembanyama of the 2019 NBA Draft. For those counting, that was just four years ago. He’ll turn 23 in just a couple weeks.
The “bust” comes from Williamson being unable to stay on the floor. A combination of weight, bad luck, and the strain put on his body by his playing style have conspired to keep him out of 214 out of 328 potential games in his career so far. New Orleans maxed him ($33.5-$44.2 million per year from now until 2028) because they had no other practical choice. The decision proved controversial among league analysts, which shows how far Zion’s stock has fallen.
Williamson has more potential to alter the course of the franchise—up to and including a championship run—than any other player the Blazers could reasonably acquire. If the Pelicans are willing to trade him with the third overall pick as the centerpiece, it will indicate that they don’t think there’s a ghost of a chance he can actually do it. New Orleans would simply be offloading their Zion Problem on Portland. It’d be up to the Blazers and Williamson to prove them wrong.
Experts are still debating whether this move is realistic. Paradoxically, the more likely it is, the less the Blazers should want it. Portland has to hope that New Orleans misreads the situation or that Williamson becomes a different, yet still ultra-effective, player as he ages. Otherwise the Blazers are buying into a chance to experience Greg-Oden-like disappointment once again. That’s how Damian Lillard came into this league. It would be a sad way to send him out.
The Decorated Veteran
Toronto Raptors big Pascal Siakam stands among the most-mentioned targets for the Blazers this year. Toronto may be looking to retool following their slow slide from championship glory in 2019 and thus may be willing to move him.
Siakam was a key part of that run and has blossomed since, scoring 24.3 points per game with 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in an All-Star season last year. He’s not a premium three-point shooter, but nearly everything else about his game—including defense—is superb.
Normally that would make him an automatic keep for the Raptors. But he’s 29 years old. They have forwards Scottie Barnes and forward OG Anunoby in the rotation already. They just picked up Jakob Poeltl to play center. Siakam may no longer be critical to their plans. Or, more specifically, they may value rookie sensation Scoot Henderson and further young compensation from Portland higher than an aging star forward whose contract expires at the end of next season anyway.
The Blazers are in the opposite position, wanting immediate help for star Damian Lillard. They’d have a hard time doing better than Siakam, at least on paper. He’s got defense, durability, and championship experience...the exact qualities they need.
Siakam would leave a short window, but that’s not a fatal flaw considering their timeline. He would cause a log jam with forward Jerami Grant and there’s the messy issue of that expiring contract. If the Blazers could work out those wrinkles, Siakam would be a good get.
The Young Stars
Two young stars have been mentioned in connection with Portland...players-in-waiting with more experience than Henderson or Brandon Miller would bring, but still plenty of upward potential that 30-year-olds lack.
Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns is reportedly on the trade block after several years of ups and downs. He scored 18.0 points per game last season, adding 10.0 rebounds. His defense is a work in progress but he’s adequate with room to grow.
Right now, Ayton’s expectations are measured against the first-overall pick the Suns spent on him in the 2018 NBA Draft. He hasn’t lived up to hope and hype. That matters to the team selecting him, not at all to the one trading for him. Being in the second position, Portland might have interest.
Ayton would have more freedom to blossom in Portland than he does in Phoenix’s packed lineup. On the other hand, he had a chance to contribute to a championship contender in Phoenix and couldn’t help them over the hump, even in a lesser role. That’s not promising. Henderson—the main player the Blazers would trade for Ayton—may be the better player overall. He’s both younger and cheaper.
Portland would also be retooling at a position that’s hard to get right in today’s league. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are to modern NBA centers what “Mom” is to an infant. The world is divided into two categories: them, and everybody else. The Blazers could end up with the 4th- or 5th-best center in the league. That kind of upgrade would look good most nights, but they could still end up getting outmatched in the playoffs every year.
Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram has also been mentioned in place of Williamson in Portland deals. The 26-year-old forward averaged 24.7 points while shooting 48.4% from the field, 39.0% from the three-point arc last season. He also notched 5.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He’d provide another scorer and shot creator alongside Lillard, evening out the starting lineup from its current guard-heavy configuration.
Ingram only played in 45 games last year, though. He appeared in just 55 the season before. In the six seasons since his rookie campaign, Ingram’s high-water mark has been 62 games. He’s missed a lot of time for a young guy.
Ingram’s defense is suspect. He was once tabbed as a player who just didn’t care about that end of the floor. He’s evolved from those miry depths of horror, but he’s still half-liability. That’s not exactly what Portland is looking for.
Neither Ayton nor Ingram would be as bankable as Siakam, but both would find chances to shine in Portland that they lacked elsewhere. If the Blazers think either has another gear, these young stars would fill lineup gaps in fine style.
The Safety Play
So far we’ve mentioned trades involving the third pick and an opposing star as the centerpieces, positing that Portland would move out of the draft altogether (or at least out of the lottery). Moving down is also an option, splitting the difference by acquiring a good veteran and a promising rookie.
If the Blazers wanted to explore this option, Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers would be a good candidate. Indiana owns the 7th pick in the draft. Portland might swap 3 for 7, asking for Turner as compensation, likely throwing in Jusuf Nurkic to make the salaries work.
Turner is a better defender than Nurk, more athletic, and of similar age. He averaged 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game last year, shooting 54.8% from the field. He wouldn’t turn around Portland’s fortunes alone, but he’d provide a platform for them to stand on while doing so. Add in the chance to draft Jarace Walker or Jalen Hood-Schifino and you can see the Blazers opening up future deals to get even more help.
It’s hard to tell exactly which opportunities will open up, but if any of the above plays are available, the Blazers would have to think about them, at least. Home run swing or bunting the runner into scoring position, they’re looking to move forward this off-season. One way or another, it’s going to happen.
The biggest question is, would Scoot Henderson—now their presumptive pick—do more for them than any of the above deals, let alone the less-desirable ones we covered yesterday?
Keep in mind the mantra we keep repeating: assets don’t just disappear. If Henderson plays like he’s supposed to, he’ll also be tradable six months, a year, or two years from now. The Blazers don’t have to bite on a suboptimal deal just because it happens today. They may decide to see what they’ve got in Scoot, then make their decision from a position of more surety later. Other than Williamson and perhaps Siakam, they can find similar opportunities to the above trade suggestions down the road.
If they have to make a move now, Portland’s first decision is whether they think Zion Williamson is worth the risk. If they do, nobody else compares.
If they skip Williamson, Siakam is the next best bet. If Toronto won’t let go of Pascal, then a trade-down for Turner and a lottery rookie might be better than going all-in on a younger star with flaws.
Overall, though, it feels like only Williamson and Siakam exceed that “better than Scoot (at least right now)” threshold. The Blazers will need to walk a fine line in their trade negotiations, making sure their purchase right now doesn’t cost them exorbitant interest later.