Disclaimer: This was last written on March 7th, 2022.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ entire franchise is the NBA’s equivalent of a major question mark.
Ever since 2015, the team has been competing for an NBA title led by their superstar point guard, Damian Lillard. Yet the team has only made it as far as a Conference Finals appearance in 2019. Aside from that, they have been knocked out of the playoffs early in every other year the Blazers have competed. Despite the constant flux of superstars leaving for better teams every offseason, Lillard is one of the few superstars who has remained loyal to his team as he has stated multiple times that he wants to win a championship in Portland.
However, the Blazers have yet to provide him with another all-star talent to play alongside Lillard ever since their previous star forward LaMarcus Aldridge left the team in 2015. Players such as scoring guard CJ McCollum and big man Jusuf Nurkić have been good players for them, but they have not been the top-tier players that could push Portland to one of the best teams in the league. As a result of the constant playoff losing and Lillard’s demand to get more help, the Blazers decided to make moves that were deemed confusing by many.
At the 2021 NBA trade deadline, the Blazers traded McCollum, shooting guard Norman Powell, and other quality role players on their roster to a variety of different teams in exchange for guards Eric Bledsoe and Josh Hart, as well as other younger players and assets. McCollum, despite not being an All-Star, has averaged over 20 points per game in his six seasons as the second best player for Portland. Furthermore, Powell averaged about 19 points per game playing for the Blazers while also providing above-average defense and championship experience as he won a title in 2019 for the Toronto Raptors.
The biggest trade assets the Blazers received in return were guards Eric Bledsoe and Josh Hart from the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively. Bledsoe is a 32-year old point guard who is known to be one of the more overpaid players in the league, as he is not known to be an impactful offensive player while his defense has steadily declined over the past few years. In fact, he has been traded to 4 teams in the last 2 years, which is not a great sign if Portland was looking to keep him. Hart is a good role player who can shoot three-pointers and play substantial defense. He has also been playing very well currently for the team, as he is currently averaging about 17.5 points per game for Portland. The only issue is that him being the only quality player the team got in return results in the Blazers being losers at the deadline at face value, considering the offensive talent the team gave up initially.
To make matters even more odd, they even traded a few of their young assets they acquired to other teams for other players on expiring contracts. At first glance, it looks as if the team is giving up and is looking to eventually trade Damian Lillard to start a full rebuild of their franchise.
Surprisingly, that is not the case.
Instead, they are apparently doing some spring cleaning. According to media outlets, the Trail Blazers will try to create a brand new roster to compliment their superstar. Even though the Blazers did trade their key role players, they were able to get players on contracts that will expire by the end of the current NBA season. By doing so, they have been able to create $60 million in available cap space for the team to go out and sign elite level talent in the offseason. In addition, they have a $21 million trade exception* to utilize along with some intriguing young assets and draft picks they still have that they could package altogether to get another great player.
*A trade exception occurs when a team trades out more than they take back(in terms of the salaries of the players) .When this happens, the team that trades out more gets a fair share of money that they can use to trade for several players with salaries that sum up to the total amount of the trade exception which does not impact their total cap space as a team.
In other words, Portland has the opportunity to sign the best possible players available in this year’s free agency and can trade for a potential star player. This will allow Damian Lillard to potentially have the best possible teammates he has had in his career. Although the idea sounds amazing, there are MANY red flags to this plan and unfortunately, the chances of Portland creating a star-studded roster around their best player have its setbacks. Here are a few reasons:
1) Small-Market Problems
To begin this rant, the Portland Trail Blazers are considered to be a small-market franchise compared to the other teams in the NBA. This means that they are not a flashy, engaging place for top-tier players to sign in free agency compared to the popular cities of New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but the team has never been able to persuade a top-level player to come to the Blazers. In fact, the biggest players in the NBA mainly sign to the popular cities that were mentioned earlier, and the ones that do sign with small markets mainly do so due to being brought up from the specific area the team is located in (e.g. NBA superstar LeBron James signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, a small market team, and James is from Ohio which is where Cleveland is).
To compensate for the lack of major free agency signings, small-market teams tend to trade for better talent with the assets the teams possess. This is most likely what Portland will try doing after the current season ends. They are poised to land a draft pick in the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery due to giving up their good role players and Lillard sitting out the rest of the 2021-22 NBA season with an abdominal injury. If the stars align, Portland could land a top 5 pick in the draft to use as a valuable trade asset. They also have a young premier player who has been playing amazing in replace of Lillard this year: 22 year-old point guard Anfernee Simons.
Simons is an electrifying point guard who has blossomed into one of the NBA’s most underappreciated young players. Ever since the beginning of 2022, he has averaged over 20 points and 5 assists per game while shooting over 45% from the field and 40% from the three-point line (which are considered efficient in basketball terms).
If the Blazers are to trade for a star-level player, they would have to have a trade package centered around Simons and their upcoming draft pick, which could be enticing for certain teams wanting to get rid of their star player. One such player they can potentially target is Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant. Record-wise, the Pistons are currently one of the worst teams in the league and they have been trying to sell Grant to the highest bidding team. Grant is an incredible 2-way player who has steadily improved as an offensive threat while being a premier defensive presence. The Blazers have struggled in the past with guarding opposing teams, and Grant can certainly assist with their defensive woes.
However, the looming reality of Portland’s inability to attract stars to their team is still a major concern. To make matters worse, it seems as if the players they are trying to get may not be as impactful as they might think.
2) Weaker Free Agency Class
The players that are available in free agency are not as stacked as people think. On the top of the list of potential players, there is Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, and Chicago Bulls guard Zach Lavine. Aside from those three, the other possible selections consist of above-average to regular role players, which can help the Blazers, but in the end will just put them in the same position as they were before with Lillard from the past few years. Here is an examination of their chances of getting each player.
Although they are available, it is more than likely players such as Harden and Lavine will re-sign with their respective teams due to both of them playing for competitive playoff teams. As for Bradley Beal, there is a better chance that he will leave his current team in Washington due to the Wizards being a non-playoff team currently. Although Beal would be a better upgrade backcourt partner to pair with Lillard, it is still a question mark of whether 2 guards who are both not known to be good defenders can work on the court. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, when they played together in Portland, were known as one of the best offensive duos but also one of the worst defensive duos in the NBA which made them almost a double-edged sword. Lillard and Beal could have a similar issue.
In addition, the Wizards also traded for 7’3 big man Kristaps Porzingis, a player who, despite his injuries, is capable of being an above-average offensive option for the team. Trading for Porzingis could be an indication that the Wizards may be looking to compete with Beal as their primary player. Hence, Beal could potentially want to stay in Washington and not come to Portland.
However, there is a viable option that could land in the Blazers’ hands: rising center DeAndre Ayton.
Ayton, who currently plays for the Phoenix Suns, is one of the better centers in the NBA today. He is expected to become available in this year’s free agency class due to Phoenix having troubles negotiating a contract extension with him. He is currently averaging about 16 points and 10 rebounds per game while providing very good defense at the center position. Not to mention, he is only 23 years old and has just been a part of a Suns team that managed to reach the NBA Finals in 2021. Ayton will most likely want a large amount of money next year, and the Blazers may have a huge opportunity to steal him away from the Suns. He is a good complimentary piece that can work well with Lillard.
But aside from Ayton, the Blazers can only realistically look to sign role players which may be an issue if the Blazers are forced to overpay for a role player to get them to come to their team. This may occur, as many small-market teams have been forced to pay more than what is expected for a role player to come to their franchise due to not having as many “perks” compared to that of larger cities.
To sum up, there are a lot of directions that Portland’s plan can go towards. If one was a Blazers superfan and they were to hope that everything goes right with their roster next year, this would be the dream scenario.
The dream scenario would be to sign two elite players from the pool of players that was mentioned earlier, earn a top 5 draft pick in the 2022 NBA draft, and trade away that pick along with their young assets to acquire another high-level player. This would lead to 3 elite players competing alongside Damian Lillard, which can ultimately result in a team that can compete with the most competitive rosters within the Western Conference (the conference that they currently play in).
However, considering that the Trail Blazers are in a small-market for NBA standards and the low likelihood of players coming there, this would most likely not be the scenario that occurs. They most likely will trade for an all-star caliber player with their draft picks and young players similarly to that of the dream scenario. But there is a chance that the team will overpay for role players to come to Portland as the star players in free agency (mentioned earlier) will either re-sign with their teams or go to teams with larger markets. This will result in the team being good but not as great as the top teams in the NBA, in which the latter have rosters that are built off of strong chemistry and/or better talent.
Time is running out in Portland and this may be the last chance for the Trail Blazers to finally provide Damian Lillard with improved talent to play with him. Otherwise, they will be forced to trade their franchise player and rebuild their organization from scratch. The future may be bleak, but there could be light waiting for them if they play their cards right this summer. However, if the light dims out, there will be more cries to get Damian Lillard out of Portland.
Trade Exception Video (A.M. Hoops)
What the Celtics should do with their HUGE Trade Exception. A.M. Hoops, 2021.
NBA Trade Exception Definition
S. Aschburner, “Trade exceptions: What they are and why they matter,” NBA, 16-Mar-2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.nba.com/news/trade-exceptions-what-they-are-and-why-they-matter. [Accessed: 06-Mar-2022].
Anfernee Simons Stats
“Anfernee Simons 2021-22 Game Log,” Basketball Reference. [Online]. Available: https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/s/simonan01/gamelog/2022/. [Accessed: 06-Mar-2022].
Josh Hart Stats
“Josh Hart Stats,” Basketball Reference. [Online]. Available: https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/h/hartjo01.html. [Accessed: 06-Mar-2022].
DeAndre Ayton Stats
“Deandre Ayton Stats,” Basketball Reference. [Online]. Available: https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/a/aytonde01.html. [Accessed: 06-Mar-2022].
Portland Trail Blazers Trade Deadline Recap Article
D. Nelson, “A recap of the Portland Trail Blazers 2022 NBA trade deadline,” Rip City Project, 10-Feb-2022. [Online]. Available: https://ripcityproject.com/2022/02/10/recap-portland-trail-blazers-nba-trade-deadline/. [Accessed: 06-Mar-2022].
Jerami Grant Image
Jerami Grant in a Portland Trail Blazers jersey. Fadeaway World, 2022.
Damian Lillard Image
S. Im, Damian Lillard ready to shoot a free throw. USA Today, 2022.
Anfernee Simons Image
A. Goodlett, Anfernee Simons dribbling a basketball. Getty Images, 2022.
Chet Holmgren Image
Chet Holmgren dribbling a basketball. Young Kwak, 2021.
Bradley Beal Image
Bradley Beal looking up at something. 2021.