The Portland Trail Blazers are in a tough spot this offseason. They have been eliminated in the first round again despite another spectacular season by Damian Lillard. CJ McCollum had his best season yet while Jusuf Nurkic was mostly in good health. The Blazers gained a lot of flexibility after having the last remnants of 2016 contracts expire, allowing them to get aggressive and acquire veterans Robert Covington and Norman Powell.
This starting unit hasn’t played together for very long, suggesting that there is room for improvement. Perhaps a new head coach and an improved bench can push them further in the playoffs. On the other hand, it is possible that we’ve seen the best from this group due to potential age-related regression and future lack of flexibility with several of these players due for raises. Also, if this is the best we’ll see from this group, the temptation to extract maximum value for these players and jump-start a rebuild will loom.
Whether they realize it or not, Portland is at a crossroads. Their coaching search has already taken an awkward turn with Lillard’s public support for Jason Kidd, and his future in Portland is already being questioned with other teams monitoring him. While the rumors may or may not grow as we get closer to the offseason, at this point, it is fair to weigh if the Blazers should continue competing with this core or rebuild.
The path forward with their core
The most common and simple outcome for a team in the situation Portland is in is to stay the course. The fact that Lillard and McCollum have been with Portland as long as they have is already a long run by today’s standards. Both players are under contract at least through 2024, which allows them to complete over a decade in Portland if they remain.
Portland’s main issues this season were on defense. They ranked 29th this season in defensive rating, which seems extremely low given their starting personnel. The Blazers lineup with Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Covington, and Nurkic finished the season with a 104.8 defensive rating. That five-man unit ranks 24th out of the 87 teams in defensive rating among lineups with a minimum of 100 minutes played together. That may seem like a small sample size, but the shorter season and high amount of injuries this season limited the amount of time many teams got to play their five best players at the same time.
This statistic doesn’t mean that the Blazers starting lineup is an all-around great defensive unit. A lot of their defense success comes down to Covington and Nurkic. Covington, who was brought over largely because of his two-way ability, isn’t a great one-on-one defender but rather an excellent help defender who disrupts opposing teams’ offense through many deflections. Nurkic is a good rim protector and paint-deterrent when he’s on the floor. The rest of the backcourt isn’t great but might be neutral defensively at best.
This isn’t to say that the Blazers’ defensive issues only occur when the starters are out, but they often begin when a single starter leaves the game. Portland’s main transactions to fill out the bench include Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter, and re-signing Carmelo Anthony. Jones Jr., who is a solid defender, fell out of the rotation shortly after Portland acquired Powell due to his lack of offense. Meanwhile, the Blazers got killed whenever Kanter and Anthony were on the floor, especially together.
With Terry Stotts out of the picture, there is hope that a new coach and an improved bench could bring the Blazers to league-average defensively. The front office and a coaching candidate can look at their defensive rating with their starting unit and see the potential for it to perform even better defensively with a new system complete buy-in from the players.
However, they have major personnel issues that need to be addressed, particularly with their reserves. If the Blazers want to make a leap with this core, they need to reform their bench. It seems like a good bet that Jones Jr. will opt into his $9.7 million player option for next season, not only because he might be hard-pressed to get that much in free agency but also since Portland will have a new head coach. The only other reserves currently under contract for 2021-22 are Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and CJ Elleby.
Investing in the bench will be challenging, especially since they will be limited with the mid-level exception (MLE). Which type of MLE they use will depend on ownership’s apatite to spend. Bringing back Powell will put them right at the luxury tax, which would likely limit them to the taxpayer MLE projected at $5.9 million. That could be enough to get a new backup center that can provide adequate rim protection.
They could pursue players such as Nerlens Noel, Robin Lopez, or Daniel Theis, though it’s very possible all those players get more than the taxpayer MLE on the open market. They might have a better chance at signing players such as Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and Gorgui Dieng for less, potentially allowing Portland to sign a good perimeter defender with their taxpayer MLE. Wing players they could pursue with it include Kent Bazemore, Garrett Temple, and former Blazer Nicolas Batum.
There is an argument for the Blazers to improve significantly just by hiring the right coach who will instill a new defensive philosophy that everyone buys into. Throw in a cost-effective upgrade at backup center and wing, a properly used Jones Jr., a whole season to integrate Powell, and good health, and the Blazers could have a team strong enough to win a playoff series.
The case for rebuilding
Even if the Blazers make all these marginal upgrades, this core’s ceiling may be capped below being a title contender. That’s not to say this Blazers team can’t win a title, but a lot has to go their way for that to happen in a given season. It’s possible that Lillard sees the team this way and eventually asks for a trade, which would propel a rebuild. But even if he weren’t to ask for one this offseason, there is still plenty of strong arguments for Portland’s front office to consider blowing it up.
Who they hire as head coach will be the biggest and most important move they make. However, there is no guarantee that the Blazers either improve their defense or remain as strong offensively in the process. As Kevin Pelton from ESPN points out, the history of offensive-minded teams hiring a new head coach in hopes of improving their defensive issues is mixed. If new coaching and a fortified bench can’t take them where they want to be, then they have to look at the core personnel next.
After acquiring Covington and Powell, the Blazers formed an extremely efficient and effective offensive starting lineup with room for growth with a new coach. If they finish the 2021-22 season with a similar or slightly better outcome, any improvement they make to the starting lineup will be diminished going forward. It’s going to be very hard for them to make a significant upgrade if the player coming back to them isn’t an All-Star.
Their path to acquiring an All-Star will be challenging. Portland doesn’t have their pick in the 2021 NBA draft but will have all their picks going forward. Any trade for an All-Star will certainly require a starter to match salaries but they also risk not being five-deep if they have to trade multiple starters. The Blazers could hypothetically offer McCollum, whose $30 million salary makes him a natural salary ballast in a potential trade for an All-Star, and attach up to four future first-round picks in a trade this offseason. Could that be enough to pry away the next available star? It’s possible, but there are teams that have more future first-rounders and young players to offer.
If they can’t get an All-Star upgrade for their starters, then they are probably better holding onto them. Trading a starter for a different starter is a lateral move that seems unlikely to improve them. As an example, what if both Portland and Philadelphia were interested in a McCollum for Tobias Harris swap? Both players are pretty equally talented zero-time All-Stars on similar contracts, so value-wise it’s fair. But does this deal improve each team? This trade could bring stylistic changes, which alone could improve the teams, but it would be a stretch to believe that it dramatically improves either side.
It is going to be very hard for this Blazers team to make a significant improvement to the starting lineup this season or any season going forward. The Blazers are going to pay the luxury tax this year if they run this core back. Aside from Powell’s next contract this offseason, which should see him earn at least $20 million annually, both Covington and Nurkic are set to enter free agency in 2022. Covington will be eligible to extend for up to $69.8 million over four years while Nurkic will be able to extend for $64.5 million over four years. Covington’s extension is reasonable while Nurkic’s is too low. He should get offered more than $16 million annually on the open market.
If Blazers ownership isn’t willing to pay the heavy luxury tax payments it will take just to keep this core together, then it is probably best to start the rebuild because as long as they are paying Lillard and McCollum their large salaries, there is no way around the expenses. If they can’t “do right” by Lillard and pay what it takes to put the best possible team around him, then he would logically be the first player they look to move. As painful as it will be to actually trade him, there is also no better time to trade him than this offseason.
Lillard is set to turn 31-years-old and is under contract for four more years, arguably putting his trade value at its absolute peak. Every good team will be interested and the Blazers could extract a haul of draft picks and young players similar to what Oklahoma City got for Paul George. A Lillard trade alone could set the Blazers up with all the picks and young players they need in a rebuild, though they would likely trade more of their starters to further accumulate assets.
Nurkic and Covington would also likely be made available since their contracts are set to expire after this season. While Powell might not fit their timeline going forward, they could still look to re-sign him if they can’t find a sign-and-trade for him. If the Blazers plan on rebuilding, then there’s a good chance they’ll clear a lot of money off their books this offseason by trading their starters. They should be able to re-sign Powell comfortably then and perhaps trade him down the road.
McCollum is under contract for three more seasons, so there is no rush for the Blazers to trade him. Prior to breaking his foot, he was getting serious All-Star consideration. If the Blazers no longer have Lillard, McCollum will become the number one option on offense. The Blazers could get a very strong return for McCollum if they trade him this offseason, but his trade value would increase playing without Lillard. They could get much more for him in the trade deadline or in a year from now.
Rebuilding is an easy path to begin but there’s no guarantee that the Blazers will become contenders at the end of it. There are even fewer odds that they’ll get a player as special as Lillard in the process. As mentioned earlier, the most common path for teams in this situation is to continue competing. But if things don’t improve next season, it could be a matter of time before major changes actually occur.