What Do The Blazers Even Do At This Point?
Last year’s Blazers squad was built to make a deep playoff run. They traded two first rounders for Robert Covington and made a deadline deal for Norman Powell giving up a promising young player in Gary Trent Jr.. After finishing as the sixth seed in the West drawing the injured Denver Nuggets in the first round, that deep playoff run looked doable. Instead they ended up losing in six games to a Nuggets team that started Austin Rivers, a career journey man and Facundo Campazzo, a thirty-year-old 5’10” rookie.
With the Blazers current roster being a second round playoff team at best, having little to no flexibility to change the roster, and an aging star starting to think about winning somewhere else, what do the Trailblazers do? There’s no clear cut answer for this question, any direction they choose to go from here could be detrimental or genius, let’s discuss what those options are.
Option A - Run it Back
This is probably the most boring of the options we’ll discuss, but it is probably the most likely as well. Sometimes as NBA fans we need to remember that at its core this league is a business. A lot of fans have a mindset that if a team isn’t a legitimate contender then they should start from scratch until they are. And while one Sam Hinkie may agree with that way of thinking a majority of front offices would not. A small-market team like the Portland Trailblazers doesn’t need to compete for championships. Sure that's the goal but that franchise is looked at as a success if they can sustain winning and keep fan interest high. A rebuilding team doesn’t bring in the same fans a Dame Lillard team would, so why change? There’s no guarantee you’re going to get a player as talented as Lillard even if you do tank so why not stay competitive. And while yes this roster doesn’t have a great chance at winning a title we just saw another guard led team like the Suns make a finals run so you never know what could happen.
Option B - Start from Scratch
This is probably the option that scares Blazers fans the most, but could be the only way to salvage a less than desirable situation. If the Blazers did decide that rebuilding was their best option they could build up an archive of first round picks that could rival that of Oklahoma City’s. Firstly they could move Dame Lillard who would immediately be the best player available making trade talks for Lillard more like bidding for a high value auction item. In the Harden trade the Nets had to give up two promising young players, three first round picks, and four first round pick swaps. Dame is a top 12 player in the prime of his career, I think the Blazers could receive a similar haul from a lot of teams most notably the Knicks, 76ers, or Warriors.
On top of Lillard the Blazers would have two more enticing trade pieces in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum has more value than Nurkic and has a skill set that a lot of teams would like to have on their roster.
McCollum's game is a lot like Dame’s just not as dominant, he’s a score first guard who can score off the dribble at all three levels and run an offense well enough. With their skill sets being so similar I think it has cost McCollum some individual success. On a team like the 76ers I wouldn’t be shocked if McCollum averaged twenty-five points per game as the lead ball handler. I think a lot of teams share that same way of thinking, with a better fit McCollum could be unlocked. As far as his trade value I think it 's similar to Jrue Holiday's market value. To receive Holiday the Bucks had to give up two first round picks and two first round pick swaps. I think a team like the 76ers or Mavericks could look at McCollum as that kind of get over the hump move that pushes them into real contention.
Jusuf Nurkic is the last member of this Portland big three that could hypothetically be moved. Nurkic, while extremely talented, wouldn't have the same value as the two discussed before. The main reason for this is Nurkic’s inability to stay healthy. Over the past two seasons Nurkic has played a combined 45 regular season games. Beyond the missed time Nurkic hasn’t been the same player on the defensive end since coming back. Offensively he’s still a bruiser with great feel and instincts. He’s an excellent passer for his size and screen setter which allowed Dame and CJ to constantly run hand off actions with Nurkic. Positionally Nurkic is fine on the defensive end but he used to be a real presence at the rim but over the past two seasons has been the anchor for one of the worst defenses in the league. At just twenty-six years old though there are many teams who would trade assets to get Nurkic. I could see a team like the Warriors giving up one of their young assets and a pick for Nurkic as his passing would be perfect for their system.
There are other players that would obviously get moved if the Blazers were to rebuild like Norman Powell but for the most part that's it. This would be a good haul for a team looking to start over. I personally would try to keep Dame over everything, but this option gives the Portland front office the time and flexibility they need to build a winning team in the future.
Option 3 - Retool around Lillard
This option would be my personal choice if I were working in the front office at Portland. This would mean the Trailblazers would still try to win now and do it around Lillard, but they’d make significant changes to the roster in order to do so. This option would mean the Blazers would have to take a swing on a player whose fit or value is in question. The most talked about trade would definitely be some sort of McCollum and Ben Simmons swap. Simmons would immediately be the best defender Lillard has ever played with and would bring a different dynamic to this team. McCollum though would likely not be enough on his own so the deal would include some compensation on the Blazers end. Other hypothetical moves could be trading for Kristaps Porzingis or Pascal Siakim. There’s obviously other possible moves but for the most part the Blazers would have to take a big risk with any trade. Maybe the risk is too high but I would just try one more time to build around Lillard. Lillard has shown to be an amazing regular and postseason player, up to this point the roster around him hasn’t been able to support him well enough. Switching it up and having a more defensive team around Lillard could be the change that gets them over the hump. Even if the Blazers make a big move and it fails I would feel better knowing they really tried to win around Lillard rather than them accepting mediocrity.
So to sum it all up the Trailblazers can choose to do nothing and run it back, change everything and rebuild, or keep Lillard but change the roster around him. Like I said I personally would retool because the roster you have now isn’t good enough and Lillard is too special of a player to trade away. Nonetheless I am interested to see what develops in Portland over this upcoming season.