The Portland Trail Blazers did not pull off a trade on NBA Draft Night, 2023 but they made the most of their three picks allotted to them among 58 in the annual ritual. Whether that amounts to a successful evening depends on their agenda, the point of view of the observer, and whatever transpires next.
With every sign—and seemingly half of the articles published in the month leading up to the draft—pointing towards a roster-rehabilitating trade, the lack of a move is mildly surprising. Those looking forward to contending in 2023-24 with a renewed Damian Lillard leading the charge next to highly-touted veterans will be disappointed with this outcome. The Blazers did not leverage their picks into upper-conference status, at least not yet.
Portland’s highest pick, Scoot Henderson, has a decade-long “best by” date. As long as he stays healthy and performs somewhere near his expected level—by all accounts, that of a first-overall pick in an average draft year—the Blazers cannot go wrong with him. They can keep him as the next franchise star, develop him for a year or two and then trade him, or flip him in July for the stars they couldn’t get in June. Henderson does not box them in; he gives them long-term leverage.
That leverage counts towards trades. It also counts when dealing with Lillard.
Drafting a Top 3 rookie at your franchise star’s position is not a good look under normal circumstances. It can carry an implied threat. I don’t believe for a second that this was Portland’s intention. I take General Manager Joe Cronin at face value when he says he wants Lillard to retire with the Blazers. I also believe what he said in his post-draft press conference, that Henderson was simply the best player available and taking him was the biggest, best move the Blazers could make at that moment.
That’s actually a powerful statement for an organization that, at least in the court of public opinion, has been completely beholden to their superstar up to this point...be it by strings of affection or harsh roster realities. The Blazers haven’t rejected Lillard by taking Henderson. At least for the immediate future, they have kept three options viable: play both Lillard and Henderson, trade Scoot, or trade Dame. They’ve done what’s best for the franchise by their own definition, not just by their star’s.
That’s not a declaration of independence, but it is a statement of intent. “We are going to move forward in the most sensible way possible no matter what that entails.” The team no longer rises or falls on the whim of one person, however amazing that person is. If Dame goes, Portland still has something.
That said, Henderson may well be moved down the road. By most reports, the Blazers actively discussed trades in the days and hours leading up to the draft. When the Brooklyn Nets won’t trade Mikal Bridges, nor the Miami Heat Bam Adebayo, no matter what the price, those doors close. Word is, the price of most other star-level deals was high as well. These things change over time, though. June’s optimism turns into October’s reality and February despair. Teams that laughed at the Blazers’ offer of Henderson today may reconsider tomorrow. If not, Portland still has Scoot.
Those who fear losing Lillard do have reason to up the Defcon level slightly. Dame might refrain from opening the emergency exit door this summer, maybe even for a year. He’s not going to cede ball-handling duties to Henderson over the long haul. Henderson will not thrive without them. The two will play together, probably well, as long as Lillard remains satisfied with their arrangement. Perhaps they can come to a lifetime accord. Odds are, Dame will ask out at some point if Henderson rises to ascendancy.
But again, we’re not there yet. We’re analyzing a finite set of moves on a single night. Within those boundaries, the Blazers did well. They got a star in waiting with their lottery pick, a skilled big to bolster their frontcourt with their supplementary first-rounder, and a darling of their draft-guru Assistant General Manager with a second-round pick. These gambits come straight from the textbook.
Before Portland gets to longer-term inflection points, they have a free agency and trade period to get through, also in textbook style. Re-signing Jerami Grant and exploring trades for Anfernee Simons are the two highest-priority items. They also have their own free agents to deal with, plus a decision to make about their cap exceptions and flirting with the luxury tax. Those decisions will reveal the short-term aims of the team as much as their rookie picks did.
Portland fans wanting rockets to the moon on draft night is understandable. They didn’t get that kind of show. Changing vantage point and expectations will help make the decisions clearer.
The Blazers may not have launched into orbit, but they did get some serious afterburner action on the jet by drafting Henderson. As for the rest, a couple of aviation maxims may explain the front office’s decisions. They say there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. They also say that the main goal of flying is simple: there’s the ground, there’s the outer atmosphere...just stay between them. That’s exactly what the Blazers did tonight. They altered direction slightly, gained altitude, and hit Mach Speed without making any daring acrobatic moves. If they aren’t flirting with angels yet, well...they aren’t hitting the ground either. The momentum is right, the tanks are still full, and the sky above them is clear. That’s plenty enough work for one day, and it’s more than we could have said about the team a month and a half ago.
Nobody can predict the future. Maybe tonight will mark the beginning of the end for this era of the Blazers roster. Who knows? Either way, given the information we have at this point about Henderson, Lillard, the team, and trade values across the league, the Blazers did well today with the resources they had. Let’s see if they can do just as well—and keep the upward climb going—through the rest of the summer and beyond.