It was a tumultuous season for the Portland Trail Blazers, both in a physical and emotional sense. From the loss of team owner Paul Allen prior to the campaign to seeing their young big man, Jusuf Nurkic, go down with a brutal injury during the best stretch of basketball of his career, a lesser squad could have seen the adversity Portland faced and folded. Not the Blazers, though.
Thanks to the awesome play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as the contributions from a strong group of role players, the Blazers were still able to win 53 regular-season games and make it as far as the Western Conference Finals – a feat they hadn’t accomplished in 19 years – before ultimately succumbing to the Golden State Warriors in a sweep to end their year. Regardless of how it ended, Portland had quite the memorable run in the 2018-19 playoffs, including Lillard’s game-winner over Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round, the quadruple-overtime thriller over the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the second round and the Game 7 victory on the road versus that same up-and-coming Nuggets team, when many thought they had reached their ceiling.
Now, the Blazers are faced with the tough task of trying to somehow improve this summer despite being over the cap and not having the flexibility to chase big-name free agents. Still, as long as they receive a healthy Nurkic next season and get him back to the level he was at before going down with injury, Portland should have a strong enough core to battle for a Top-4 seed in the West. It’ll be getting a level higher than that which will be difficult for the Blazers.
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2019/20
Damian Lillard: $29,802,321
CJ McCollum: $27,556,959
Evan Turner: $18,606,556
Jusuf Nurkic: $12,000,000
Moe Harkless: $11,511,234
Meyers Leonard: $11,286,515
Zach Collins: $4,240,200
Skal Labissiere: $2,338,846
Anfernee Simons: $2,152,440
Gary Trent Jr: $1,416,852
Jake Layman (Restricted)
All in all, it could be a pretty quiet offseason in Portland. For starters, they’re projected to be over the cap, so, not counting team exceptions, they don’t have the flexibility to use what should be an active free-agent market to their advantage. At the same time, they will have a team exception to use, the mid-level exception to be exact, which could help them land a decent contributor this summer.
One problem the Blazers could face this offseason is the fact that all five of their impending free agents were good enough this campaign for Portland to at least consider bringing them back. Al-Farouq Aminu, in particular, provided head coach Terry Stotts with strong two-way play on the perimeter, especially on the defensive end. The Blazers will probably use his Bird Rights to exceed the cap in bringing him back, something they will happily do since Aminu is a reliable veteran who will attract a good amount of interest on the open market. Enes Kanter also might have done enough, especially early in the playoffs, to be welcomed back next season, but Portland only owns his non-Bird Rights, so a rival team will be easily able to offer the big man more money. Plus, with a healthy Nurkic next season, along with a returning Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, Kanter probably won’t be a huge priority for the Blazers this summer.
Apart from that, Portland needs to do what they can this summer to avoid becoming the 2018-19 version of the New Orleans Pelicans next season – in that, they can’t afford a slow start or a down year in 2019-20. That’s because their own superstar, Lillard – as was the case with Anthony Davis this season – will be eligible for the designated player veteran supermax extension in 2020. If the Blazers go through a Pelican-like downturn next season, there’s at least a chance Lillard could consider testing free agency in 2021 rather than signing a huge extension next summer, something Portland desperately should try to avoid.
Lillard’s backcourt partner McCollum will also be eligible for an extension this summer, the veteran extension, which would add three years to his contract and extend it through 2021-22. It wouldn’t technically be a max extension for McCollum in this scenario, but it would be close enough to that number that both parties should at least consider getting it signed and locking up their future together.
No matter what happens this summer, the Blazers, in theory, should field a strong team next season. After all, they made it to the Western Conference Finals this year without their starting center, who was playing the best basketball of his career prior to going down; getting Nurkic back will be a huge boon for Portland.
Still: Even if it’s a quiet offseason for the Blazers, it needs to be an efficient one, because next season will be a vitally important campaign for the team and its future.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
Wayne Ellington: Portland has good defenders on the wing, but could use another shooter or two to play off of Lillard and McCollum, particularly if they lose Seth Curry in free agency. Ellington could be decent in that role.
Reggie Bullock: Bullock, another strong shooter available this summer, could be a similar target for Portland.
Patrick Beverley: The Blazers might be in need of a backup ball-handler if Curry does walk. Beverley would be a fantastic candidate for that job. His defense would be a major boost to the Blazers’ backcourt.
TJ McConnell: A cheaper and younger option to Beverley, McConnell could also be a decent backup point guard for the Blazers.
Ed Davis: Davis was a fan and team favorite during his time with Portland. A return for the hard-nosed big man could benefit both parties.
POTENTIAL TRADE TARGETS
Portland lacks the assets to make a huge splash on the trade market this summer. That is unless they decide to move McCollum, as has been speculated on before, in hopes of landing a different star to pair with Lillard.
Nevertheless, the Blazers choosing to take that course of action would be pretty surprising, since McCollum and Lillard seem to legitimately enjoy playing together, and because of how well McCollum played in the playoffs this year. Moving the talented 2-guard would be a huge gamble, and – more than likely – not a worthwhile one.
2019 DRAFT ASSETS
The Blazers own a 2019 first-round pick, which is slated to be the 25th overall selection. They do not have a second-round pick this summer.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.